Avoid these eight debt-reduction mistakes when modifying your budget

It's always a good idea to reduce the amount of debt you have. What should you be tackling first?

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
Computer chips are seen on credit cards in this photo illustration taken in Encinitas, Calif. There are many ways to boost your credit score, but prioritizing which debts to pay down first can make a difference.

Everyone knows it is a good idea to reduce your debt load. With less debt, you save money on interest charges and reduce your risk of financial catastrophe if your income is disrupted and you are unable to make payments. If you don't have enough to make debt payments, you can fund investments and build wealth instead of working to get back to zero net worth.

Some people are much more successful at debt reduction than others. What key mistakes prevent people from paying down your debts?

1. High Interest Accounts

It is hard to pay down the principal on a debt when the interest rate is high. Too much of your payment gets burned up paying interest charges and too little actually goes to paying down the debt.

How to Fix It

Use a balance transfer card to move debt from a high interest credit card to a lower interest credit card, allowing you to pay off the principal faster and get out of debt sooner.

2. Negative Cash Flow

If your bills and payments are higher than your income, then you are not going to get out of debt! In fact, negative cash flow may be the reason your debt has built up in the first place. There are only two ways to correct negative cash flow: Lower your expenses or raise your income — or both!

How to Fix It

Consider debt consolidation to reduce your total monthly payments, find ways to reduce nonessential expenses, and look for side hustles to boost income.

3. Faulty Repayment Strategy

I was stunned the first time I saw personal finance advisers offering the advice to pay off your smallest debts first. This strategy for paying off debt is called the "debt snowball." You make minimum payments on all of your debts and put the rest of your available money toward paying off the smallest debt. After that smallest debt is paid off, you use the money that would have gone toward that debt to focus on the next smallest debt. This process is repeated until all debt is paid off.

The reason the "debt snowball" strategy is surprising to me is that it is not the fastest way to get out of debt. Simple math shows that you will get out of debt faster and spend less money by paying off your highest interest debt first.

How to Fix It

Having any debt repayment strategy is better than not having a strategy at all. Use the "debt snowball" strategy if this motivates you, but paying your highest interest debt first will save the most money and get you out of debt fastest.

4. Adding More Debt

It you are working to pay down debt, obviously adding more debt isn't going to help. Why would anyone add more debt when they are trying to get out of debt? One reason this can happen is if unexpected expenses pop up and you have directed all available funds to paying off debts.

How to Fix It

Put off taking on new nonessential expenses until after you have paid off debts. Keep some cash in an emergency fund to help avoid using credit.

5. Not Tracking Progress

There is a reason that successful business people are so interested in looking at every financial report that comes out about their business. Feedback is essential to spot problems early and find areas for improvement to get even better results in the future.

If you do not check your total debt on a regular basis to monitor your repayment progress, you might not be making progress at all. In fact, your debt could be growing and you wouldn't know it! You need to monitor your total debt and track how well your debt repayment plan is working.

Once you start making progress in paying down your debt, seeing the smaller debt total every month can be a good motivator to redouble your efforts and get the debt paid off.

How to Fix It

Add up your total debt every month and monitor your debt repayment progress.

6. Not Everyone Is On Board

Many households have more than one person who makes spending decisions. For example, if you are focusing on debt reduction and your spouse is not, then you will probably not make much progress.

I think numbers can be a good way to communicate about debt. Instead of debating purchases and problem spending areas, focus instead on agreeing on the big picture monthly budget numbers. Let each person make their own spending decisions to fit within the budget.

How to Fix It

Get all spenders committed to debt reduction goals and work together to agree on a budget plan.

7. Irregular Expenses

Getting the routine monthly bills under control can be manageable since you know what to expect, but it is easy to overlook those occasional expenses that don't follow a regular monthly billing schedule. For example, budgeting for vacations gives a lot of people trouble. When vacation time comes around, a lot of people end up getting out a credit card to cover at least some vacation expenses. In my house, vet bills are problematic since we have a lot of pets and they need expensive vaccinations and treatments at times. Many years, the vet bill has ended up going on a credit card and moving us in the wrong direction on debt reduction.

How to Fix It

Budget to set aside money ahead of time to cover irregular expenses such as vacations, pet care, and medical expenses.

8. Delay Starting Debt Reduction

For a lot of people, "next month" is always the best time to start debt reduction!

Paying off debts is hard work. You have to track and control spending, and you will likely have to sacrifice buying things you want in order to pay off debts instead. It can be tempting to take another month to plan out your budget and figure out your strategy before you start seriously working on debt reduction.

But delaying another month doesn't provide any advantage to getting your debt paid off. Your debt will hang around and maybe even keep on growing until you take action to turn things around and get it paid off. The sooner you get started, the sooner you will have your debt paid off.

How to Fix It

Start debt reduction now. Don't wait until next month.

This article is from Dr Penny Pincher of Wise Bread, an award-winning personal finance and credit card comparison website. This article first appeared in Wise Bread.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.