Our brains sometimes leave us in the lurch. If you've been living with persistent, anxiety-provoking debt, you're already familiar with one of them. You can get stuck knowing you need to do something—anything—to get out of debt, and yet find yourself feeling stuck trying to figure out what to do and where to begin.
Here's how to overcome your psychology and get on track.
First: Admit you have a problem
It's very easy to hide from debt. You stop opening statements, start ignoring phone calls, and generally put blinkers on to insulate yourself from the bad news. But that's not a very good strategy for the long haul.
Denial of debt can bleed over into the rest of your financial life and lead to more stress and anxiety later on. That's the unfortunate nature of denial: just because we pretend something isn't there, it doesn't mean that it actually isn't. The stress and difficulty of the situation will keep accumulating—just like the interest on our loans.
So, pick up the phone or turn to the person sitting next to you (provided that won't be awkward) and admit that there's a problem. Admit it to yourself, to your family, or to your best friend. Just stop and open up.
Now, you can take action.
Ask for help
Asking for help isn't just a nice way of saying "get someone to loan you money." Social support makes it easier to reach our goals and stick with difficult changes, so while you're admitting you have a problem, reach out to your friends and loved ones for support and encouragement.
A support system may also hold you accountable for following through on making the changes you need to make to solve the problem. While not everyone needs accountability, it can be very powerful in keeping you on the straight and narrow—after all, don't you want to have good news to share?
Use the scientific method to start building a new life
This is the easiest place to get stuck when managing debt. After all, there are about 1 billion different ways to save money/earn more money/get out of debt/secure your financial future.
Instead of allowing yourself to get sucked into analysis paralysis, do something. Anything. Sign up for a free online budgeting program and start tracking your spending. Set up an automatic debit to pay more than the minimum on your student loan. Call your credit card company to negotiate a lower interest rate. Create a budget. Do one thing right now to move forward.
What happens if it doesn't work? Congratulations! You've just made a scientific discovery.
Maybe that discovery is that budgeting programs are not for you, or that the payments you've negotiated are still too high. Take this information and redeploy it on your next test. You never used your software? Try using cash. Or separate bank accounts. Or a single debit card.
If you keep applying this method you'll find that eventually something will stick, followed by another something—before you know it, you'll have figured this whole money management game out entirely.
There are a lot of ways to build better habits and your mileage with each of them will vary—I highly recommend Gretchen Rubin on the subject—but there are a few things that seem to work pretty universally.
One is self-affirmation. You laugh, maybe, but it's actually very effective at helping you to keep up your willpower in times of difficulty. How do you use it? Reaffirm your core values around finances. Your values will vary—they might be that you believe in living debt free or that you value moderate spending. You might believe in preserving financial freedom. Whatever it is, remind yourself of it; research has found that this is the most powerful way to bolster your mind for the difficult work you're doing.
Similarly, change your language. If you aren't going to happy hours anymore because you want to save that money for your credit card payment, don't say, "I can't." Instead, say, "I don't," as in, "I don't spent money on drinks when I need it for something more important." It seems silly, perhaps, but it's actually wildly effective.
One study found that eight out of 10 people stuck with an exercise program when affirming that "I don't skip workouts" versus just one out of 10 stuck with it while affirming "I can't skip workouts." It's a simple change in language that can have a huge impact on your life.
So, here's the plan: Call someone and tell them you have a debt problem, seek out their support, make a plan to fix things, and start living the rest of your life.