At the outset, paying off debt can seem like a long, intimidating and even endless process. But making a few strategic moves with your money can boost your motivation and streamline your progress.
Take it from people like Scott Alan Turner, who paid off more than $70,000 in debt and later became a self-made millionaire at 35. He believes anyone can turn their financial situation around if they're just willing to start.
"You start at negative net worth and then you get to zero and then you move up from there," he told CNBC. "People think, 'You've accumulated so much and you've done so well!' Well, I started at zero. In my case, starting at negative net worth. That's where most people start."
No matter if you're starting at zero or are already making headway on eliminating your debt, here are five winning strategies gleaned from real people who have paid off thousands.
It's hard to miss money you never see. Setting up your savings accounts, retirement funds and debt-repayment plans to automatically draw money from your paycheck or checking account each month means you never personally have to make the choice to spend or save those dollars.
The strategy worked for Marcus Garrett, who paid off more than $34,000 after racking up thousands in credit card debt and misusing a debt consolidation loan. Garrett takes advantage of a pension fund as well as his company's 401(k) plan, which means his retirement savings are automatically taken care of and he doesn't see a dime of the money in his checking account, since he knows he wouldn't set that money aside on his own.
As self-made millionaire David Bach writes in "The Automatic Millionaire," automating your finances is "the one step that virtually guarantees that you won't fail financially. … You'll never be tempted to skimp on savings because you won't even see the money going directly from your paycheck to your savings accounts."
Before turning 30, Derek Sall had rid himself of $116,000 worth of student loans, credit card debt and mortgage payments.
To become debt-free, Sall focused on increasing his income and decreasing his spending. But the thing that kept his momentum going was shifting his mindset and realizing that he didn't need to keep up with the Joneses. Practically speaking, that translated to avoiding social media and refusing to compare his situation to anyone else's.
"The best tip I can give is just live your own life," he tells CNBC. "The best way to just live simply and be content is just to turn it all off and hardly pay attention to it at all. Because that's what gets people in the most trouble. They see 'Oh, my friend went on this great vacation, and I wish we could do that!'"
That's easier said than done, thanks to the constant influx of filtered content and targeted ads on Facebook, Instagram, television and all over the Internet. To combat the drive to buy everything marketed to him, Sall focuses on how full his life is without new and often superfluous items.
When David and Meg Cahill finally decided to buckle down on and pay off their debt, they were able to eliminate $18,000 worth of student loans in 54 days.
To reach their goal, the Cahills employed a savings strategy favored by comedian Jay Leno: Generate two incomes and live off the smaller one.
When the Chicago-based couple committed to fast-tracking their debt repayment, they decided to live off of Meg's $40,000 teaching salary and direct David's $62,000 school administrator salary exclusively towards paying down the student loans.
While the divide is especially clear for couples, anyone looking to save big can put this strategy to work. It all starts with creating at least two streams of income within your household, which could be real estate rentals, side businesses or a part-time job. Once you have multiple revenue streams, the formula is simple: Save the larger form of income and spend the other.
At 25, Scott Alan Turner was, in his own words, a "money moron" who had gotten himself into more than $70,000 worth of debt. But by 35, Turner had transformed his finances to become a debt-free, self-made millionaire.
Turner didn't go to any extremes to turn around his financial situation, and his No. 1 savings tip is simple, yet effective: Pack your lunch every day.
"My biggest [savings tip] I learned from my parents," he says. "My dad worked for the town his whole life. He packed a lunch every day and brought it to work. In our small town upbringing, we didn't have restaurants and we didn't go out to eat all the time; we might have gone out to eat once every couple of months. I carried that over into my own life."
Though he worked a corporate job for over 10 years, Turner only bought lunch out a handful of times. Instead, he prepared large batches of food on Sunday to eat throughout the week.
As soon and the Cahills decided to commit themselves to aggressively paying off their student loans, they knew they couldn't do it alone — they needed to be held accountable. So they told everyone they knew about their plan, hoping the support would keep them motivated and the exposure would force them to stick to the plan.
"We actually sat down with our friends and told them about the ambitious plans that we had and asked them to provide us accountability," David told CNBC.
It was the smartest move they made during their debt repayment journey, he says: "The support that we got from them — the texts and phone calls of encouragement — really made a difficult experience for us that much more gratifying."
Plus, getting their friends on board right away made it easier to decline social activities that came with a price tag. "They were really supportive and understood that we couldn't go out for drinks or go bowling on a Friday night," David says.
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