In a Nutshell: Consumer debt is terrible. It robs your financial future. If you are carrying credit card debt from month to month paying 18% interest, you are throwing away money. If you are not on track for a secure retirement and have significant consumer debt, then you are heading towards a troubled financial future. You need to tackle your consumer debt now! But don't worry, there are four easy steps to get rid of your consumer debt, but it takes discipline and time. Follow the steps and be financially secure... or don't and be financially doomed... the choice is yours!

audi a4 2012 2.0T used car

Let's talk about debt baby... 

"Don't stop til you get enough" is a good song but a terrible financial mantra...
“If the interest you pay on your consumer debt is more than what you save for retirement every year... you have a massive problem!”
Let's talk about debt baby
Let's talk about you and fees
Let's talk about all the good things
And the bad things that may be
Let's talk about debt ...

Apologies to Salt-N-Pepa, but maybe it's time we talked about debt for a change...

Debt used well can be a great wealth creator. If you are borrowing at say 3%-5% interest and investing in opportunities whether they are in stocks, businesses, real estate, etc and earning 8% to 10% or even more annually, then debt is a good way to go.

Debt for things that do not give you an investment return is generally a bad thing... unless perhaps for a house... but that is something I will discuss in another article. 

Debt for consumer goods and services that you can't really afford (like a vacation, car, jewelry, smartphone, smartwatch, sneakers, clothes, purse, dinners out, clubs, etc...), leaving you not only with the debt but with interest payments as well, is a bad form of debt.  If you're in debt and paying interest for things like a depreciating car that you can ill afford, that's not so good and you're better off buying a used car you can afford with cash.  If you're buying more things on your credit card than you can pay off each month, leaving you with a balance carried from one month to the next on your credit card, that's not good at all. You're probably paying a lot more than you think on interest for those things you bought on your credit card. Forget investing your money, get that credit card paid off!

If you're spending so much on your credit card that you are getting a consolidated loan and putting that debt on your house to reduce your interest rate and pay off your credit card, only to run up debt on your credit card all over again then you have a significant problem. 

You should be limiting your spending to the point where you are able to pay off your credit card comfortably every month with a zero balance. Or save for the thing you want in a savings account, and wait until you have saved enough and then buy it with your credit card and immediately pay off the credit card with the savings in your savings account.  If you can't do that, you're spending too much and you need to focus on needs instead of wants. And you need to delay gratification.

If you can't afford the basic necessities of life and you have debt carried forward every month then you may need to invest in yourself to be able to earn enough to meet and exceed your basic spending needs. But I think for most of you with credit card and consumer debt that you are carrying month to month, we are probably looking at too much spending on wants and a lack of financial discipline.

As an example, I went to a mall this Cyber Monday, and after walking around most of the mall, all I bought was a cup of coffee (malls sap me of energy!). There were plenty of things on sale, and I could afford to buy more stuff... but I didn't really need anything. I also didn't really want anything! So I didn't buy anything. What did you buy this Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend and how much was needs vs wants? (And why did you buy more things... as I've previously discussed, we all already have so much stuff! )

The average Canadian carries $23,271 in non-mortgage consumer debt as of October 2018! It's $34,933 for the average 46-55 year old Canadian! ( http://www.digitaljournal.com/pr/3984196 ) Given the way averages work, that means there are some people with a lot more non-mortgage consumer debt than just $23,271!! And some with perhaps zero non-mortgage consumer debt.

Add up your consumer debt. How much non-mortgage consumer debt are you carrying? Car loan? Credit cards? Those cards you didn't include in credit cards like cards from department stores or other retailers? Lines of credit? Home equity lines of credit? Past due bills? Do you know how much interest you are paying every year on all that consumer debt? Whatever interest you're paying is money that is not going into investments for your future. Debt interest on consumer stuff is robbing your financial future. Calculate how much you pay in interest on your consumer debt every year and compare that to how much you save for your retirement every year. If the dollars of interest you pay on your consumer debt is more than what you save for retirement every year... you have a massive problem!

The average credit card debt for American balance carrying households was $9,333 in November of 2018. Assuming that balance gets carried all year at 18% annually and compounded daily, that would cost a household $1840.13 in interest annually. Instead of $1840.13 going to pay interest on credit cards every year, if you had no credit card debt and $1840.13 was put in an investment account each and every year earning an average market return of 7%, you would have $272,180 after 35 years. If it was invested at that point in a 5% yielding dividend portfolio, it could provide $13,609 passive income every year. So not only does credit card debt cause you to waste money on interest payments, it robs your future of financial security! (And that was only looking at credit card debt interest payments, that didn't include car loan interest, or line of credit interest payments.)

American credit card debt - ValuePenguin
OK, so you've got a lot of consumer debt. Don't fret! Let's fix the problem instead. Every problem has a solution. It's quite simple really. And if you have some self control, it's quite easy as well. It may take a long time depending on your set of circumstances but the sooner you start, the better off you'll be. 

STEP 1: STOP BUYING STUFF YOU DON'T NEED AND CAN'T AFFORD!!!

Michael said, don't stop 'til you get enough...well... STOP! YOU GOT ENOUGH!!

If you can't change this one behaviour, you're financially doomed. If you're loaded and can afford to blow money on things you want and your financial future is all set, then this article isn't even for you... instead go check out some things you might want to invest in, in the investment section of this blog . If you're spending on things you want and can't afford and racking up consumer debt and your financial future has you worried, the good news is, you're in control of the situation... just stop spending money now on stuff you don't need.  Remember, if you don't stop now, you're financially doomed. The choice is clear and it's entirely yours. Just stop it! Stop spending. What choice will you make?

If you have chosen to stop spending on things you don't need and can't afford, move on to step 2. If you plan to keep spending and not save for retirement, you're doomed, go back to step 1.

STEP 2: REDUCE THE INTEREST YOU PAY ON YOUR EXISTING CONSUMER DEBT!

So you've racked up a bunch of consumer debt. Ok, breathe... just breathe. We've stopped adding to your debt in STEP 1. So now we tackle the existing debt.

Write down all of your debts and write down which debts have what interest rates... perhaps it will look like this... 

Credit Card Debt: $8000 @ 18% interest
Car loan: $15,000 @ 5.99% interest
Home equity line of credit (HELOC): $30,000 @ 4.45% interest

You're going to want to handle this in two ways... one is to try to reduce the interest rate on all your debts. The other is to start tackling your highest interest rate debts first and try to get rid of them. Even if you reduce the interest rates, the first debt to pay off is the one that will be at the highest interest rate after any low introductory rate expires. And if you're putting money into investments that grow at 7% while paying 18% interest on credit card debt... what are you doing?? Get rid of the credit card debt that you pay 18% interest on before you start investing to get a 7% return!

So, STEP 2... reduce interest rates.

An important aspect to getting lower interest rates is to have a good credit report. Having a good credit report occurs when you make payments on time, and when you borrow responsibly. How have you been doing? Do you have a good credit report? Or is your credit report bad enough to raise your cost of borrowing money? The better your credit report is the lower you can get your interest rates on borrowed money. So find out what your credit report is and then do you best to improve your credit rating in order to help lower the rates you get charged.

Also try to switch your consumer debt to lower rate debt. I know a lot of people advocate consolidating credit card debt onto your mortgage to get a lower rate... from what I've seen, what happens is people do that, then they see a zero balance on their credit card and they feel like they can rack up their credit card debt all over again. They get into a vicious cycle. Until you control your own out of control consumption, there's no point doing that. Really make sure you've stopped spending on wants. If you can have the discipline to not spend on your credit card once the balance is zero if you take a consolidation loan, then speak with some banks about that option. Transfer your credit card debt to a consolidation loan at a much lower interest rate. If you think you might wind up spending on your credit card once the balance shows zero, then I suggest, you try to transfer your credit card debt to another credit card that offers a zero to low introductory interest rate for 6 months so that you can tackle paying off your credit card debt while paying a very low interest rate.

Some options for credit cards with a low interest rate for 6 months on a balance transfer are:

STEP 3: PAY OFF YOUR DEBT AS QUICKLY AS YOU CAN

If you move to a consolidation loan then work towards making regular payments on a schedule to eliminate the consumer debt as quickly as possible. And don't' add more consumer debt while you're at it.

If you opt to transfer your credit card debt to another credit card with a low introductory rate for six months, then in that six months really dedicate yourself to making the sacrifice of cutting all but your essential spending and put every dollar you can find, towards paying off as much credit card debt as you can.

For example, if you've got $8000 in credit card debt at 18% interest, and you transfer it to a 1% credit card for 6 months and make enough sacrifices to save and make a $1350 payment every month, you'll be rid of your credit card debt by the end of the 6 months.

It all comes down to you. Can you sacrifice and save enough to get rid of your consumer debt while you have a low introductory rate from a credit card that is lower than the rate you would get from a consolidation loan? Then go for transfering to the low interest rate credit card. Will you be unable to pay off your credit card debt within the low rate period and wind up with debt at a higher rate than the rate would be on the consolidation loan, after the introductory rate expires on the credit card? Then go for the consolidation loan instead.

STOP! YOU GOT ENOUGH!!
STEP 2 and 3 AGAIN...

For the car loan... speak with your lender. And be very careful... read everything before you sign anything. Read it twice. Ask questions three times. You are looking for no penalties and a lower interest rate. Or if you can, the ability to make lump sum payments to reduce the amount owed and as a result the interest being paid. Do not... I repeat... do not extend the period of the loan. Stick to the same last payment date you had before... if you can make the last payment date earlier that's fine.

For credit lines, it's a similar situation, speak with your lender and read everything carefully... you're looking to reduce the interest rate with no additional penalties. If you can shop around for other lenders and you can transfer your line of credit to a lower rate, do that.  

And remember, keep paying your bills on time, pay any past due bills, make regular payments on your credit card and other debts to try to improve your credit rating. Keep an eye on your credit report to see how you're doing.

Do not extend the term of the payments, you want this debt gone sooner, not later, no matter what they tell you. So look for lower rates, and the ability to make penalty free early lump sum payments.

If you can't change the terms, then after you get rid of your highest interest rate debt, focus on the next highest. In the example above, after credit card debt, the car loan was the next highest interest rate, then the line of credit. 

Remember, stop spending on anything but the essentials until you have gotten rid of consumer debt. Sure have some fun, but remember how you got in over your head in consumer debt in the first place. Try to have inexpensive fun... go for a run, play tennis on a public court, cook at home, have a friend over for drinks and watch the hockey game on TV, play charades... etc... 

STEP 4: THE CONSUMER DEBT IS ALL GONE... NOW WHAT?

Now relax a little. Up the spending on wants just a little if you like. Life is too short to live it without satisfying any wants. Don't live an austere life. Everything in moderation including moderation. Now make sure you're saving and investing enough every year to provide you with what you're going to need to get you through a very long retirement. If you don't know how much that is... just find out over here, where I help you figure out how much you need for your retirement.​  Once you know you're saving enough for retirement, you're now free to spend your excess money as you see fit... go on better vacations, treat loved ones to nicer things, or save more and retire even earlier... up to you.

Make sure you pay off your credit card debt in full every month before you get hit with an interest charge! Never carry your balance month to month! Save enough money before buying big ticket items, don't finance purchases with your credit card. Use the credit card to buy as long as you have the money saved to pay it off instantly.

If you think you might be prone to running up the consumer debt on your credit card again, you could always look at getting a prepaid credit card instead, where you load money on to the card and then spend that instead of taking on credit card debt.

Congrats! You've done it. You've gotten rid of useless consumer debt. And by sacrificing and saving to get rid of consumer debt, you've figured out how to reduce your cost of living and increase your saving which can now go towards your retirement portfolio instead of going towards paying down debt. Now regularly save and invest money in your retirement portfolio so you can retire comfortably one fine day.

You're all set. Just make sure you follow those 4 easy steps.

​Be a SmarterSquirrel... Save. Invest. Enjoy.

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Lessons Learned:
  • Find out how much consumer debt you have and the interest you pay on all that consumer debt every year
  • If you pay more in interest on consumer debt than you save each year for your retirement, you have a massive problem
  • If you can't afford the basic necessities you may neeed to invest in yourself to earn more
  • There are four steps to getting out of consumer debt
  • STEP 1: Stop spending money on stuff you don't need
  • STEP 2: Lower your interest rates on your consumer debt and try to improve your credit rating by monitoring your credit report
  • STEP 3: Pay off your consumer debt, starting with the debts that are going to have the highest rates after any introductory low rates expire
  • STEP 4: With consumer debt paid off, spend a little more on wants, but make sure you are saving enough for retirement first
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