A resurfaced clip of a phone-in radio show featuring a millennial couple seeking help tackling their nearly $1 million debt burden has prompted conversations about the rising levels of personal debt many Americans are facing.
Household debt in the U.S. reached $16.9 trillion by the end of last year, according to Federal Reserve Bank of New York data. A 2019 Federal Reserve survey found that 77% of American families have some form of debt, including mortgages, credit cards, student loans and auto-loans. As wages have trailed behind the increased cost of living, especially for workers at the bottom of the economic pyramid, millions of people are struggling with large amounts of debt.
“Anybody who’s in debt should know, they’re definitely not alone,” Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, a former financial journalist who now runs a financial education company, The Money Coach, tells TIME. “The question becomes, is your debt holding you back?”
As the Federal Reserve raises interest rates to combat inflation, Millennials and Gen-Z-ers in particular face the daunting pressure of a daunting debt burden, combined with a housing and rent crisis.
The Ramsey Show episode, in which a 29-year-old woman called in to discuss how to pay off the debts she and her husband owe without declaring bankruptcy, originally aired in 2018, but went viral after host Dave Ramsey posted a clip of the call on TikTok last week. The couple had advanced degrees that landed them government jobs with a combined household income about $230,000, the caller said. Their debt comprised $335,000 in student loans, a $210,000 mortgage, around $136,000 in credit card debt, $44,000 in personal loans, and $35,000 in car loans, totalling $760,000. She did not say whether the couple owed any additional interest on top of that.
Ramsey, flabbergasted, asked the caller how it all happened, and she responded that it was the result of making “really poor financial decisions thinking you’ll be able to pay down as you go, and it doesn’t happen.” Ramsey, a well-known Evangelical Christian who is both culturally and fiscally conservative, advocates for small government and frugal lifestyles for those in debt. He said the couple should address their underlying drive to spend beyond their means and make lifestyle changes to drastically reduce their spending. “You’re not going to see the inside of a restaurant unless it’s your extra job, or you’re waiting on some of the people you work with during the day,” he said, as one example of living more frugally.
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While the average American owes significantly less than this couple—almost $60,000—many are still struggling to pay off what they owe. In some cases that can trigger a financial shame spiral that makes it harder to address.
TIME spoke with personal finance experts to get some practical advice about how borrowers can reduce their debt burdens.
Focus on what works for you
When you don’t know where to start, a good first step is to focus your efforts on the account with the highest interest in order to stop accruing more debt.
“Just servicing debt has gotten more expensive,” Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning at Morningstar, an investment research firm, tells TIME. “Even if people haven’t taken out additional levels of debt over the past year, their carrying costs on a lot of that debt has increased.”
Another strategy, Benz says, is to “simply attack the smallest debt and knock that out regardless of the interest rate attached to it.” This method can help people feel a sense of accomplishment and motivation to move on to the next account until eventually they’ve knocked out multiple debts.
Those with multiple lines of credit may consider debt consolidation, which can allow borrowers to focus on paying down a lump sum at a lower interest rate. Another helpful strategy can be to get on the phone with your lenders and see if they’re willing to lower the interest rates. If possible, it’s also ideal to pay more than the minimum or to make payments more than once a month to pay off the debt faster.
Khalfani Cox takes a different approach and says, “I tell people, attack your area of pain. Go after what bothers you most. And so, sometimes, yes, it is high interest rates that are really killing people.” That’s not always the case, though. In her own experience dealing with $100,000 of debt, Khalfani-Cox’s problem was hitting the maximum limit on some credit cards, which impacted her credit rating. She compares getting out of debt to losing weight. There’s no “one size fits all advice” for it, just like how there’s no universal diet, she says.
Make a plan to stay on track
For many financial advisors, the top method they recommend for their clients to keep up with payments is to track their expenses and budget. Budgeting lays out all your spending and can easily be plugged into a template, automatically uploaded into an app or manually entered into a spreadsheet, depending on your preference.
Khalfani-Cox mentions that although some people love it, budgeting isn’t effective for everyone and that’s okay. “Some people might rely more on bank alert notifications; they might use software and apps and tools; they might have things online that are giving them clarity and insights to their overall finances.” She advises people to stick to a method that works for them.
Ramsey’s famous approach involves strict lifestyle changes through tactics like quitting pricey hobbies, considering a side hustle, selling your expensive car and replacing it with a used one, and couponing. For some, this approach might seem extreme, but financial advisors generally agree that if borrowers are willing to limit their discretionary spending drastically, it will help them to find the money to reduce their debt faster.
“The speed with which you’ll get out of debt is 100% tied to the strategies that you’re willing to undertake, and how many of them you’re willing to do in concert,” Khalfani-Cox. She doesn’t believe people should pursue unrealistic sacrifices—such as not eating out at all, as Ramsey suggested—but larger changes like living in a more affordable city, if possible, or getting a roommate can yield big savings.
Navigating debt is challenging, but opening up to a professional and getting some advice can help make it easier to handle. Experts also recommend this step to help combat feelings of shame when you feel like you can’t talk to friends or family about it.
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“In a situation where someone’s feeling really overwhelmed, there’s a lot of stress and perhaps shame intermingled with their bad financial situation, it sounds counterintuitive, but I think getting some financial help can be money well spent,” Benz says.
Benz suggests that meeting with a financial planner on an hourly basis can be the best budget option if borrowers do take this route.
Don’t forget your other goals
Goals like saving up for a house or retirement can get put on the back burner when you’re struggling to pay off debt.
If possible, Benz recommends keeping up with automatic saving payments like 401K contributions and personal savings for short or medium-term goals. “That’s just a really simple way to set a little bit of money aside for the future,” she says.
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