Getting out of debt isn’t just about the money you save. The perks of becoming debt-free can be far-reaching, and lead to greater rewards than you imagined. But the downsides can be an even better motivation to get debt-free. Here are some of the ways debt can hold you back.
1. It Keeps You From Your Dreams
“Debt is a dream killer,” Kerry Hannon says bluntly in her book, “What’s Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond.”
Hannon, who has interviewed literally hundreds of people who have made career changes, says that money is the biggest stumbling block to making a career change. “If you start a new career you’ll probably start at a lower salary and if you start a new business you may not be able to take a salary,” she told me in a recent interview.
In her book she recommends would-be career changers get financially fit by creating a budget, building up emergency savings, getting their credit reports and boosting their credit scores, among other steps. Getting your finances in shape in turn allows you to be more “nimble,” she says.
2. It Stresses You Out
“I think people underestimate how nerve-wracking it is to have debt hanging over your head,” says Beverly Harzog, who detailed how she paid off about $20,000 in debt in her book “Confessions of A Credit Junkie.” “The stress can lead to headaches and all kinds of health issues.”
Paying it off can make eliminate this common source of stress and make you feel a whole lot better. “After I paid it off, I had more energy than I’d had in years. My mind just felt so free,” she says.
You may also feel happier. “Our findings suggest that dealing with credit card debt and loans has the biggest impact on happiness,” writes Grant Donnelly on the blog BeyondthePurchase.org. The post goes on to say: “Has your credit card or student loan debt gone unchecked? Developing a repayment plan might not only improve your financial situation, but might actually make you happier as well.”
3. It Eliminates Choices
“Being debt-free gives me full freedom when making all my financial decisions,” says Cait Flanders, founder of the blog Blonde on a Budget. Flanders paid off $30,000 in two years. “I don’t owe anyone money, so every paycheque I earn is mine to choose what to do with. There are still expensive months, and money is still always on my mind. But nobody controls my financial situation now – it’s all on me.”
Freedom will mean different things to different people. It might mean having room in your budget for one parent to stay home full time or work part time while your children are young. It might mean the ability to move somewhere cheaper, downsize or go back to school.
Hopefully it also means you can free up money for savings and investments that will, in turn, help you avoid future debt and build wealth.
4. It’s a Time Waster
When you are struggling with debt, you may find yourself spending a lot of time checking your balances and trying to figure out how to juggle your finances so that you can pay each bill that comes due. You may have to stop more frequently for gas or groceries since you can’t afford to fill up the tank or the fridge. You may be working an extra job to make ends meet or taking low-paying side gigs to bring in extra cash.
It can be exhausting, and paying off debt can give you more time to enjoy life.
Plus, you won’t continue to beat yourself up over the choices that led you to this place. (No doubt you’ve done enough of that already). Trent Hamm, who had what he calls a “complete financial meltdown” that later led to him digging out of debt, shared his regrets over the years he spent overspending and failing to plan for his family’s future on his blog, The Simple Dollar:
“Our financial position right now is worse than it could have been and it’s solely because of those wasted years. For the rest of our lives, that statement will be true. We will never achieve what we could have achieved because of those years of overspending.”
5. It Can Wreck Your Credit
If you are carrying high levels of debt on your credit cards in particular, no doubt your credit scores have taken and hit and you may well find yourself in a Catch-22: You want to consolidate your debt to lower your interest rates, but you can’t qualify because of your credit scores. Paying down debt can break that logjam, allow you to lower your rates and in turn help you pay off your balances faster.
In this situation, it’s wise to pay as much as you can toward the credit cards that are closest to their limits. Doing so will likely boost your credit scores since about 30% of your credit score (in most scoring models) is based on the debt you carry, and in particular how much of your available credit limits you are using. Reducing this “debt-to-limit” or “utilization” ratio can often quickly boost your credit scores. If you want to track your progress as you pay down debt, you can check two of your credit scores for free every month on Credit.com.
How You Can Fight Back
If you are thoroughly depressed or frustrated right now because you know you’d love to be debt-free but can’t get there yet, realize that even taking steps in the right direction can be empowering.
You can also create a plan for paying off your debt and monitor your progress each month, celebrating small achievements — without spending money, of course. For some people with very large balances or no means to repay their debts, it may make sense to consult with a credit counseling agency or even talk with a bankruptcy attorney.
“I exercised a lot while I was paying off my debt and it helped me cope,” says Harzog.
In the meantime, don’t let life pass you by. “My advice is to stop waiting or expecting life is going to be better when your credit card bills are eliminated,” says Steve Rhode, founder of GetOutofDebt.org, “and just start enjoying life today.”
What do you think is the biggest perk of being debt free? Share your thoughts in the comments below. On May 1, 2014, we’ll choose one commenter to receive a copy of the brand new edition of Kerry Hannon’s book “What’s Next?”
More on Managing Debt:
- The Credit.com Debt Management Learning Center
- How to Pay Off Credit Card Debt
- The Best Way to Loan Money to Friends & Family