Managing Debt

Debt Diet Challenge Week #12: A Slow, Invisible Process

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The Debt Diet is an online behavioral change program to help users get out of debt by putting aside $10 a day.  It was developed by Pro-Change Behavior Systems and Jean Chatzky, author of the best-selling Pay It Down and a coach on The Debt Diet series on the Oprah show.

Jean Chatzky read the applications solicited by Credit.com and chose 5 participants.  She got them started on The Debt Diet and is now speaking to them once a week, answering their questions and helping them to get off to a good start.  For their part, our participants are doing The Debt Diet exercises, which include tracking their spending, negotiating monthly bills (using The Debt Diet scripts) and trying to modify their heavy-spending ways.  You can find The Debt Diet ($49.95) at jeanchatzky.com. The participants also blog regularly on Credit.com about their experiences with The Debt Diet.

It’s been almost three months since we undertook the Debt Diet program on credit.com and the experiences of the participants, in my opinion at least, are very representative of the program in that they’ve all been extremely different.

Let’s look at them one by one, starting with Chris. If I had to name a poster child that came out of this process Chris would be it.  From the get-go she not only did the exercises in the Debt Diet, she experienced the high that can come along with making significant process in getting rid of debts.  She tracks her progress to the penny.  And even when an expensive setback (like having to fix her sidewalk) comes along, she manages to stay focused on the future.  Chris knows precisely what date she will be totally out of debt.  She has her eyes on the prize.  I enjoy talking to her, but I feel like a parent with a child who has fully embraced their independence.  She doesn’t really need me anymore.

[Related Articles: The Debt Diet Challenge Series]

Penny’s case was the hardest to crack—specifically because she earns less money than our other participants.  I frequently talk about how it’s easier to control the spending side of the equation than it is to control the income side; if you don’t have enough money coming in, it is very hard to make headway on your debts.  That’s why I’ve been so proud of the hard work Penny (and her husband) have done to make progress on their debts, including paying off a Dell Computer bill that’s been nagging Penny like an albatross.  The best news I heard over the three months was Penny’s email that she’d gotten a second job at her local Wal-Mart.  Employment in her part of the country is extremely hard to come by and she put in a number of applications before this came through.  It’s going to make securing her financial future a whole lot easier.

I’ve sometimes noted that dealing with your money isn’t a financial skill, it’s a life skill.  That’s something I’ve thought of often in talking to Melissa.  She and her husband earn a good living and they have the higher level of bills—from the mortgage to the day care—that go along with it.  They both work extremely hard and feel, as people often do, that they deserve to enjoy the money that they bring in.  I totally get that.  My husband and I sometimes say “this is why we work” when we spend money on something we know is frivolous or unnecessary—we just happen to want it.  Unfortunately, in Melissa’s case, those wants (from both her and her husband) sometimes get in the way of making as much headway on their debt as she’d like.  In the next week or so, she and I are going to have a three-way call with her husband to make sure the two of them are on the same page.  It will make the getting out of debt process much easier going forward.

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Finally, let’s talk about Erin.   As we started working through the process, I scheduled weekly calls with each of the participants.  My goal was to check-in, answer questions, cheerlead when necessary and keep them motivated and on track.  Almost from the start, I had trouble getting Erin on the phone.  She’d miss the call, wouldn’t call me back, and when we did connect she seemed to want to hang up almost immediately.  So I wasn’t surprised when she dropped out.

The bottom line: Getting out of debt is both a slow process and an invisible one.  No friends are going to notice the pounds falling off and comment on how young or slim or rested you look.  It’s a process that requires you to experience the satisfaction from the inside.  And some people just aren’t ready to take it on.  Erin wasn’t.  Chris, Penny and Melissa are.  I think they’re proof positive that no matter what your income level happens to be, when you decide you are ready to make this—or any other change—you can do it.  And having a little help never hurts.

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