How to Start Tackling Your Debt

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legos and money

It can be overwhelming when you make a financial mess and you don’t know what to do about it. It can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when bills exceed paycheck. It can be easy to say, “Let’s just eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we’ll be in debt, anyway.”

Are you there? Do you like how that feels? Or do you feel that nagging tug to get your financial house in order, sooner rather than later?

We did. Way back in 2007, my husband and I took a drastic turn in how we handled our finances.

We had always been frugal; that is, we weren’t extravagant, we didn’t take fancy vacations, we bought used cars and then only rarely.

But, in 2007 we realized that our spending had gone beyond our means and we had the debt to show for it.

Big debt.

Thanks to God and some helpful resources, things look a lot different than they did twelve years ago.

You can do this, too. Really, you can.

clip of cash and debit cards

But, where do you start?

Lots has been written on the topic of personal finance and debt-free living. While I’m no economics expert, I can tell you what worked for us.

This may fit your situation; it may not. I can’t tell you that. But, I can tell you how we paid off over $18,000 in consumer debt, feeding 5-6 children, while making less than $60K a year.

It’s no get-rich-quick scheme. You don’t have to buy any fancy software or even a book. But, it does take sacrifice, hard work, and relying on God instead of despairing. Over the coming weeks, I’ll share the steps we took to get out of debt. This week, probably the biggest and hardest and first step:

We stopped using our credit cards.


Yes, I know, plenty of people espouse the “responsible use of credit cards.” We did, too. In fact, we paid for everything with our credit card. We figured that if we were spending the money anyway, we might as well get some perks from it.

About $40,000 filtered through our credit card every year. We used it responsibly and most months, brought the balance back down to zero.

But, what nagged at me for a long time was that even when we “paid it off every month,” we were still at least a month behind. Because of grace periods and such, at the end of the month we were paying for stuff that, in most cases, was long gone.

This is called credit card float.

We had to throw new money at old experiences and hope that new money would come in time to pay for the fun we were having today.

Paying for the past gave me a very unsettled feeling. And it came back to bite us when we experienced six weeks of no work for our construction business. All of a sudden, we had a big choice in front of us:

  • put every penny we had toward the credit card in order to pay it off and live on credit purchases in the coming month


  • let all that debt ride (with all the interest) and try to break the cycle of revolving credit.

We chose the latter. It was hard to do. But, we did.

That first month, we figured out how much money we had and lined that up with the bills. We paid the minimum amount due on credit cards and loans. We paid cash for any new purchases.

While it was hard to know we had “debt,” it felt good. Despite the humbling moment of “carrying a balance,” it felt good that we were going to get off the ferris wheel.

Can’t you use credit cards responsibly?

For years I disagreed with folks who insisted that you could use credit cards responsibly. It seemed that they wanted to ignore the existence of credit card float.

Since then I’ve realized that you can still use credit cards and avoid debt — if you pay it off regularly, like on a weekly or daily basis.

Using a credit card for convenience or for travel hacking can be done responsibly, but I think it’s best done when you know that your cash on hand exceeds any and all charges.

But that doesn’t mean you should just keep using credit cards. 

Do people spend more with credit cards?

I’m convinced that the FishFam spent more money using credit cards than when paying cash. And if the study is true that say credit card users spend 12-18% more than those who pay with cash, then we spent at least $4800 more each year than we would have without using credit.

No wonder it seemed like we were getting sucked under. We were!

So, my first piece of advice in getting debt-free is to stop using your credit cards.

You’re in debt for a reason. Likely because you spend more than you make and don’t have a good handle on where your money is going.

Pay cash for all purchases. It feels different to hand over green paper than a piece of plastic. Your hand won’t want to let go in quite the same way. You’ll become a little tighter fisted. And if you’ve got debt, well, then you should get a little tighter fisted.

Paying in cash has helped me “see” the money slip through my fingers, literally. And it’s helped us save money and get out of debt — and stay there.

Read next: The Best Resource to Get Out of Debt

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  1. I totally agree. We stopped using our credit card 2 years ago. We were able to pay off $11,000 in 4 months making about 80k a year. We haven't used them since and I have no regrets! Great post!

  2. I use cash for ALMOST everything. But I'm unwilling to stop using my credit card for gas. I just can't fathom not being able to pay at the pump. How do you work around that?

    1. Use a debit card. We’ve never had credit cards but use debit cards to pay at the pump and order online, etc. As far as I know, all banks offer them.

    2. It used to be I never could fathom not being able to pay at the pump either. I had a social anxiety phase, and I even hated calling for pizza because, well, I’d have to talk to a person. (Sounds stupid to me now, but that’s the way I felt back then when the world seemed overwhelming. Things feel much better now that I’m not working tech support anymore.)

      Our area got one of those discount petrol places that lets you pay at a central island, and they gave a discount for cash purchases. So I started with that; baby steps, y’know? Then one day the pay island was broken, and I had to go in to pre-pay for the petrol. And I found it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. It didn’t take any more time than using the pay island, and either method (pre-pay a person or a machine) helped me stick to my petrol-cash budget much easier!

  3. Great post! We put most everything on the credit card and pay it off at the end of the month to earn the rebates. So far, its not been a problem for us. But you are right, its different to give over the green than the plastic. But I have found that if I have $ in my wallet, I will spend more on little stuff. So I think using the credit card saves me money in the long run. Definatly something to think about though, thanks!!

  4. Wonderful post. We pay cash for everything. We have only one credit card and it is for buying online and things like that.

  5. We were doing the same thing and finally I had about equal in savings as what I had in balances on credit cards. I had some sort of false security with the savings amount so I finally went "all in."

    We are trying to build our savings and that is scary to me but I don't have the debt. It's my way of keeping it real! I am looking forward to the kids returning to school. I seem to really be able to keep a good handle on finances when we have a tighter schedule. Here's to doing it together! Ting!

  6. We are in the same place right now as you were. We have a mortgage for 50% of the value of our home and we drive 2004 paid for cars but we use our credit cards every month. It was great while I was working but since I am now officially a stay at home mom, we pay last months balance off in full but with this months wage. We haven't taken that first step yet because we're in love with the points from our card…

  7. I LOVE to hear about other people giving up the credit cards. We gave up ours 5 years ago, and have never regretted it. Debit cards work at the gas pump (and for airline reservations and car rentals) just like credit cards but mostly we use cash… DH and I each get a bi-weekly "allowance" which is meant to cover gas plus a little extra, this extra is for us to use as we please guilt free. We also have built up an emergency fund- which has provided some serious peace and comfort.

  8. This may sound silly but I literally collect my spare change. I pay cash for just about everything and whenever I get change back I collect it in a separate change purse and transfer it to a container each night. At the end of the month it goes to savings.

    Over time those few dollars, and some months not so few dollars, add up. The change pool is a nice little stash to have in months where the ends don't quite meet.

  9. We have never had credit cards, but we do use debit cards. Our only debt is our mortgage, and my car payment. Even though our house, which we just finished building, is valued much higher than what we owe, I hate being in debt!
    Our biggest struggle is saving money. What's worked for us is keeping a spending journal. It's hard to see where your money is going with out putting it in black and white. It's the daily spending that will KILL a budget. We didn't realize just how much we spend until we each started carrying a little notepad where we wrote down EVERYTHING that we spent money on each day. My husband has even gotten to the point that he will itemize his notes on spending if he goes out to lunch with people from work. He'll write down what the meal actually cost, then break it down into actual cost, tip, etc.
    I know it might not help some people, but having the accountability at the end of the day to ourselves and each other has really helped us to reign in wasteful spending.

  10. I have been racking my brain the past few months trying to figure out how to get our little family out of debt. it seems every month, what I pay towards the credit card, I end up spending again and we stay maxed out. my husband is an unapologetic extravagant spender and often spends money for bills, groceries, clothes for our son, right out from underneath me and I don't know what to do anymore! I'm at my absolute wit's end with our finances. I could commit to stop using our credit cards, but then that leaves me no "safety net" if my husband screws me over in the 12 hours between his check hitting the bank and my being able to get to the grocery store.

    1. My husband and I also differ quite a bit in the spending department. He spends money almost as fast as it comes in and constantly has a mile long list of things he wants. I am super frugal on the other hand and only spend money when I have to. It has been a struggle for us and has caused some friction between us. We have gotten to the point now though that we both agree to a budget and stick to it every month. It is less than we were spending, but it also allows him some freedom. We have stopped using credit cards completely and are currently working on Dave Ramsey’s baby step #2, paying off the debt snowball. We are proud to say that after 6 months, we have almost paid off $9000! Working on this together has made our marriage stronger though at times it seemed like it just made us fight constantly…hang in there, it’s worth it! Communicate with him about how his frivolous spending makes you feel, other than just being pissed about it. It helps them to know that it hurts your feelings or makes you feel insecure financially rather than just mad. If you have to, have this discussion with a neutral party that could step in when he blows you off for overthinking it or worrying too much or whatever his reason might be for dismissing your feelings. Men have a primal desire to be a provider and no man will feel like a provider if he knows his actions are hurting you (anger does not have the same effect).

  11. Ash, I am sorry to hear that things are not all well in your home and finances. It is a challenge, and as you may know, one of the most common things for couples to argue about. I've always been a cheapskate and not always a gracious one. It took many conversations to get on the same page. (We both had to give a little.) But, fighting our debt together was one of the best things for our marriage. It really helped us/made us communicate better.

  12. I love Dave Ramsey and was raised with the debt is bad mentality. We do have a mortgage, but no car payments or any other loans. We were like Kristen and always put EVERYTHING on credit cards and paid them off every month in order to get the rewards. We have never paid a dime in interest to the CC companies.

    BUT, we started using Dave Ramsey's all cash "envelope" system in January as our way of helping the economy. Did you know many small businesses LOSE money when people made little purchases with credit cards?

    Quitting the cards has been a HUGE blessing for us. We have been able to save more in 8 months than we ever would have gotten in credit card rewards for the year.

  13. Oh, this is EXACTLY what we experienced! We never carried a balance, but we were always playing catch up. We did the same thing and froze our credit cards. We pay with cash now, and it has been so freeing!! I'm glad you put into words what we were experiencing!

  14. Wow this is something we are really working on. Getting out of debt is really important to us. Stuff we do to save money is. I make all of our baked goods from scratch. Bread,rolls,pizza dough,Birthday cakes (I decorate them),pies,buns,etc.
    I make almost everything from scratch including laundry soap,mayo,and bbq sauce.
    We are also really trying to lessen our energy consumption to lower our electric bill. We unplug everything not in use this includes tvs. I also have no power hours where I turn off all the electricity to the house at the breaker. We usually do 2 hours per day 4 days per week. But I am really going to work on making it way more my goal is 5 hours per day 4 days per week.