Guide to Getting Out of Debt Without Jeopardizing Your Sobriety

Only 20% of Americans live debt-free, more than 2/3 view debt (not including a mortgage) as a necessary part of life.  Yet financial stress has been linked to mental health problems and even suicide.

For addicts in recovery, that stress can jeopardize your sobriety.

Instead, here’s a step-by-step guide to getting out of debt, while maintaining your mental health and safeguarding your recovery.

Step 1: Take a Good Look

Fortunately, during the treatment process for addiction recovery, you likely learned several useful tools that also apply to handling financial stress.  One of the first steps of treatment was likely something along the lines of “no more excuses”—you’ve got to actually take a good look at the details and stop ignoring finances, just like you had to really examine what addiction was doing to your life.

For finances, start with a list of all debts.  Also, list all income sources.  You’re also going to need to come up with a workable budget, and there are free online resources for doing that.

Step 2: Really Keep Track

Chances are, you’ve been estimating how much you spend in certain categories, how much money you have left in the bank, and that sort of thing.  When you look back at the past several months and add up exactly what you are spending in each category, you will have a better sense of where you can make cuts and also what your budget should really look like.

Beware of substitute addictions like shopping and overspending.

Step 3: Cut Back

Cutting back on spending can be a tough, but necessary part of making a budget work.  Think of it this way, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Just like the WWII generation would save the packaging things came in from the store, and then re-use it around the house (having lived through the Great Depression), you can get inventive about saving costs.

You can’t live without food, but you can buy in bulk.  You can live without television (cable, satellite, etc.).  You can probably live without a smart phone (they didn’t even exist until about a decade ago).

There are lots of free forms of entertainment, like a family game night or taking a hike in the woods.

Consider paying with cash for everything that you can, and when you run out of cash in that budget category you really have to cut off spending (instead of turning to a credit card or borrowing to keep purchasing).

When you get creative about it, you will find ways to cut back.

Step 4: Pay More than Minimums

To really get out of debt, you’re going to need to start paying more than minimums (which can take a decade or more to pay down).  That may be a multi-step process:

  • Negotiate with credit cards for lower interest rates.
  • Speak with places you owe money, such as medical bills, about payment plans.
  • Pay minimums on the lowest interest rates and target your max amount at higher interest rates (or lowest balances, if you want to take the approach of getting some of them out of the way).
  • Continue to pay the max amount you can to the next item, working your way through your debts.

Step 5: Be In It for the Long Haul

Just like recovery from addiction, getting out of debt is a long-term plan and not a quick, easy fix.  You will need to make healthier choices going forward about finances, or possibly even get a different job if you are underemployed.

But you can get there, without jeopardizing your sobriety.

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