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Updated on Friday, June 2, 2017
Even if you hate spreadsheets and numbers, coming up with a debt-destroying budget can be simple with a single rule: always apply excess funds to debt.
This rule can work with two of the most common debt repayment methods: the debt snowball or the debt avalanche.
The debt snowball method attacks smaller debts first, regardless of interest rate. The goal is to motivate you with small victories in order to go on and gain confidence to pay off larger debts. The debt avalanche method focuses on paying down debt with the highest interest rate until you pay off the balance with the lowest interest rate.
How Much Can I Throw Toward My Debt?
The math for your budgeting process is super-simple: Monthly income minus monthly expenses equals the amount of extra money you can apply toward your debt each month. The emphasis is on extra money because you’ll still want to pay your minimum debt obligations to avoid getting behind on your payments.
Note: If you still need help with the math because you’ve got to actually figure out how much you spend each month, you can use an app that connects with your bank to add up all your expenses. Check out services like Mint.com, YNAB, or Personal Capital to help you get quick figures around your income and spending along with categories for each.
Though the math is not too complicated, the harder part could be increasing the gap between your income and expenses to actually have a surplus in your budget.
Unless you’ve got little to no wiggle room in your budget, you don’t have to start cutting expenses quite yet. However, there are some expenses that are discretionary and should be omitted from your equation until you’ve tamed your debt load.
For now, just get a baseline of what you should have left over at the end of each month once all your bills and expenses are accounted for. If it’s $15, great. Start there. If it’s more, even better.
Once you get this number, use it to pay more on your debt than is required. So if your minimum payment is normally $50, pay $65 with your $15 surplus. It can be the smallest debt or the account with the highest interest rate. What matters now is that you do something to get into the habit of making extra payments on debt and accounting for it in your monthly budget.
How to Apply This Rule in Various Scenarios
If you budget with a goal in mind, the purpose of your money becomes clearer. Any kind of money that turns out to be extra should be applied to debt to reduce your balances. But the key is being mindful of extra money, even when it doesn’t seem to be extra.
For example, getting a raise is a reason for some people to increase their standard of living. They might move to a place with a view or buy that lavish SUV they’ve been eyeing for a while. If you’ve committed extra funds to a purpose (paying off debt), the decision is made for you far in advance of you actually getting the money.
The same goes for your income tax refund check. You might bank on this money every time income tax filing season comes around. While many people are planning spring break trips and shopping sprees with this money, you’ve got to make up your mind that this money is already earmarked for debt repayment.
Finally, there’s always that unexpected windfall: an inheritance, a settlement, or any type of money you never saw coming. This might be one of the most difficult chunks of money to part with for the sake of paying off debt. After all, you didn’t know it was coming, and maybe you didn’t have to work too hard for it.
In this case, it’s pretty tempting to want to splurge and blow it all on something you think you deserve. Things can get complicated at this point. But if you keep following “the rule,” this money is technically already allocated, and your debt repayment budget suddenly becomes easier to stick with.
Keep Widening the Gap Between Income and Expenses
This is the fun part. Why? You get to be creative and have more control over your debt repayment timeline. Want to get out of debt fast? Then you’ll have to figure out how to make your income outpace your expenses. It could mean adding a side hustle to the mix or getting more aggressive with cutting out or decreasing expenses.
Adjusting Your Tax Withholdings
If you pocket a large tax refund each year, ask yourself why. It is likely because you are paying too much in income taxes throughout the year. If that’s the case, you can change your tax withholdings through your payroll department to keep more money in your pocket throughout the year. It will mean a smaller tax refund come tax time, but you’ll have more cash on hand to put toward your debt with each paycheck.
Use this IRS withholding calculator to estimate your withholdings.
Decrease Your Income Tax Liability
There are more than a few ways to decrease your income tax liability. From IRA contributions to tax tips for entrepreneurial endeavors and other tax credits and deductions, there should be one or more things you can do to owe less on your tax bill.
Cut Expenses Where You Can
There are so many ways to save money on so many things. You can start small with things like eating out and having cable and work up to saving money on housing costs or refinancing student loans.
Then there are the diehards who go full monty and go through full-on spending freezes on things like takeout and travel. The list of cost-cutting measures can get pretty long, but you get the point: Go through your spending with a fine-tooth comb and find out where you can save and what you could cut.
Increase Your Income
Creating another stream of income sounds gimmicky, but there are ways to do it without getting caught up in scams. You can find a part-time job, provide consulting services on the side, or even start a mini-business like dog walking or car washing. It shouldn’t be anything that will cost you tons up front to start, and it shouldn’t hinder your ability to keep your full-time job.
You may find that you have to try a few things before you come up with the perfect combination of low overhead, quick to start, and profitable. That’s OK. Just keep plugging away until something clicks. It’ll be more than worth it to add that extra income to the budget for paying off more debt even faster.
Remember the Golden Rule: Excess Cash Goes to Debt
It all comes down to committing your cash to a purpose ahead of time. No matter how your financial circumstance changes, you’ll know what to do when you’ve got a surplus of money.
You’ll have to come up with a list of things you are willing to do to increase your cash reserves, but if you keep the goal in mind of continually applying extra funds toward debt, you’ll save on interest and also pay down your debt faster.