By Matt Becker, MomAndDadMoney.com
Money was the thing I worried about most before our first son was born, and my work as a financial planner with other parents tells me that I'm not alone. There are a lot of new financial responsibilities that come with starting a family and it can be hard to figure out what needs to be done, how much it will cost, and how to prioritize it all.
If you have debt, all of those questions can be even scarier. Debt can feel suffocating, and many of the parents I work with want to get rid of it as fast as possible.
But while getting to debt-free is a fantastic and admirable goal, I usually encourage new parents to pump the brakes a little bit.
Before you go into full-on debt attack mode, there are a few steps you can take that will not only make it easier to pay off your debt, but will give your family more financial security in the meantime.
Step 1: Find some big wins
Freeing up room in your budget is almost always the first step towards reaching any of your financial goals. Whether you want to pay off debt or save for the future, you're going to need some free cash in order to make it happen.
The quickest way to do this is to focus on what I like to call "big wins". A big win is simply a one-time effort that reduces or eliminates a regular bill, saving you money month-after-month without requiring any ongoing effort.
Here are some examples of big wins:
- Negotiating your cable bill. Or maybe even cutting it completely.
- Finding a lower-cost cell phone plan (check out companies like Republic Wireless and Ting).
- Finding a bank that doesn't charge you ridiculous fees, and maybe even pays a little interest, such as Internet-only banks.
- If you really want to go big, you could downsize your home or trade in your car for a less expensive model. Those are the kinds of decisions that could save you hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime.
With just a few one-time efforts, you could find yourself with a couple hundred dollars extra per month. Then it's time to put that money to work.
Step 2: Build a cushion
No matter what kind of debt you have and what the interest rates are, it can be a good idea to put at least a small amount of money into a savings account before going into full-on debt attack mode.
The reasoning is pretty simple: having a baby is going to change your life in a lot of ways, and the reality is that it will take you some time to adjust. In the meantime, there are going to be expenses you didn't plan for and having a little bit of savings will allow you to handle them with cash instead of putting them on a credit card.
That simple habit of handling the unexpected with cash instead of debt is possibly the biggest key to not only getting out of debt, but staying out of debt. And it's a big mindset change, so the sooner you can start, the better.
The easiest way to build your savings cushion is to take some of the money you've saved with your big wins and set up an automatic transfer that sends it from your checking account to a savings account on the same day every month. With that consistent progress, it won't be long before you have $500 to 1,000 dollars saved up, which should be enough to handle most unexpected expenses that come your way.
Step 3: Protect yourself
One of the best things you can do for your growing family is ensure that they will have the financial resources they need no matter what happens to you. Generally this means getting two things in place: insurance and wills.
I have to admit, I love insurance. No, it's not the most exciting topic in the world. But when it's done right it's the best way I know to protect my family financially from some of life's worst-case scenarios.
Here are the big types of insurance to consider as you start your family: Health
Writing wills is one of the most morbid topics in all of personal finance, but for new parents it’s also one of the most important. More than anything else, a will allows you to name guardians for your children, ensuring that they will be in good hands no matter what.
Step 4: Test drive
This is a tip I give to all expectant parents, whether they have debt or not, mostly because it can help make sure that having a baby doesn't send you into even more debt.
A few months before the baby gets here, estimate how much the baby will cost you on a monthly basis (babycenter has a good tool for this) and start putting that amount into a savings account. This will do two big things for you:
It will let you practice living on your baby budget before you actually have to do it.
It will help you build up that savings cushion we talked about in Step 2.
The combination of practice and savings cushion will make the whole adjustment easier, less stressful, and less likely to lead to more debt.
Step 5: Attack that debt!
Finally! After all of that we're finally ready to start attacking that debt!
With those other pieces in place, you can send extra money towards your debt without the prospect of one financial mishap messing up your progress. You have a little cushion, you have the worst-case scenarios handled, and you have some practice living on a tighter budget. Now you can crush that debt with confidence!
There are two schools of thought when it comes to which debts to pay off first.
One is called the “debt snowball” and encourages you to pay your debts in order of balance, with the lower balance debts being paid first. Proponents of this method say that the motivation of quickly paying off individual debts makes it more likely that you will keep going.
The other is called the “debt avalanche” and encourages you to pay your debts in order of interest rate, with the highest interest rates being paid first. This is the approach that will save you the most money, as long as you stick with it.
No matter which approach you take, make it automatic just like you did with your savings cushion. Putting those extra payments on auto-pay will make sure that you're attacking that debt consistently month-after-month and getting to debt-free as fast as possible.
Did you have debt when you were starting your family? What did you do to make it easier?
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