Getting Out Of Debt: Step 1


The first step is usually the hardest.


Getting out of debt is hard, and often, it’s not only because there isn’t enough money in the bank account.  Most get out of debt strategies offer a series of ideas to manage our way forward.  And while there are lots of programs out there, a first step many fail to mention is almost always the toughest to take. What is it?  The first real step in debt-control is to recognize there may be an even bigger problem to tackle besides the debt—let’s call it, “handling some of the emotional baggage that got us into trouble in the first place”.

Underlying Factors


While there are many things that will add to my debt, it’s usually an underlying emotion that convinces me to throw caution to the wind and take even more of it on.  Whether I do it out of love, guilt, shame, fear or stubborn pride, over time I learn to justify my decisions in ways to support my chosen lifestyle.  For example, I may be jealous of my friends who have more money than I do. Now, if I fail to recognize that jealousy, I can easily add to my debt trying to keep up with them as they buy expensive new toys or take trips to exotic places.  Or take another example: I may feel a sense of shame or guilt for losing my job, and yet be unaware how those same feelings push me into taking a cash advance on my credit card.  Here’s the rub: When the emotional drivers in my life overpower my ability to think clearly, it’s hard to take any meaningful steps to change my ways, even when I know it make sense.


What’s It Going To Take?


How did I contribute to this mess?

What’s on your horizon?

More often than not, it takes a significant crisis to wake up to the idea emotions are in control when it comes to the issue of finances. Perhaps you’re suddenly facing bankruptcy and wonder how you got there.  Of maybe you’re facing foreclosure on your mortgage and don’t understand what convinced you to take on such a huge financial burden in the first place. When a major crisis erupts it can be a lot easier to step past some of the emotional blocks and boundaries that are normally in our way.  In other words, when things get bad enough, we seem more willing to look at the role our emotional baggage played in getting us into trouble, plus we’re more apt to seek out the help we need to get out of it.  This brings up a couple of questions worth asking: (1) Why do we usually wait for a crisis to point the way forward, and (2) isn’t there a better way to pick up on the fact we’re heading the wrong way?



Sorting It Out


Psychologists can spend years with their clients trying to sort out what drives them to do things contrary to their own best interests.  Though you may or may not be aware of the underlying forces which cause you to lean one way or another when you make a decision, it’s worth recognizing that (1) we all carry emotional baggage, (2) it tends to get in our way at times, and (3) it usually gets much worse the moment we feel stressed.


Does the whole subject of money stress you out?  Do you ever feel worried about money?  Are you depressed when there’s not enough of it?  Do you ever feel mad or sad about debt, or do you ever feel as if bringing up the subject with a loved one turns you into someone you’d rather not be?


A Quiz


Do any of these questions make you anxious?To check in on how it’s going financially, I recommend taking the short quiz below.  As you go through the questions try to answer honestly.


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1)  Do you often pay one credit card by taking a cash advance on another?

2)  In the past several months are you making late payments on your credit card accounts because you’re always short of funds?

3)  Do you buy most things on credit instead of waiting to save enough cash?

4)  Are you frequently buying groceries and other common necessities on credit?

5)  Are you hiding any of your purchases from a loved one?

6)  Are you afraid to bring up the topic of your debts with your family or significant other?

7)  Does the issue of money or debt often end up in a fight with a significant other or loved one?

8)  Do you ever feel depressed or overly anxious about the amount of your debt?

9)  Are you constantly worried about how much money you have?

10)  Do you avoid figuring out either your total debt or total monthly debt payments?

11)  Does shopping provide a sense of temporary relief from all your sorrows?

12)  If you suddenly come into a little extra money, is your tendency to splurge and buy something special?

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Checking In


How did it go?  Did you answer yes to several of the questions?  To all of them?  To none?  No matter how you answered, please be aware that the whole purpose of the exercise isn’t to find another way to judge yourself. Instead, think of it as a a means to start asking even deeper questions.  Ask questions like:  Why is it so hard for me to get out of this jam?  Is there anything I’m afraid might happen if I bring up this topic with my partner?  Am I trying to prove something just to save face?  Is there something else more serious going on, something I’m not facing up to?  Are my real feelings buried so deep I don’t know which end is up?


In other words, delve into the feelings and try to figure out whether there are certain things going on around the topics of money and debt that are getting in the way of making better financial choices.  For example, if you regularly fight with someone you love over the level of debt you carry, it could mean a number of things.  Maybe it’s as simple as you grew up poor and you fear losing everything, so rather than face that possibility it’s just easier to deny it.  Or maybe you grew up well off and fear being homeless.  Or perhaps you’re worried about feeding the kids or losing the house.  Even if you’re wildly successful with money and have no debt, you might still argue about spending it because you watched a parent suffer who never had enough.  In other words, there are all kinds of reasons our emotional baggage can get in the way if we fail to recognize it’s there. It’s something to think about.


A Taboo Topic


How many times has a good friend ever told you how much debt he carries on his credit cards?  Chances are, the only time he may have mentioned anything is if he never carries a balance at all, or if he just paid off his debts.  The truth is, debt is one of those taboo subjects for most of us—the things we just don’t want to talk about if given a choice.  Even to bring the topic up with a spouse or significant other can feel extremely uncomfortable.  In fact, sometimes it can feel as if divorce or a split-up is the only option available when one partner is willing to talk about money or debts and the other one  isn’t.  There are also cases, where partners will decide to hide certain things they do from one another—for example, open one or more credit card accounts in their name and then try to keep them a secret.   Statistics on this are not easy to come by, however it appears hidden debt is a significant and troubling problem.


A Word On Addiction


A personal struggle to come to a better place financially has to include a willingness to look at some of the emotional baggage that creates the debt in the first place.  Without addressing it, the baggage becomes the fuel for generating a more serious addiction.  For example, if I love clothes and feel a sense of relief from buying new things whenever my life feels out of control, it’s going to be hard for me to give up shopping.  It can even become an addiction, meaning it can get bad enough I’ll shop and spend to the point of financial ruin.


Now, unless I’m willing to get control of that addiction, I can promise to give up credit cards or promise never to go shopping again, but it will be extremely unlikely I’ll keep those commitments or ever make a dent in my debt.


When asked about familiar addictions, most of us could probably come up with alcohol, drug, gambling or even sex addiction.  Yet it turns out an addiction to debt can be just as self-destructive as the rest.  If you don’t believe that, please consider going to a Debtors Anonymous meeting.  Debtors Anonymous is a 12 step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.  Like its cousin, DA is designed to help manage all the emotions and difficulties that come up around issues of money and debt.


On The Same Page


Unfortunately, there are times when the issues behind a debt problem are even more complicated.  If you’re in a relationship, you may have a good handle on your personal financial situation.  At the same time, your partner may have a completely different viewpoint on theirs or of the state of your joint financial affairs.  While some partners are willing to share, discuss, argue, strategize, and do whatever it takes to manage their money and debts, others may ignore the subject altogether, avoid it whenever possible, or refuse to consider it as a critical priority in the success of their relationship.  This can lead to tremendous strife between partners, and ultimately be the grounds for a separation or divorce.  If your partner is unwilling to talk about it, you have two basic options: (1) You can cave in to keep the peace (not recommended as a long-term survival strategy) or (2) You can seek out help.  The point here is to establish clear goals and better boundaries, plus get your partner to recognize the potential consequences for their continued failure to address the various issues involved.


Sources For Help


Whether you’re doing it on your own or with a partner, getting clear about the reasons you go into debt in the first place will be one of the important keys to getting out.  How do you do that?


(1) Find someone you know and trust, and then ask for their input.  It might be a family member or friend, or perhaps your pastor or a mentor.  Don’t pick just anyone to share your burdens with.  This is serious business.  Look for someone you know who has a good understanding of life and money issues and is willing to keep the things you share confidential.


(2) Get some counseling.  There are two basic types to consider.  One is financial counseling.  For ideas on the types of financial counseling and what to avoid, read our post Debt Relief: 2 Solutions That Work. To address the emotional issues at stake, counseling may take on a variety of forms.  It might look like Personal Coaching, Individual or Couples Therapy, Group Support, or even a Personal Growth Workshop.  If you are currently employed and your company has a human resources department, ask about available company benefits.  Some companies pay for certain “life” benefits such as one or more free counseling sessions.  If you aren’t working or money is just too tight, consider calling a family or marital counselor and ask if they work with people in your situation.  If they don’t, they can refer you.  Many counselors do a certain amount of work on a sliding pay scale or may know of other resources worth checking out.  It pays to find out.


(3) Find a Debtors Anonymous meeting in your local area and attend it.


(4) Seek out help from local churches or community organizations.  Check with your pastor or ask friends for other ideas.


In The End


Discovering all the things that make you tick is the surest means to making more conscious choices, and when it comes to debt, it’s also the best way to choose and stick to a debt-reduction plan.


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