When you’re drowning in debt, it often feels like the world is caving in around you. Your thoughts are swirling and just won’t stop. You’re not sleeping, and you’re worried if your next paycheck will be enough to provide for your family. And then the questions fueled by endless worry begin: How will I make ends meet? How in the world will I cover my mortgage/rent this month? Will these debt collectors call my boss (how embarrassing)?
You’re not alone. In fact, 78% of Americans today are living paycheck to paycheck.1 That means you’re not the only person who’s ever been in debt. In fact, Dave knows what drowning in debt feels like all too well. But he decided enough was enough. And so can you. Choose—right this moment—to start changing the way you interact with money.
Did you know that personal finance is 80% behavior and only 20% head knowledge? That means with a plan—and a lot of hard work—you can be standing on solid ground in no time. And who knows? You could even become an everyday millionaire. We believe in you!
What to Do When You’re Drowning in Debt
1. Get on a budget.
Doing a budget is one of the most important steps you can take when you’re drowning in debt. A budget is the very thing that will show you where your money is going and why you feel like you’re drowning. But you don’t have feel that way any longer—and a budget will help!
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When you’re making your zero-based budget, you might be tempted to account for all of your extra expenses first.
But first, you need to make sure your basic needs are met. We call these the Four Walls, and they are:
Now, after you’ve budgeted for groceries, water, electricity, your rent or mortgage, and gas to get you to work (in that order), you can start assigning any leftover dollars to other pressing needs. Do you have student loans or a car payment? Are those hospital bills piling up? Or maybe your dad’s birthday is coming up and you at least need to send a card. Whether it’s $50 or $500, all expenses must go in the budget. Need to go to the doctor this month? Yup—make sure to put that in there too. Remember: Income minus expenses should equal zero!
2. Cut back on the “extras.”
Now that every dollar has been accounted for, it’s time to see where you can cut back.
Take an inventory of any automatic payments that routinely come out of your bank account. Maybe you have a $7 subscription to the clean beard club. We’re not knocking beards—especially clean beards—but these kinds of expenses add up quickly. Plus, that free gift they offered you when you signed up is probably long gone, leaving you with a subscription you keep forgetting to cancel every single month—and more beard oil than you know what to do with.
Don’t get us wrong, we love a good mail day just like the next person. But whether you’re drowning in student loan debt or drowning in credit card debt (or just plain debt), you’ve got to make some pretty big changes. You guessed it: We’re talking about cutting back on these nonessential items and getting your “want-itis” under control. Here are some tips:
- Make coffee at home (skip the $5 lattes until you’re no longer drowning in debt).
- Cut back on your grocery bill by cutting coupons and going without the kids so you’re not tempted to overspend on Oreos. Psst: Leftovers are your friend.
- Don’t even step foot in a restaurant unless you’re working there.
- Sell everything that’s not nailed down.
3. Pause all investing.
Really? Yep. Saving for your future when you’re living paycheck to paycheck (or worse) isn’t the best idea. At least not yet. If you’re still trying to pay off credit cards, an upside-down car loan, or a huge pile of student loan debt, it’s time to press pause on your future investments . . . temporarily. This temporary pause frees up extra cash you can use to pay down your debt.
Don’t worry, you’ll come back to this once you’re debt-free.
4. Don’t take on any new debt.
None. We know it’s hard (and maybe not what you’ve been used to), but trust us—taking on debt robs you and your family of a secure financial future. Your choices right now can and will impact future generations of your family tree. So don’t take on even another penny of debt.
Get out your favorite scissors and do some plastic surgery (or as Dave calls it, a plasectomy). The best part? No medical experience required. Yup—we’re talking about cutting up those credit cards.
You may feel your heart start to race and your hands begin to sweat. But let us remind you: Having a credit card for emergencies seems like a good idea until your next “emergency” looks like your next afternoon coffee run. When you cut up those cards, you’re choosing to put an end to the merciless cycle of debt for good.
5. Increase your income.
Now that you’re on a budget and you’ve decided to stop taking on any new debt altogether, it’s time to figure out how you can increase your income. Take a second job or pursue a side hustle that will give you the extra income you need (as quickly as possible) to throw at your debt. Whether that’s working at your local coffee shop, mowing lawns, or driving for a ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft, you’ve got to bring in more cash.
We get it. No one wants to work around the clock. But in order to see that mountain of debt turn into a valley, you’ve got to start doing something different. Remember: This isn’t forever. You won’t be skipping out on time with family and friends for the long haul. But in order to get on the right track, you’ve got to start making sacrifices now.
6. Start working the debt snowball.
Now that you’ve got some extra money coming in each month, it’s time to start paying off your debt with something we call the debt snowball method:
- List your debts from smallest to largest—no matter the interest rate.
- Attack the smallest debt with everything you have. Did you sell the couch? Great—throw your earnings on this debt. Keep putting anything extra you make toward this debt until it’s gone.
- Once that debt has been paid, take the minimum payment (plus that money from your second job) and throw it at the next largest debt while paying minimum payments on the rest.
- Keep this snowball rolling until you’re debt-free!
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7. Stop the comparison trap.
Comparison is one of the worst things you could do while you’re getting out of debt, and social media is one of the biggest culprits. If you’re scolling through your news feed and see your friend (whom you haven’t talked to in years) on a European vacation with her mom, that doesn’t give you permission to plan a fancy vacation too. Nope. Europe will still be there when you’re completely debt-free.
When you’re in debt and going after your debt with gazelle intensity,* it’s hard not to compare your financial situation with other people’s situations. But here’s the truth: You don’t actually know their financial situation. We don’t know if your friend put her fancy vacation on a credit card. But we do know that once you’re out of debt, you’ll be able to plan these trips of your own. Listen: The Joneses are broke. If you’re falling into the comparison trap, it might be time to take a much-needed break from social media.
*Gazelle intensity means working as hard as you can to free yourself from debt. Proverbs 6:5 (NKJV) says, “Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, and like a bird from the hand of the fowler.” Like the gazelle flees from a cheetah, free yourself from debt.
8. Start (or keep) working the Baby Steps.
Have you heard of the Baby Steps? These seven steps are the proven (and practical) way to help you change your life. And now that you’re standing on more stable ground, you’ll want to follow these steps all the way to building wealth and giving.
Baby Step 1: Save $1,000 for your starter emergency fund.
Baby Step 2: Pay off all debt (except the house) using the debt snowball.
Baby Step 3: Save 3–6 months of expenses in a fully funded emergency fund.
Baby Step 4: Invest 15% of your household income in retirement.
Baby Step 5: Save for your children's college fund.
Baby Step 6: Pay off your home early.
Baby Step 7: Build wealth and give.
It may feel like you’re drowning in debt right now. But like we said earlier, it doesn’t have to be this way. Once you’ve had it with debt (and we hope you have), you can climb your way out of it. And remember: You’re not alone in this.
Take our free, three-minute assessment to find out where you stand with debt. We’ll give you a curated list of next steps and resources to help you get started on your journey to financial peace.