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April 07, 2008

Our debt diet

At the beginning of the new year, Jon and I decided that we needed to focus on the bottom line of the financial spreadsheet of our lives together. We had too much debt, plain and simple, and we felt like we needed to get things in order and be smarter with our money. We earned a decent income, and we had no problem paying our bills. Even so, a large part of our lives was being financed by creditors, and it made no sense to us to pay interest on these balances.

One issue we had was how we were going to accomplish this goal of solvency given that we have separate checking accounts and a significant income disparity. We discussed it at length and ultimately made the decision to unify for the sake of the bottom line.

We started by creating a spreadsheet of all our debt and then ranked the creditors into two categories: revolving debt and monthly bills. We then ranked the revolving debt based on the interest rates for each of the accounts. This part was quite alarming to see. Even though we had kept a close eye on our bills all along, we realized that only when that information is consolidated into one location is it possible to see the big picture. The revolving debt itself totaled in excess of $41,000. While this amount was still below one-third of our total income (which we had understood to be a good thing), it was a significant percentage of our total income. And we were paying interest on most of it!

So, we got to work.

I called the credit card companies and negotiated a lower interest rate on any of the cards carrying balances. We had nothing to lose except our income (being spent on interest). I was quite surprised at how easy it was to get these rates dropped on most of the accounts. We then separated our debt repayment into phases, determining that Phase 1 debt was the sum total of the accounts carrying higher interest rates.

The amount of debt in Phase 1 totaled $16,000. Yikes.

On one of the cards included in Phase 1, there was a balance of around $1200 that was about to have a 20.99% rate kick in (a balance transfer offer was expiring). The company would not lower it even though we told them we'd just pay it off immediately if they didn't. They didn't, so we did, using some of our savings that we had accumulated when contemplating buying a house (which we ultimately decided not to do).

Next, we prioritized the order in which the rest of the cards in Phase 1 would be paid, and each of us created a budget to determine how much we would be able to put towards debt each month above and beyond minimum payments.

It became a matter of sticking to our guns, staying focused on the goal, and paying our debt off at the rate of one card at a time.

The hardest part of this entire process was the first couple of weeks. I was in the habit of running up a credit card and paying it off every month, but I wanted to break that cycle. No more credit cards! It was a painful adjustment because I had to drastically reduce my spending and change my habits. I also realized I had been living like a spoiled child. I was not happy to be giving up certain luxuries such as eating out often or spending frivolously on things like pedicures and new Apple hardware. Over time, it got easier (and I learned that not visiting the Apple store was a simple way to avoid additional expenses).

I started bringing my lunch most every day, and Jon and I also stopped going out to eat so often. We decided to pay close attention while grocery shopping to ensure we were only buying what we needed. This became a true debt diet for us, and we were both on board. We knew that duality was important for this to work.

Both us started paying close attention to where our money was going and tried to cut back if we could. We also focused on saving a small amount each month so that we could continue working towards having at least three months of our income in savings (and ultimately work towards having six to eight months' income in the bank). A small portion of our monthly income was set aside for pocket money (for the day-to-day incidentals), a small portion was deposited into savings, and a large portion started going towards debt repayment. This seemed to work for us.

We constantly update a spreadsheet to show us our progress (and coincidentally, doing this helps us to stayed focused). Jon and I are very fortunate in that we enjoy staying home and watching television or a movie together while enjoying a nice bottle of wine or eating a home-cooked meal. It's so much cheaper than going out. However, we still treat ourselves on occasion by going out to eat or buying something new. We just keep it within our budget.

The results so far have been amazing. In three months, we have dropped our total debt from $41,000+ to just over $29,000. We are even going to take the tax rebate stimulus check that we'll receive in May and pay off debt (sorry, Mr. President, but we have lofty goals, too). We've decided that if we continue paying at the same rate that all of our debt (except for the house) and both of our cars will be paid off within the next 18 to 24 months. PAID OFF. As in, no more debt.

I can't begin to tell you how good this feels. Before we started on our debt diet, neither of us had problems managing our finances or paying our bills, but we knew we didn't want to keep heading in the same direction and giving our hard-earned money to credit card companies (and perhaps digging a bigger hole for ourselves). We made a conscious choice to change - a change that has and will continue to benefit us. My credit score has increased by more than 20 points since we started this plan. What a great reward!

After the debt is eliminated, we plan to build our savings at a faster pace and put more money into our retirement plans. We may work on paying off our inexpensive townhome ($100k left on the mortgage) so that we are in better shape to buy a house that fits us better (amazingly, our small home feels perfect now as we work towards clearing debt). We also have contemplated where we would like to travel and how awesome it will feel to be debt-free.

The possibilities are endless! This feels like true freedom. Heading towards solvency has been an awesome experience for us financially and, interestingly enough, emotionally. It also has made us feel safer in the changing (and downsloping) economic climate in our country.

My only reason for sharing this information is that it may help someone else recesssion-proof their finances, too. So, if you happen to be reading this and have some thoughts, feel free to share them.

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