According to statistics from 2018, Americans owe 26 percent of their income to consumer debt with the average American spending 10 percent of his or her monthly income on non-mortgage debts. And although average income is increasing, American consumers are buying more and increasing their debt.
If you’re in debt, you know the weight it is. And going into Christmas, with its added expenses, probably isn’t your favorite time to think about it.
Consider for a moment, however, what it would be like to not have debt. What if you were headed into Christmas with any money you are currently paying on loans freed toward random generosity? What if you were regularly saving toward yours or your children’s future.
Think that’s not possible?
Getting out of debt is actually simple. I didn’t say easy, because it’s usually not. But it is pretty straightforward.
Here are the steps I’ve shared with people in our church who have asked for counseling regarding debt:
1. Make a commitment before the Lord.
If your plan to get out of debt is anything less than total commitment, you are unlikely to get out. Remember that everything you have belongs to God (Psalm 24:1) and that even the ability to make money comes from God. Begin with a commitment to Him that as a steward of His resources, you want to be free to use them as He directs—not as determined by your creditors.
2. Seek accountability.
Reach out to a Christian friend (who is not also struggling with debt) to share your commitment to get out of debt. Ask them to pray for you. Share with them the steps you will be taking, and ask them to keep you accountable. Depending on your current spending habits, this accountability may be anything from a request that they just periodically ask you how it is going to asking if you can give them a weekly report regarding if you are staying on track with the steps noted below. That last suggestion may seem extreme, but most people will need something somewhere in between those.
3. Pay God first.
Robbing God to pay human creditors is foolish when you remember that’s what you’re doing. Don’t begin your path out of debt by cutting back on tithing or giving. In fact, if you have not yet started tithing, I still recommend that you start here. God clearly instructs us to give to Him—in both the Old Testament (Malachi 3:8–10) and the New Testament (1 Corinthians 16:2). Furthermore, He promises to provide for our needs when we give (Philippians 4:18–19). So start here, and don’t look back.
4. List all you owe and all you earn.
When it comes to debt, ignorance is not bliss, and knowledge is power. It may feel overwhelming, but if you don’t know how much you owe, you won’t be able to form a solid plan to pay it off.
List every loan or debt individually with the monthly payment next to it. Add the total of monthly payments up. This is your monthly expenses toward debt.
Next, list your regular monthly expenses. This would include everything from bills to groceries. (Be sure to include prorated amounts for expenses like car insurance or registration, which you may not pay monthly.) Add your monthly expenses and your monthly debt payments together.
Finally, list all regular sources of monthly income.
If you earn less than your current list of expenses and minimum loan payments each month, you will need to either cut your spending or increase your earning. Even if your expenses and earnings are equal, any amount you are able to offset those, either by cutting your spending or increasing your earning, will allow you to put more toward paying off your debt and help you get out that much faster.
5. Set up a payment plan.
While paying the minimum loan payment on all bills, add a little extra above the minimum to your payment on the smallest bill. After that bill is paid off, apply everything you were paying on that bill toward the principle of your next smallest bill. When that one is paid off, continue to the third smallest bill. By the time you are two or three bills in, you will be making significant payments toward the principle of each bill you are paying off.
6. Add no new debt.
As simple as the plan I just described is, the most common reason it doesn’t work for people is that they have not quit adding new debt. Don’t sabotage your efforts by doing this. Adjust your budget if you have to (and you may find you need to), but always remember that if you earn less than your expenses, you will have to spend less or earn more. You can’t spend more than you earn and expect to get out of debt.
7. Have a sale.
The idea is to make an extra burst of income which you can apply to the principle on your smallest loan to help jumpstart the process. This may be a yard sale, or it may be listing a few higher-value items online that you already own and don’t use or need. You may want to consider doing this more than once to give you extra traction.
8. If necessary, contact credit holders.
You may need to reach out to your creditors to negotiate a lower monthly payment, explaining your commitment to pay off all of your debts. Keep in mind, however, that they are unlikely to lower the interest rate—so a lower monthly payment means you will pay more in interest over time.
9. Stick to it.
Even the best plan only works if you use it. And because getting out of debt doesn’t happen the moment you make that first commitment to do it, it takes a continuing effort to continue. Galatians 6:9 certainly applies here: “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
10. Increase savings when debts are paid.
When you pay off that last debt, give thanks to God and celebrate! If you have been living with extreme thriftiness, you may want to relax that just a little—perhaps budgeting for an occasional meal or discretionary expenses. But rather than shifting now toward complete indulging with the extra money you’ve saved, use it to give more generously to the Lord’s work and to others and to increase your savings for retirement and your family’s future needs.
God blesses us in so many ways. Avoiding or getting out of debt is ultimately not about us—it is about being good stewards of the gifts He has given us.