It’s common to read success stories on personal finance blogs about people paying off $100,000 of debt in a few years and living the rest of their lives happily ever after. However, these types of accounts are usually thin on actionable advice and can leave debtors feeling worse about their own lack of progress.

Below I’ll discuss how to make real progress with personal finances.

Everything Starts with Education

In the U.S., it’s shockingly common to carry a lot of debt. Per CreditDonkey, total consumer debt is almost $4 trillion. Revolving debt makes up one-quarter of this total. Forty-four percent of credit card holders are categorized as revolvers, meaning they carry a credit balance month to month and pay interest on it.

For some debtors, this cycle will never end, and it often starts and continues because of a lack of personal finance education. Many people deep in revolving credit card debt are so overwhelmed with it that they don’t bother calculating what they owe, and how much their lack of proactivity is costing them long term.

As anxiety-inducing as this process might be, it’s the only way to start making financial strides, and ultimately, gain independence from an economic situation. Simple tools like Bankrate’s credit card calculator show how long it’ll take to pay off debt based on the balance, interest rate and other payment specifics.

Snowball Yourself Out of Debt (via Snowflakes)

When it comes to debt-reduction strategies, two primary schools of thought exist: the debt snowball and debt avalanche methods.

These two plans are very similar. The debt avalanche method focuses on paying the highest-interest balance and minimum payments on all other balances. A debt snowball plan pays the minimum on all balances except the one with the smallest overall balance.

Both of these strategies work, but when it comes to feeling the progress, debt snowball wins hands down. This is because balances are eliminated one by one, rolling the money that was divided among your balances into fewer payments.

Progress and the feeling of accomplishment can be accelerated even further by practicing the debt snowflake concept with the snowball strategy. Instead of making payments once a month, allocate any windfalls immediately toward the lowest balance. This shortens the repayment timetable and ups morale.

Adopt the 50/30/20 or 80/20 Budget

People get into debt because they’re not educated about personal finance, leading them to spend beyond their means. Abiding by a budget after getting out of debt helps ensure you don’t make the same mistakes.

Instead of sharpening a pencil or using an app to track every expense, keep things simple with either the 50/30/20 or 80/20 budget.

The 50/30/20, popularized by Senator Elizabeth Warren, suggests that needs account for 50 percent of income, with 30 percent for wants and 20 percent for savings and debt.

If it’s difficult to determine if a purchase is a need or a want, then the 80/20 budget might work better. This simple budget gives 20 percent of income to financial goals and 80 percent to everything else.

Kick Bad Spending Habits

We all have spending pleasures, whether it’s eating out a few times per week or splurging on clothes. We don’t always feel the financial ramifications of these transactions in the moment, but they add up.

Making real progress with finances requires us to restructure how we think about spending. If something doesn’t serve a long-term purpose, then it’s probably not a good idea to keep wasting money on it. At the same time, don’t be fooled when overspending is guided through love. Many people run into financial trouble during the holiday season trying to shower their friends and family with excessive gifts. In fact, it’s a top piece of advice that thought leader and entrepreneur Andrew Housser urges people to avoid.

Streamline Savings and Bill Payments

Financially comfortable people pay themselves first. Those barely getting by only save if there’s money left over at the end of the month. Of course, earning power dictates how much income one has to sock away, but the vast majority of people have at least a little room for savings each month if they’re intentional with every dollar they earn. Instead of leaving it up to will power each month, automate bills and then set a monthly savings amount. Anything helps. Gradually scale up monthly savings contributions as more room in the budget frees up.

Changing your financial circumstances isn’t easy. However, it’s the small contributions and tweaks in behavior that yield significant results. When you educate yourself on how costly debt is, you’ll be motivated to commit to a debt repayment plan, follow a budget, eliminate wasteful spending and automate the payments that benefit your long-term outlook. I’d say best of luck, if only luck were involved.

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