Debt can turn us into a proverbial ostrich—sticking our heads in the sand hoping it all goes away. Of course, it never does. And when you really start to think about all those bills, then comes the worry, anxiety, despair…
You want to change, but it can seem so overwhelming.
Having a lot of personal debt can also be likened to getting lost on a road trip. The easy part is realizing you made a wrong turn or two—or six!—along the way. The difficult part is finding your way back. Or, in the case of personal debt, finding your way out. It requires assistance, directions, something or someone to point the way.
The first step to getting out of debt is to recognize the problem. It helps to know what is at stake: High interest, unsecured debt takes a hefty emotional and physical toll.
A Forbes article titled “3 Vicious Cycles: Links Among Financial, Physical and Mental Health” helps explain: “Stress is the body’s response to any demand made on it. It affects almost every system of the body, including heartbeat, breath, muscles, and our brains. A little stress can be a good thing, if it motivates us to respond constructively to a threat or opportunity and if it doesn’t last too long.
“Unfortunately, stress resulting from financial challenges is often chronic, affecting 26% of Americans most or all of the time.”
The article showed that employees with high financial stress are four times more likely to complain of headaches, depression or other ailments. Chronic high stress causes the release of adrenaline and cortisol, hormones that suppress the immune, digestive and reproductive systems. Long-term stress may cause these systems to stop working normally.
There is a spiritual element to all of this as well. God wants us to avoid the emotional and physical tolls caused by chronic stress brought on by having to constantly tow around the weight of increasing unsecured debt.
Such debt can also skew our focus away from the spiritual and toward physical worries. Let’s look at a memory verse in a different light: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). You could also say it this way: “Where your debt is, your worry is.”
When finances are out of whack, it can be hard to fulfill the basics of Christian living. So, if you are racked with debt, how can you get out?
Not all debt is bad. Taking out a mortgage on a home or car loan within your means, for example, is generally good. These debts allow you to afford basic needs such as having a place to live and transportation. Prioritize never missing payments on these debts.
In the case of a mortgage, over time the balance owed becomes less than the house’s value, which means you will have built up equity that can be cashed in if you sell or need a loan for an emergency or personal needs.
On the other side of the spectrum is unsecured debt. Debt from high-interest credit cards or personal loans puts us at risk. Spending more than we earn is essentially borrowing from future income. We risk our ability to save or be financially prepared for unexpected life events. Unmanageable levels of debt will hamper our ability to go on vacation, visit family and friends, or enjoy dinner at a restaurant with brethren. Simply stated, it blocks opportunities.
Another huge risk: Unreasonable levels of credit card debt will lower our credit score and could stop us from owning a home, qualifying to lease an apartment, or getting a car loan.
More than ever, it is incredibly easy to pile up debt. High interest rates make it hard to get out.
What does God’s Word say about all of this? Perhaps more than you think. The first part of Psalm 37:21 states: “The wicked borrows and pays not again.” Notice that this verse does not condemn borrowing funds—just that we should pay them back again. Do notice that it equates not paying off debts with wickedness.
No Christian wants to remain in such a situation!
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gave clear instructions about owing money. In chapter 13 verses 4-7, he shows we should pay our taxes to the government. Then, in verse 8, he makes an even broader statement: “Owe no man anything, but to love one another…”
Not only must we pay our debts, we are to strive to owe nothing! Of course, unexpected expenses occur, but when put in difficult financial situations, we should work to get out.
Notice also that Romans shows when we are in a good fiscal position we can focus on a Christian basic: loving one another.
Where to Start?
Proverbs 22:7 declares: “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” When we buy more than we can afford to pay in a short period of time, the credit card company “owns” us until our bill is paid in full, including any interest.
Turning this around is not as difficult as you may think. Here are some actions you can take immediately that will help you find your way out of high-interest debt.
(1) Lock up your credit cards. Get cards you overuse out of your purse or wallet! Then put them somewhere inconvenient. It could be a drawer located in a room you rarely use or in a file cabinet.
Making your cards harder to use will help you control the urge to use them. The key is to make it harder to access them and force you to really consider any purchase you want to make. As you are getting your debt under control, you need to be really honest on what is a want versus something you truly need.
One more radical alternative is to cut up or shred your cards to avoid any temptation of using them for an “emergency.” Another option is to hand it over to someone you deeply trust, who knows your situation, will be discrete about it, and is willing to help you in this way. This option forces you to give an explanation of why you “need” a card back.
Whatever option you choose, do not cancel your cards. If you follow the directions, you will see your credit rating go up as your outstanding balances go down.
(2) “Freeze” your credit card accounts. Call up your credit card companies and ask them to freeze your accounts, which is sometimes called a “lock.” This can often be done directly on the company’s website or app. Most credit cards offer this feature to help protect customers from fraud or if they want to stop spending for a time. Freezing a card does not freeze your credit score—it can still increase.
(3) Pay for everything with check or in cash. This is the simplest and quickest way to teach yourself to spend within your means. You might say, “I will not be able to pay all my bills or buy things.” Good! This may seem harsh, but it will force you to restructure your spending to align with your paychecks. Even better, it will force you to reduce or eliminate some optional expenditures such as dining out, cable television, high-speed internet, and unlimited cellphone plans.
Credit card companies and high-interest lenders do not want people to take this approach. Companies know from extensive consumer research that people are willing to pay a higher price for goods and services when they can buy them with a credit card. And these companies are fine with that.
Never forget that credit card companies exist to make money!
(4) Use disposable income wisely. Disposable income is the money you have left over after paying bills. Take out some or all of your disposable income in a given pay period in cash and place it in your wallet or purse. The amount in your possession is all you allow yourself to spend until the next paycheck.
If you do not spend it all in that pay period, then only take enough cash out the next time to match the previous amount. Leave the unused difference in your bank account or move it to a savings account. Voila! You are little by little building a reserve, savings.
Let’s say you decide to go out for dinner. Take enough cash to eat what you can afford. That will keep you from being tempted to order something that catches your eye on the menu that would mean you spend more than you have in that pay period.
Forcing yourself to pay for everything with checks or cash will help you develop a habit of restraint.
Yet notice that none of these actions get you out of debt. But they will stem the bleeding and stop you from getting deeper into debt.
Now, how do you dig yourself out of debt?
Trying to pay off debt and other bills with no plan will not work out. It is akin to going on a long road trip without first mapping out a course, printing a turn-by-turn itinerary, or plugging the address of the destination into a GPS.
So what is the roadmap out of debt? Here are some key directions to consider before you start on your way. Pay close attention. Remember them. Refer back to them when necessary. Most important, follow them!
Find out how much you owe. This step is critical. Many do not realize how easy it is to figure out. The biggest roadblock is that it may be uncomfortable to discuss your debt with your creditors. But they will help you.
Look for the phone number on the back of your credit card. You can also find it on the company’s website or app. Call and ask them for the following pieces of information: remaining balance, minimum monthly payments, and annual interest rate.
“Forcing yourself to pay for everything with checks or cash will help you develop a habit of restraint.”
See how long it will take to pay off each debt. This second step can be even easier than the first. There are many easy-to-use online tools to help you with this. And most credit card websites will help you figure this out as well. In a very short period of time, you can create many different payback scenarios.
One such site is calculator.net—just click on “All Calculators” at the bottom of the page, then find and click on the “Debt Payoff Calculator.”
After entering the information you obtained from all your creditors during the previous step, you simply click the calculate button. In less than a second, you have a payoff plan that details how many months or years it will take to pay off each debt using something called the avalanche method.
This method focuses on paying off the highest interest debt first while making minimum payments on other debts. Once the first debt is paid entirely, the avalanche continues to the next highest interest rate debt until each is paid off. This method is truly the lowest cost payoff plan. Again, the calculator figures this out for you.
Two other approaches to get debt free are the snowball method and consolidation.
The snowball method—while not the most cost efficient way—can reduce the negative feelings associated with debt. This method begins with paying off the smallest debts first. The benefit is the feeling of satisfaction of eliminating debts quicker. This method can help keep you motivated.
Debt consolidation involves taking out a single, large personal loan to pay off existing smaller debts. This greatly helps pay off higher interest balances and could also lower the total monthly payments.
This can help alleviate cashflow issues and make it is less stressful paying off debt. The risk with debt consolidation is that it makes it easier to run up credit card balances again.
“What If I Cannot Pay?”
Note this very important point: After following the instructions above, you may find you cannot yet afford to pay the monthly installments. If this is the case, you have three options that can individually or collectively help.
(1) Negotiate lower interest rates. Start with the company charging you the highest interest and negotiate a better rate. Do not be afraid to explain your situation. Be persistent with your request and explain that you want to pay and not default. If the company agrees, have it send the new rate to you in writing.
When doing this, do not simply negotiate a lower monthly payment. Why? Some math shows: If you owed $5,000 at 18.99 percent interest and the minimum payment was $200, it would take 33 months to pay off the debt. However, if the creditor lowered the minimum monthly payment to $75 but did not lower the interest rate, you would never be debt free! The interest would always be higher than your monthly payment. But if the creditor reduced the interest rate to 9.99 percent, it would lower your monthly payment by $25 and save you about $740 over the same 33 months.
(2) Earn more money. As long as it does not negatively impact your ability to obey God’s commands, you can work toward better employment. Conduct yourself at your current job in a way that positions you to get a raise. Be open to changing to a better-paying job. God will help if you commit to owing no man.
(3) Spend less. Reducing or eliminating optional expenditures such as dining out, high-speed internet and unlimited cellphone plans will help you pay off debt more quickly.
On Your Way!
There is one last step: Keep going until you are debt free. Once you have mapped out a course of action, follow it! Develop a plan that leads you out of debt—and stick to it!
You may encounter difficulties along the way. If you do, do not hesitate to speak with your minister. Consider the first half of Proverbs 15:22, which states, “Without counsel purposes are disappointed…” To keep you motivated, refer back to this article and read the Church’s book Taking Charge of Your Finances, or Real Truth articles such as “Solve Your Financial Worries!” and “Godās Key to Financial Prosperity.”
Be patient! If you run into detours, stop, recalculate your debt and repayment plan—and get back at it. The closer you become to being debt free, the more focused and determined you should be to not get lost again.
Just as getting lost can produce negative emotions, finding a way back toward financial freedom will produce feelings of relief and comfort. Just knowing you have a plan and are now headed in the right direction will make you feel great.
Although paying off that first credit card may appear to be a small victory, it is an important mile marker along the journey. Celebrate! Delight in the achievement. Just be sure not to celebrate by running up your debt again and getting lost once more.
With diligent effort, you can enjoy sweet success and relief. As Proverbs 13:19 states, “The desire accomplished is sweet to the soul…”
Credit Card Basics
While credit cards can make it easy to quickly build debt, they do have benefits—namely building credit. Here are a few basics to consider when getting a credit card for the first time. These principles can also help you use them wisely.
Note all the benefits of credit cards: They can help you pay your bills on time if you do not have cash immediately on hand, help protect against fraudulent purchases better than a debit card, allow for easier booking of airplane flights and hotels, allow you to not have to carry cash, and let you occasionally splurge in a given month with the intent to pay it over a couple of pay periods without blasting through months of disposable income.
Of course, you must beware! Make sure your reasons for using a credit card is not reflective of Proverbs 21:17, which tells us: “He that loves pleasure shall be a poor man.”
Buying for pleasure when we cannot afford it will leave us poor, which can also mean deficient, needy and lacking.
In the strictest sense, using a credit card or taking on debt, especially for pleasure, literally puts a person in a financially poorer position.
But here is some advice before you get that card. I Timothy 6:6-8 teaches “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.”
Today, we might say that if we have food, clothing and somewhere to live, we have everything needed to be content in life. If that is not the case, then there is a risk that we are seeking pleasures to be content.
Using a credit card to buy something outside of our budgets, unless it is an emergency or we have a strong plan to pay it off quickly, is dangerous.
A few more points to keep in mind when ready to establish credit or help you properly handle credit cards:
- Start off with a credit card limit of no more than one or two months of gross earnings. This is about 8 to 15 percent of your annual income. This would allow for an unexpected legitimate emergency. You would need this less if you built up that amount or more in savings.
- Never allow your balance to go over more than 30 percent of your credit limit unless you intend to pay it within a billing cycle or two. In other words, if you have a credit limit of $3,000, do not let your balance be more than $900 at the end of your billing cycle.
- Build a strong credit history by using your credit card for purchases for which you already have budgeted—and can pay off immediately.