I had to learn pretty quick how to live on less, when after 17 years my husband left our home and two paychecks suddenly shrank to one. After a period of time of being in denial I finally woke up and realized I was still living a two-income lifestyle with a one-income paycheck, spinning my wheels every month and sinking into a hole. What I considered “paying down debt” was really just making the monthly payments.
I was only tracking
I was so good at “tracking” the money, but it was always after it was gone and I almost ALWAYS had more month left at the end of my money. So as I continued to make the payments, I tracked, and I watched as the balances never budged. I knew I had to take control of the finances or they would take control of us.
Looking back now, there were so many months where I just can’t believe how we made it through to the next paycheck. God has been so good to us, and has provided what we need. Even so, I wanted more than to just survive. I needed to a plan to prepare for my kids’ future and to lead by example. I got crazy intense, and once I turned on the switch, in 23 months I paid down over $55,000 in debt. Here are some of the strategies that I used that have really helped me save money in places I never thought we had the slightest wiggle room. I hope some of them will help you, too!
1) Follow a budget.
The #1 thing that helped me start to save money is by making a budget. I THOUGHT that’s what I had been doing all along, but what I was really doing was keeping a LOG. A budget and a log are completely different! A log is just a written list of what was spent (done AFTER the fact). A budget is done BEFORE you even get the money deposited into your account – and more importantly, before any of it is spent. I do a budget every two weeks (a month is too big of a time span for me). The key: Do this BEFORE the money comes in, plan for everything you can think of, then make sure the IN minus the OUT equals ZERO before you start spending.
2) Use cash.
This was a HUGE change for me. It held me accountable to what I said I would spend for each budget item. Run out of cash? Can’t spend anymore money until some more comes in. Have extra at the end of the month? Throw it directly at your debt to get rid of it once and for all so you can save money again. Using cash forced our family to revisit our priorities and has paid off big time. I still use cash for nearly all my spending today.
3) Downgrade your utilities.
Dropping the number of minutes on our cell phones didn’t hurt much at all. I saved money and didn’t even feel it. Netflix membership? Premium cable TV? If you’re in debt, you don’t need it. Don’t worry, it will be temporary.
4) Reassess transportation costs.
I had been with the same car insurance company for years, and just kept renewing without giving it a second thought. Shopping around and switching companies (and no, it wasn’t GEICO) scored me a discount of $750 a year! I also actually sold my car and got one that cost me less to fuel up and maintain, had fewer miles, and was just about the same age. I was fortunate that I had no car payment, but if I did, imagine how much additional savings that would be? This strategy alone would help so many people I know who complain about being in debt, but drive around in cars with hefty payments – throwing their money out the windows.
5) Temporarily stop “saving”.
This might sound counterintuitive, but if you are trying to pay down debt while still putting away money into a savings fund at the same time, you are slowing yourself down when it comes to paying down credit cards, loans, whatever other debts you have. I recommend, at least temporarily, stopping the automatic Christmas savings, your college savings account, and perhaps even your monthly allotment into a 401k or Roth, and using that money to help pay off outstanding debt. This exponentially decreases the time it will take to get back into the black because so much more money is freed up to attack your debt. Once you’ve caught up, you can save money once again in a BIG WAY since the debt will be gone. Imagine life with NO PAYMENTS!
6) Earn more income.
To increase the money coming in from my job I tutored students in my spare time, and also relied BIG TIME on Craigslist and Ebay. This is where I got a little intense. OK, not a little, a LOT. My best deal was selling an Italian leather sectional couch (that I LOVED, but had bought on credit and really couldn’t afford in the first place). It was heartbreaking to me at the time because I just loved my comfy couch, but getting rid of the bills was more important to me than where I sat to watch the TV. I was able to barter with another family who really wanted my couch for a move into their new house. They offered me their couch, a chair, a coffee table, two end tables AND $1000 for my sectional! Other things I have sold on Craigslist/Ebay include lamps, tables, clothes, books, purses, shoes, DVDs, video games, artwork, a guitar, tools, a bed, exercise equipment, a TV, curtains, and even used moving boxes!
7) Avoid the mall, save money.
I made it a rule to go shopping only when I had a specific thing to purchase. For guys this probably sounds obvious, but for us ladies, it’s not as easy as it sounds, am I right, girls? No more going to Macy’s just because I got some coupons in the mail and they had another “One Day Sale”. The longer I could stay away from the stores, the less I spent on things I really didn’t need. Win!
8) Eat at home more.
Cooking my own food (and bringing lunch to work) helped me save money, and gave us a bonus of gaining more family time around the dinner table. I found many meals I could feed my family of 3 for around $10-$15, using healthy ingredients and cooking it ourselves. I began taking my lunch to work and drinking my my superfood shake to substitute one meal per day. Compare that to eating out, where we could spend around $10-$15 each person, and this strategy is a no-brainer.
9) Avoid paying full price for anything.
Sites like Groupon or Living Social are great for special deals (as long as you would have purchased that item anyway). Shopping with coupons helps save money, too. My kids know we head straight for the sale rack in any store, and it is rare that we pay retail – especially if we can wait on something. Delayed gratification was a natural byproduct of this one.
10) Learn some DIY.
I’ve used sites like Pinterest and YouTube to teach me how to do several projects, including simple plumbing, carpentry, sewing, and even repurposing furniture. Doing it yourself not only saves money, it gives you a sense of accomplishment, too!
So there are my top ten things I did (and still do) to save money. I recommend any or all of them. How did I pay off the debt once and for all? There are many recommended strategies out there on this, but I used the Dave Ramsey “snowball” method, which means you start with paying down the smallest debt first (keep making only minimum payments on the others) until it gets wiped clean.
The snowball grows
I threw every extra dollar I had at that debt, some months shocked at how much I actually was able to scrape together. Once the small one was out of the way, I moved to the next one, using the money I was applying to the smaller one and paying down the next, and so on. Just like a snowball gains momentum rolling down a hill, I started to pick up speed with each debt that I cleaned out. Some people may ask why not pay the ones with the highest interest rate down first, saying that mathematically that is the better way to do it. But as Dave would say, if we were doing math we wouldn’t be in debt in the first place!
If you find yourself in a situation like I was in, know that there is a way out. While you’re in the midst of everything, it may not seem so, but if you make a plan, and really commit to following it, you will see that your small changes will add up. Try one or more of the strategies here and may your family see savings and prosperity in the near future and beyond!
Do you have a favorite strategy for saving money or paying off debt? Please share! You just might be helping someone else who is struggling with debt in their family.
In this thing with you, to your success and beyond,