Money

Debt is the No. 1 cause of financial stress in 35 states—here are 5 ways to get free

Eric Andre and Dreama Walker in ABC's "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23."
Richard Cartwright | Disney ABC Television Group | Getty Images
Eric Andre and Dreama Walker in ABC's "Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23."

It's easy to get into debt and it's much more difficult to pull yourself out of it.

In fact, in the majority of U.S. states — a whopping 35 of them — debt is the No. 1 cause of financial stress, according to a recent survey by GOBankingRates of more than 7,000 adults in across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

That stress is for good reason: Americans hold a collective $1.021 trillion in credit card debt, and it's growing. "America's credit card balances have never been higher, but there's no reason to think they won't just keep climbing," says Matt Schulz, CreditCards.com's senior industry analyst. "Combine that with steadily rising interest rates and you have a potentially volatile mix."

But kicking debt to the curb is easier said than done. If you're struggling to jump start your payments, learn from those who have been there and done that. Below are five proven strategies for eliminating debt, gleaned from real people who have paid off thousands.

Go cash-only

Curb frivolous spending by setting up clear, firm boundaries for yourself. An easy place to start: Saying adios to your credit cards. If you withdraw and commit to using only the exact amount of cash you need each month, it becomes impossible to overspend.

Lauren Greutman, a former over-spender who dug herself out of more than $40,000 in credit card debt, was only able to kick her spending habits when she ditched the plastic. "I absolutely had to stop carrying my cards with me, because I was just too swipe happy," she writes in her book "The Recovering Spender." "I had zero self-control."

Even though going cash-only caused Greutman a few embarrassing moments, including the time she forgot her bills at home and couldn't afford to buy groceries, in the long run it held her accountable for her spending and forced her to stick to her budget. "Those boundaries are there to keep you safe," she writes.

Generate two sources of income — and live off the smaller one

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 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.

Build an emergency fund

It might seem counter-intuitive to focus on saving money instead of paying off debt, but having a $1,000 emergency fund in place first provides a financial cushion so that unplanned expenses, such as medical bills and home repairs, don't completely derail your debt-repayment plan.

By prioritizing their emergency fund, Cherie Lowe, author of "Slaying the Debt Dragon: How One Family Conquered Their Money Monster and Found an Inspired Happily Ever After," and her husband Brian gained the momentum they needed to pay off more than $127,000 in debt. "We had actually tried three or four years prior to try and pay off debt, and we did not have that safety net in place, so when we got discouraged or when something would happen, we just quit," Cherie tells CNBC Make It.

But putting $1,000 in the bank first created the freedom the couple needed to start funneling as much as they could towards debt.

In "The Total Money Makeover," financial expert Dave Ramsey explains that this strategy works because when people face an emergency while trying to pay off debt they often feel "guilty that they had to stop debt reducing to survive." He writes, "if you use debt after swearing off it, you lose the momentum to keep going."

Track your expenses

Start tracking exactly where your money goes each month, and you might be surprised by how much you're wasting on things you don't need. You'll be able to pragmatically decide how to re-route it toward more pressing issues, such as paying off loans.

Greutman recommends taking the time to go through every receipt and credit card statement to figure out what's non-negotiable and what can be sacrificed for the sake of becoming debt-free. "Finding your starting point might may be the hardest part of your journey to recovery," she writes.

Simplifying your life can include anything from downsizing your home to getting rid of your car to selling unused clothes and appliances. What's cluttering up your life? Whether it's an expensive mortgage or an unused Hulu subscription, look for places you can cut back and learn to live with a little less.

Change your career

When trying to pay off debt, there's a limit to how much you can can cut, even if you're committed to eating rice and beans and living without TV. To start making more progress and building more wealth, you should also think about the other side of the equation: increasing your income.

For Scott Alan Turner, who paid off more than $70,000 in loans to become a millionaire by 35, transitioning out of a corporate job he wasn't passionate about and becoming an entrepreneur made all the difference.

Turner's path won't be the right one for everyone, but think about out how you can tweak your job situation so you can increase your income, whether it's through starting a side business, working toward a promotion or transitioning to a new career altogether.

If you're not ready for an entire career pivot, find ways to make extra money on the side, whether it's as simple as downloading an app that connects you with gigs or as complex, but potentially rewarding, as starting your own business.

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