How to be Proactive About Paying Off Debt

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Want to climb out of debt and never look back? Then you need to learn how to be proactive about paying off debt. Here's how you can get started today.

A lot of people say they want to pay off debt, and then never follow through with it. Procrastination is a real struggle when it comes to personal finance, and paying off debt is no exception. It requires a big commitment, one that can span years.

People often get overwhelmed at the mere thought of working their way out of debt, which doesn’t help the situation. What does help is being proactive about paying off debt in the first place. As with most things, the first step is the hardest, but once you commit, the rest tends to fall into place.

If you’re tired of drowning under a pile of bills, here are a few ways to get proactive about paying off your debt.

Set a Debt Payoff Date


This is a tip I’ve actually been meaning to implement. The only debt I have is student loan debt, and under the standard repayment plan, I have 10 years to pay it off (well, seven now). Technically there’s an end date, even though it’s not ideal.

I’ve been paying extra toward my student loans, but I’ve never calculated a payoff date because I figured life would throw its curve balls and I would have to change plans. While that has happened, not having any idea of when I’ll pay them off has made my journey a little aimless.

When you have credit card debt, or any type of revolving debt, you don’t have the luxury of an end date. Your credit card statement might show you how long it’ll take to pay off your balance by paying the minimum amount, but that’s not a good example to follow. Paying the minimum isn’t being proactive!

If you want to work toward getting out of debt by a specific date, you just need to run a few calculations. I’m assuming you’ve already set yourself up with a budget (if you haven’t, check here for tips on how to create one), so you should know how much money you can dedicate to your debt each month.

Divide your total debt amount by that number and see how many more months you have. Then estimate when you’ll be debt free. For example, if your total debt is $9,400, and you can pay $250 towards it each month, it will take you around 38 months (just over 3 years) to pay it off.

Whenever you lose motivation, you can keep your debt free date in mind as something to work toward.

Decide on a Repayment Strategy


Your intentions might be good, but that’s probably not enough to carry you through your debt payoff journey. Saying “I want to get out of debt” and following through with it are two different things.

Picking a debt repayment strategy can help solidify your plan. The two most well-known strategies are the debt snowball and debt avalanche methods. We’ve covered both before, but the avalanche method targets the highest interest rate debt first, and the snowball method targets the lowest balance first.

How can this help you be proactive when paying off debt? Simple: it gives you focus because you’re targeting one loan. Deciding on a repayment strategy means you’ll feel less overwhelmed than if you were to try and pay extra on multiple loans.

Pay Extra Throughout the Month


Besides the debt avalanche and debt snowball methods, there’s something called the snowflake method. This approach helps you attack debt by paying extra toward the one loan you’re targeting whenever possible.

This takes a lot of discipline. Theoretically, if you find $10 in your coat pocket, get $1,000 from your tax refund, or receive $200 in gift money, it should go toward your debt. Any amount helps reduce the balance.

If you want to dial it down a notch, you can make biweekly payments. Just divide your total payment in half and pay that amount every other week. This is a popular method when paying off a mortgage quickly as you’ll make more of a dent in the principal balance as less of your payment will go toward interest.

Pay Bills As They Arrive


Have you gotten into the habit of avoiding statements when they come in the mail? It can be hard to face the pile of bills you have, but that’s not being proactive. You should aim to pay your bills as soon as they arrive, whether that’s by email or postage.

I would suggest going a step further by automating your payments. You can set up recurring monthly payments with most creditors. This will keep you on top of payments, and you’ll be able to supplement that payment throughout the month when possible.

When setting up automatic payments with revolving debt, remember to set your payment above the minimum amount as that’s often the default choice. You can always adjust it later if need be.

Call Your Creditors


Nothing says you’re taking action on your debt like calling your creditors and trying to negotiate a lower interest rate or balance. You might not think it’s worth the time, but making a few phone calls won’t hurt.

My parents had success with this. I worked with them to create a debt repayment plan, and during the process, they realized just how much interest was accruing on their debt.

My mom called their creditors and told them they were retired and living on a fixed income. She asked if there was anything they could do to lessen the burden as they were trying to work their way out of debt and had been making timely payments for decades (ouch). She was able to get the interest rate lowered by a few points.

I wouldn’t suggest creating a fictional sob story, but be polite and honest when explaining the situation to your creditors. If you don’t succeed the first time around, keep calling back once a month. Getting a different representative may help. Another option worth considering in addition to calling your creditors, or if that doesn’t achieve the result you desire, is to look into consolidating your debt through an unsecured personal loan. If it would mean lowering your overall interest payments and having one payment per month versus many payments of varying interest rates, it may help you pay down your debt faster and make your life a little less hectic.

Keep Evaluating Your Progress


Once you set a debt repayment plan, you must evaluate your progress along the way. You have to continue to be proactive throughout this journey. I’ve seen many people begin with gusto, only to die out later from debt fatigue.

Somewhere along the way, they get discouraged. Maybe they’re not seeing the progress they had hoped for, or maybe a time of financial difficulty befell them. I’ve had both happen to me, and it can throw your debt repayment efforts off track. It’s important to check in every so often to make sure you’re still on track. If you’re not, then you can figure out what went wrong and change course. As long as you keep moving in the right direction, you’ll reach your destination.

Additional resource: If you’re working to pay off debt but making little progress you may benefit from consolidating your debts into one loan to lower your interest rates. In many cases you can lower your rates by at least 10 percent, which means more of your monthly payment goes towards killing your debt once and for all. One of the best options to consolidate debt is through Lightstream who offers rates as low as 1.74 percent with AutoPay. 

Check out the rates at Lightstream today!


When you first started paying off your debt, were you proactive about it? Did it take you several tries to get serious about your debt repayment? What action did you take that helped you the most?

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Erin M. is a personal finance freelance writer passionate about helping others take control over their financial situation. She shares her thoughts on money on her blog Journey to Saving.


  • Jaime says:

    I did the debt snowball.

    My total debt was about $5,000 and I paid it off that way. Seeing little payments go away just makes it easier and reinforces it in your mind.

    “Yea I paid off that $20 library fine, so I can pay off my $282 credit card bill, and then the $3,300 on the other credit card, etc.”

    • Erin says:

      I used to be a bigger fan of the avalanche method, but I technically only have two student loans, so I didn’t have to deal with multiple “hurdles.” I think the snowball method can be really powerful in terms of easing into things, gaining momentum, and seeing what you’re capable of paying off!

  • Ramona @ Personal Finance Today says:

    I love the idea of setting your ‘liberation’ day. I had fixed payments for my car, so it was clear that, on March 2012 I’ll regain my freedom. It did help a lot, that’s for sure.

    • Erin says:

      Exactly! It can really help boost your outlook once you realize you have X amount more payments to go until you’re debt free. And if you don’t have an installment loan, it’s nice to run the numbers to see how paying a certain amount will affect your debt payoff date.

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    Paying off debt won’t work well unless you’re proactive about it. It’s not going to pay itself off! I am happy to report that we are debt free and plan to stay that way forever.

  • Mrs Lewis says:

    All of these are guiding principals of paying down debt. With $205,000 in law school and car loan debt to pay off, these methods will help achieve paying down that sum in 5 years. It’s going to take a whole lot of effort and potentially less sleep, but I’m willing to make it happen so I’m no longer held back by my debt.

  • Jason says:

    I used the Debt Snowball and a zero based budget.

    So far we have paid off $228,370 since Aug 2014.

    We will be done by March/April of 2016. You have to really get laser focused on the debt and virtually every extra dollar is going towards it.

    There is no magic formula…only more work, less expenses and huge sums of money towards the debt.

    • Erin says:

      Wow Jason, that’s incredible! Hats off to you. You’re right that there’s no magic formula – it just takes hard work and dedication to paying it off.

      • Jason says:

        Thank you, we have a nice income so that helps and we sold a underwater rental condo for 119K we bought for 200K…ouch.

        You really have to buy in that being debt free is the life for you and see how much it can help you in all aspects of your life.

        The budget is key and being on the same page as my wife. Anyone can do it…u just have to believe and have a plan.

        Good luck all!

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    I may be one of those weird people that are content with having debt on my books. For example my mortgage. At 3.5% I honestly think it would be very foolish to pay more than the minimum. Imagine if interest rates were 10% a few years from now, people would probably be kicking themselves for paying off their mortgage faster than required.

    • Erin M says:

      It does depend on your situation. When I wrote the post, I had consumer debt in mind more than I did other types of debt, just because they typically have the highest interest rates. If I had a mortgage with a lower interest rate, I likely wouldn’t be in much of a rush to pay it off, either!

  • Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank says:

    Erin, these are really good strategies in paying off debt. I plan to do the “PAY BILLS AS THEY ARRIVE” by automation. This is kinda new to me, but I can see many advantages in doing this strategy. Yay! I am so excited about this.

    • Erin says:

      That’s great Jayson! It’s better to tackle bills as soon as they get in so you don’t have to worry about late payments. Automating is great, too – just make sure you keep a buffer in your checking account!

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