Let me be the first to admit to you that facing personal debt isn’t easy. I remember being worried about debt collectors and being tempted by credit card offers coming in the mail, thinking that if I could use the new card to pay down my old debts just for a little while, everything would turn out alright in the end.

Most of all, I remember being ashamed. I didn’t want anyone to know about my situation, but I didn’t quite know how to help myself out of the situation, either.

But deep down inside, I knew that all of my strategies—avoidance, denial, self-deprecation—were cowardly. They’d only keep me in debt longer, and only make the damages graver in the process. If I truly wanted to be free of debt, I had to find a way to deal with it.

Facing my debt required two things: an attitude adjustment and a plan. The first meant acknowledging that I had debt and that I wanted to be free of it. Saying it out loud to yourself or someone you trust helps.

Then the truly hard work began: coming up with a plan and having the discipline to stick to it. I found that breaking down what I should do into these steps helped me to create some organization and set goals in the midst of an otherwise chaotic, overwhelming situation:

  1. I made a list of all the debts I owed
  2. I pinpointed where I could cut my spending
  3. I figured out a payment plan

Let me tell you, writing a list of all the money I owed—student loan payments, credit card debts, etc.—was painful. But again, with some organization, I figured out how much money I owed and to whom, as well as the minimum payments I was supposed to make and in the case of my loans and credit cards, what their interest rates were. I recommend keeping this list someplace where you’ll see it every day—on the refrigerator or in an important notebook—so you don’t slide back into the denial or avoidance stage again. And when you start making payments, it will feel incredibly good to be able to put a big fat checkmark next to the debts you’ve cleared.

The second list I made was one that included my monthly expenses. To help me with this, I compared several of my most recent credit card and bank account statements to get an idea of when and where I was using my card, and how much I was spending. I recommend clearing your wallet of old receipts to factor in cash purchases, too. In my list, I included both major expenses and impulse purchases—think rent and utilities as well as morning coffee runs—to get a better picture. After all, I knew I couldn’t start skimping on rent payments, but I could start making my coffee at home and bringing my lunch to work every day.

Once I had my monthly expenses tallied up, I had to set goals and figure out where to focus my payments. Here again, I can’t stress enough the importance of organization. I suggest setting realistic payment goals—and by that I mean goals that factor in spare cash for emergencies and some wiggle room for a night out every now and again—to help you get started.

I also had to figure out which debts took priority. Some people prioritize credit card debt by targeting the card with the highest rate first. Others choose to pay off the card with the lowest debt and then work their way up. Still another option is to find a card with a lower interest rate and transfer all your debts into that account. Whatever strategy you decide to use, sticking to it will help keep you positive and optimistic because little by little, you’ll start to feel like you’re making progress.

I know implementing a debt management plan is harder than it sounds. Do whatever you need to do to get organized and stay focused. Make daily checklists. Send yourself email reminders. Create a list of free and cheap things to do in your city so you have options when temptation inevitably strikes. But never give up. You do have the inner motivation and courage to free yourself from debt; you just need to believe in yourself.

Photo by B Rosen

Michael Edmondstone

Michael Edmondstone paid off his credit cards and saved himself from a life of personal debt. He is now a personal finance expert who works with Rate Supermarket and writes for websites and blogs.

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