How to Get Out of Debt on a Low Income
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Internet financial “gurus” tell you to cut back on lattes and avocado toast if you want to get out of debt. But if you’re barely making enough to cover basic living expenses, getting out of debt isn’t so simple.
Learn how to become debt-free with a low income by following a few simple guidelines, keeping in mind that the best way to get out of debt depends on your financial situation.
Step 1: Stop acquiring new debts
This may be difficult to do if your monthly expenses are bigger than your paycheck, but it’s important to stay away from new debt if you’re already struggling to pay your bills. Charging necessary expenses on your credit card or opening a personal loan you can’t pay off will only make it harder to repay debt in the future.
It’s especially necessary to avoid high-interest debts like payday loans, which are marketed as a tool to help tide people over until their next paycheck. Payday loans don’t require credit checks, which makes them alluring to borrowers with low income, but they also come with triple-digit APRs and short repayment periods, typically two weeks, making them difficult to repay. According to the most recent available data from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), 4 in 5 payday loan borrowers end up “rolling over” their existing loan into a new payday loan, which incurs additional fees. Payday loans trap consumers in a cycle of debt that’s difficult to escape.
Step 2: Know how much you owe
Before you can tackle your debt, you need to determine exactly how much you owe. Start at AnnualCreditReport.com, where you can get a free credit report every 12 months from each of the major credit reporting agencies – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.* This will list out your debts, breaking information down by lender, loan amount and credit card balance, for example.
Keep in mind that your credit report may not include everything you owe. The credit-reporting agencies only have information on the accounts and debts that are reported to them, and there may be a delay in reporting balances, payments or amounts referred to collection agencies, but it’s a good place to start.
You should also gather your bills or log into your online accounts and take note of the balances due, interest rates, minimum monthly payments and creditor names. You can also download a budgeting app, like Mint or Goodbudget, that lets you log into your bank accounts and keep track of your balances.
*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the credit bureaus are now allowing you to pull your credit reports weekly until April 2022.
Step 3: Create a budget
With your list of debts in hand, start working on a budget to compare how much of your money goes out each month to cover minimum debt payments and living expenses, versus how much income you have. You can automate your budget with an app like the ones mentioned above, or you can work on your own budgeting spreadsheet.
Consider using the 50/30/20 budget method to keep your finances on track:
- 50% of your income should go to “needs,” like mortgage payments, groceries and other necessary expenses.
- 30% of your income should go to “wants,” like dining out, streaming services and other forms of entertainment.
- 20% of your income should go to debt repayment and savings, including retirement savings and an emergency fund.
Once you’ve listed all your take-home pay and all your spending, take a look at what’s left over at the end of the month. If you don’t have any balance left over to repay debt, then consider cutting your expenses in the “wants” category, if possible. And if you can, you could contribute more than 20% of your income to savings and debt repayment to get out of debt faster.
Step 4: Utilize the debt snowball or debt avalanche method
|At a glance: Debt snowball vs. debt avalanche|
|Debt snowball: Pay off your smallest debts first while making the minimum payment on your other debts.||Debt avalanche: Pay off high-interest debts first while making the minimum payment on your other debts.|
Gather momentum to pay down your debt quickly with the debt snowball method. Using this debt repayment strategy, you’ll pay off the smallest debts first, knocking out the less intimidating balances and working your way up to bigger, more expensive debts.
The debt snowball method makes it easier to eliminate the number of debts you have since you start with smaller balances that can be repaid faster. With less debts to juggle, debt repayment can be less of a puzzle.
The debt avalanche method eliminates the most costly debt first by targeting the debts with the highest interest rates. This ensures you’re saving the most money on interest in the long run. However, if your highest-cost debts have large balances, it may feel as though you’re making slow progress to start.
If you’re having trouble paying off big debts, consider lumping your debt together with a debt consolidation loan. (More on this below.)
Step 5: Explore debt relief options
If you’re earning as much as you can and there are no more areas to trim, it may be time to consolidate debt or explore other debt relief options.
Here are a few common debt relief methods to consider:
It’s easy to miss payments and lose track of your expenses when you have to keep up with a lot of bills every month. To make repayment easier, you could consider consolidating your debt into a single monthly payment. Plus, you may be able to secure a better interest rate, get lower monthly payments or pay off debt faster when you consolidate.
Here are a few common debt consolidation options:
|3 ways to consolidate debt|
|What is it?||How does it work?|
|Balance transfer||Consolidate credit card debt onto one credit card with a lower APR using a balance-transfer card. This may come with a balance-transfer fee, typically 3%-5%, but borrowers may be eligible for an introductory 0% APR offer that lasts up to 21 months.|
|Debt consolidation loan||Pay off multiple kinds of debts using a personal loan, which can be used for almost anything. Personal loans are unsecured, which means they require no collateral and are backed only by your promise to repay the lender. APRs vary widely across credit bands.|
|Home equity loan||Using your home as collateral, you may be able to secure a lower APR than with unsecured debt. Expect to pay closing costs, typically 2%-5% the cost of the loan. The risk here is losing your home if you default on the loan.|
Credit counseling service
Credit counselors usually operate as part of nonprofit organizations that help consumers make a plan for managing their money and debts. Initial consultations with a credit counselor are typically done at no-cost.
Credit counselors may be able to help you set up a debt management plan (DMP) to repay your debts, reach an agreement with your creditors to hold off on collection efforts and late fees while you are on the plan and rebuild your credit after. A DMP will last about three to five years, and your counselor may be able to negotiate lower interest rates or monthly payments to make repayment more manageable. Keep in mind DMPs aren’t for everyone and the programs may have monthly fees, which you should ask about in advance.
You can find a list of legitimate credit counseling services through the U.S. Department of Justice.
Debt settlement or debt relief companies are for-profit companies that negotiate with your creditors to settle your debt for a lump sum that is less than what you owe. You’ll have to pay a fee to the debt relief company for them to negotiate on your behalf. In general, it isn’t a good idea to work with a debt settlement company. You’re paying for a service you could do yourself: It may be possible to settle debt on your own, if you talk to your creditors.
While these companies may help you settle some debts, there are major risks involved. For example, a debt settlement plan may advise you to purposely miss payments on your debts, which will incur fees and affect your credit. Plus, settled debt appears on your credit report and will hurt your credit. To make matters worse, the results aren’t guaranteed, so you may risk purposefully missing payments for nothing.
Both the CFPB and the Federal Trade Commission(FTC) warn consumers to proceed with caution before paying a company to negotiate debt on your behalf.
In certain circumstances, filing for bankruptcy may be the only way to resolve your debts and get a fresh start. When you’re at risk of losing your home or you have bills in collections that you can’t pay off, bankruptcy may be the right financial tool for your situation. Most individuals have two options for declaring bankruptcy, Chapter 7 and Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Here’s a simple explanation of the two:
- Chapter 7 bankruptcy: Your assets are sold to pay off creditors, and remaining debts are discharged. This type of bankruptcy will remain on your credit report for up to 10 years.
- Chapter 13 bankruptcy: You set up a plan to repay all or part of your debts while keeping your assets. Chapter 13 bankruptcy will stay on your credit report for up to seven years.
To decide which bankruptcy option is best for you, talk to an experienced personal bankruptcy attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state. You can get a list of attorneys in your area by calling your local bar association.
Don’t neglect your emergency fund
You don’t have to choose between getting out of debt or saving up. Starting an emergency fund is paramount to getting out of debt. If you don’t have any savings set aside when disaster strikes, it’s easy to fall further into the cycle of debt with just one financial setback.
Here are a few tips for how to start an emergency fund:
- Calculate your monthly expenses, and start small. Ideally, an emergency fund would cover your basic monthly expenses for about six months. However, it makes sense to start with the goal of covering one month’s worth of expenses first.
- Set up recurring transfers or direct deposit from your paycheck. If you divert a small amount from each paycheck directly into your emergency fund, you’ll be adding to it every time you get paid without having to think about it.
- Utilize a high-yield savings account. Your emergency fund should be easy to access, but it doesn’t have to be in cash or checking. A high-yield savings account may let you accrue interest on your emergency fund without withdrawal penalties.
Celebrate your successes. If you reach a goal in savings or debt repayment, celebrate in a way that makes sense for you and your financial situation: whip up your favorite dessert, take a hike at a local park or even have a spa day right at home. You can still treat yourself without sacrificing your financial goals.