How to Get out of Debt: Thoughts for the New Year

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Debt Payoff

As I reflect back on 2013 and on our first year of trying to get out of debt, I feel that, through this awesome personal finance blogging community, I’ve gained SO much treasured knowledge.

For those of you who don’t know our story, I’ll give you a summary: After many, many moons of financial failure, my husband and I sat down just over a year ago and faced the fact that we were teetering on the brink of financial disaster.  We had tried for years to be better with our money, but we would always fail.  Oh, yes, sometimes we’d get all of the consumer debt paid off, but we’d end up right back in it again.  There were many reasons for this; some understandable, most not, but it was the way it was.

However, in November of 2012, our debt level, for many reasons, came to an all-time high, and something finally clicked.  We looked at the numbers and had that “Oh crap – we’re really in deep” moment.  I’m not sure what it was that made us finally understand how much of a mess we were in, but we did know and understand that if we didn’t get out know, it could mean complete and total financial destruction for our family.

We also realized that, in spite of having a strong marriage, most marriage failures are due, in large part, to money problems, and so with each item we put on our credit cards, we were increasing the possibility of straining our relationship, and that scared us too.  We also knew that we owed it to our four children to make sure our family was on solid financial footing.

So, on January 1 of this year, we went on our first ever budgeting and spend-tracking adventure.  The goal? To work toward debt freedom and financial security.  However, this would be no easy journey, considering we started the year with a debt-to-income ratio of 65%.  And although we’ve still got a long way to go, we have made some progress and learned some things about how to get out of debt.

Just Start

Is it scary?  Yeah.  Is it difficult?  Yep.  Your relationships might change.  It’s hard to get used to living on a budget – at first.  But then it’s fun.  You feel encouraged by the progress, no matter how minimal it might be.  You know what else feels great?  Having CONTROL over your financial situation, instead of letting life have control over you.  So, just start.  There are tons of resources out there made for the sole purpose of helping you get out of debt.

Don’t Give Up When Working to Get Out of Debt

This is where most people fail: they start, but then they quit!  Something happens; they screw up, they blow the budget, and then, THEY QUIT!  But, you see, what I’ve learned throughout this last year is that failure is not the endquitting is the end.  So when you fail – and you probably will – get up, dust yourself off, and move on toward your goal, but whatever you do, don’t give up!

Remember that the Journey to Debt Freedom is a Work in Progress

I’ve not met a person yet who succeeded on his or her journey to get out of debt who didn’t have to adjust/revamp/rewire/re-do their plan to get there.  Things change; you might try one thing, and find you’re better off doing another.  In our case, we started with the debt snowball approach (paying off credit cards with low balances first, then those with high balances).  We did this because we were emotionally freaked out by our debt and needed those “quick wins” that Dave Ramsey talks about.

But two months in, the amount of interest we were paying each month really started to tick me off, and I knew that if we were going to get out of debt that we had to stop giving money to the credit card and mortgage companies.  So we switched to paying down the highest interest cards first, and as Grayson from Debt Roundup says, we “took the emotion out of the equation” and focused on the numbers.  The point I’m trying to make is that you might have to work a little bit and change things up as you learn what works for you and what doesn’t, and that’s okay, as long as you’re continuing on the path to get out of debt.

Celebrate Your Victories

Even the small ones.  Celebrate your first month on a real budget.  Celebrate when you’ve taken 1k, 2k or 5k off of your credit card balance.  Pat yourself on the back for every success, and forgive yourself for every failure.  I’m not talking about celebrating by going to the Bahamas – you can do that when you’re debt free.  But do something: go out to dinner, buy yourself a little gift, or have friends over to celebrate. (Editor’s note – I could not agree more with Laurie here. Having some sort of outlet and celebrating your victories is incredibly important as you’re paying off debt).

The road to getting out of debt is different for every person and every situation.  How long it takes you to get there is not what matters: what matters is that you arrive.

Readers, what is your most important tip you can give on a successful journey to becoming debt free?  Or, are you planning to start your own journey to financial freedom in 2014?  If so, do you have any questions on how to make the journey successful?


Photo courtesy of: Wonderlane

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Laurie is a wife, mother to 4, and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom, and to a simpler, more peaceful life.

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  • I think celebrating your victories is important, whether you’re paying off debt or working hard towards some other goal like finishing grad school, increasing your savings, or completing a big side hustle project. It’s easy to get burnt out but celebrating definitely helps.

    • I totally agree, DC. We had a hard time doing this at first, but then found out how encouraging it was to celebrate your successes – now we’re hooked! Celebrating those victories, when done right, gives you a nice boost forward.

  • Congrats on one full year on your journey, Laurie! I loved what you said about the fact that failure is not the end- quitting is the end! Great work!

  • My best tip is to be focused on WHY you getting out of debt. We wanted to have peace about our finances, travel the world, and be able to pursue careers that we were both passionate about. Having this at the forefront of our mind helped us stick with it and pay off our consumer debt in 18 months. Keep up the great work Laurie!

  • Debby says:

    Great post – and so very true! It is hard to start, and it’s not easy making the switch… but once you do, you keep pushing yourself to try to do better! And those occasional rewards are much more appreciated!

  • “Just Start” <—– Great advice….I know when Vonnie and I started working on our debt that we were completely overwhelmed. It comes back to that saying, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." Congratulations to you and your family for the progress you've made in 2013, Laurie……I look forward to following along as you make more progress in 2014! 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Travis. You and Vonnie are that great example of what happens when you “just start”. You’ve been eating your elephant – a big elephant, I might add – one bite and a time, and now your victory is at hand!

  • I think the most important things are to start and then not give up. The rest is just details and there are many ways to accomplish paying off debt. The most important thing are to start and keep going, which is all about the mental aspect rather than the actual paying off of debt.

  • Way to go Laurie! I know that it is a super difficult process, but getting rid of consumer debt is an amazing feeling (as you are aware). And I’m right there with you, financial problems really strain a marriage. Which is crazy, because it’s something that can easily be avoided! I mean, why put unnecessary stress on amarriage? Definitely take time to celebrate the small victories is key, too. Getting out of debt and living a less material obsessed and driven life has helped us appreciate the smaller things in life, too. Best luck in 2014!

  • Debt can be a scary thing, but because of that, it’s even more important to pay it off as soon as possible. What better time to start a debt payoff plan than the new year? I definitely agree with celebrating victories. If not, you could get debt payoff burnout.

  • I think an important step is to visualize yourself debt-free. How would your life be different if your debt magically disappeared? What would you be free to do that you feel you can’t do now? With what would you fill the hours of “thought-time” you devote now to figuring how you’re going to keep the creditors at bay and food on the table and gas in the car? With the stress of unaffordable debt payments gone, how will your relationships change with your significant other and friends? How will it make you feel when you’re sending $500 a month to your IRA account instead of to Capital One?

    What that vision firmly and frequently in mind, carry on!

  • Jason B says:

    Those are some great tips. I have given up before. I will not quit this time though. I have to pay off my debt.

  • Most of our debts are tied up with real estate investment and home mortgage. We are aiming to pay off our mortgage this year. My personal tips to get out from debt is to be focused or committed to achieve a debt free life.

  • Kay says:

    “failure is not the end – quitting is the end”. That’s a a great quote and a great perspective to have. It is so true, because in a debt repayment strategy many people will experience small set backs or failures along the way, but as long as you believe in your financial plan and keep moving forward you can achieve your goals. Great post, Laurie.

  • We celebrated our first debt paid off. That was a huge milestone for us! Being able to see the good in our big mess of debt has made it easier for us to be ok with the long term journey.

    • Michelle, that’s awesome!! Huge congrats to you guys. 🙂 Yes, I can see how a step like that would really do wonders for motivation, and if people can make it to their first step of victory, whatever it is, it can really help them to continue forward. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  • Great read, Laurie. My own experience with debt was to do like Dave says and get really intense, as I am a sprinter and not suited for the long haul. I think fitting an approach to your personality is key, as you noted with changing from the debt snowball to the debt avalanche.

    • DB40, that is terrific advice. We all have different ways of being motivated, and it is so important to find out, as you did, which method of achieving your goals works best for you. We are eager to do even better this year now that we’ve made it through year one.

  • Sandy says:

    That “Just Start” is by far the best advice that you can give anyone. It’s that whole journey of a thousand miles thing. Good for you and your hubby.

  • Congratulations Laurie! I’m so glad you’re sharing your journey and inspiring others to take control of their finances and their life!

  • Awesome post as usual, Laurie. I think that just biting the bullet and getting started is sometimes one of the hardest parts to any challenge that you’re working to overcome. It seems like once you take that first step, every single one that comes after – even if there are a million of them – are a little easier. Having a bit of momentum really helps!

  • Laurie, you have a really great attitude on this, keep it up. If you can post, I’d love to know how much your debt to income ratio has declined.

  • Poor Student says:

    It’s important definitely to celebrate victories, but I would say they should be celebrated in a way that won’t hurt your bottom line or make it feel like the only way of celebrating is to spend money.

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