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The Top 5 Mistakes People Make When Paying Off Debt

Kelley C. Long
5 min readAug 12, 2021

As someone who has dug myself out of credit card debt a couple times, discussing the best way to get out of debt isn’t just some academic exercise. It’s sharing what worked for me, considering the fact that nobody’s perfect, myself definitely included.

In addition, in the process of working with people who are struggling with credit card debt, I’ve also noticed some common mistakes they make that if avoided, could really accelerate the arrival of their Debt-Free Day. Here are five ways people mess up their debt pay-off plans:

Mistake #1: Neglecting to address the root cause of the debt first.

While a lot of personal finance folks assume that credit card debt is the result of irresponsible behavior, I observe differently. Plus, I see NO benefit in shaming people for past behavior, since I’ve been there in that place of racking up debt, knowing it, and not knowing how to stop it at the time (or knowing, but not being willing to).

Most credit card debt stories start one of three ways:

  1. A job loss that doesn’t lead to any spending cuts.
  2. An accumulation of unexpected expenses like vet bills, travel for family emergencies, car repairs, etc. that snowball into a feeling of “whatever” as you keep spending.
  3. Reimbursable work expenses that come in after the bill is due and aren’t applied against the balance.

Before you can really implement a debt reduction plan, you have to first address the reason you got into debt in the first place. This is typically a lack of a slush fund for unplanned expenses compounded by living beyond one’s means or living too close to the edge with paycheck-to-paycheck spending.

First, you have to find a way to make sure that you’re spending less than you make each pay period, while also setting aside an amount each month to build up that slush fund. The way I did this was by making savings automatic — I started with $25 per paycheck to a separate savings account that I didn’t see every time I logged into my checking.

I also found a few expenses to cut, such as switching my cell phone plan to one that was $20 cheaper per month, then adding that $20 to…

Kelley C. Long

CFP & CPA writing about money & how it fits into life based on my work with everyday people as a financial coach.