When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was fairly indifferent to the amount of debt I carried. In my eyes, it was too early to worry about money or the future. I was young, dumb, and completely foolish about how the real world worked. Plus, I knew deep down that I would eventually make huge sums of money.

How? I wasn’t sure.

Unfortunately, the money I thought I would earn didn’t come until much, much later. Even worse, I made a lot of awful financial decisions based on my ignorant mindset – things like buying a $1,300 vacuum and financing a $25,000 car when I made $8.50 an hour. Not only did I fail to understand the gravity of my situation, but for some reason, I just didn’t care. I couldn’t fully understand the lifelong consequences of my bad decisions – or even why it mattered. Unfortunately, I paid out the nose for my silly purchases and splurges, often to the detriment of my long-term goals.

The first years of my marriage to Greg were filled with more of the same. We made plenty of money, but we had few plans for how to make that money count. Eventually, my husband and I shaped up. Even though we weren’t in serious trouble, we had student loans, car loans, and home improvement loans to contend with. Something had to change.

4 Lessons I Learned from Being in Debt

Once Greg and I realized that we wanted a better, wealthier life, we started tracking our spending. As painful as it was to learn we were spending almost $1,000 per month on food for two people, this was a crucial and life changing step. After that, we created our first zero-sum budget, which is the same type of budget we use to this day. Next, we began clawing our way to the debt-free lifestyle we enjoy now. Here are four lessons we learned throughout the process:

Tracking Your Spending is Crucial

When you don’t track your spending or create a monthly budget, your “extra” money can disappear in a hurry. Trust me, I’ve been there. I distinctly remember being perplexed at the fact that we weren’t saving more. Even worse, I had no idea what we were spending our extra dollars on in the first place. As far as I was concerned, most of our income was disappearing into thin air.

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Of course, tracking our spending changed all of that. Instead of assuming where our money was going, it showed me exactly how we were spending our hard-earned dollars. The fact that I didn’t like what I saw also motivated us more than anything else ever could.

When You’re In Debt, Stop Digging

Debt has a way of numbing you to the gravity of your situation. When you’re carrying around $20,000 in student loan debt, what difference does it make if you keep running up the tab? Unfortunately, the difference isn’t normally felt until you start paying it back. When you’re still digging, the effort required to dig your way out becomes greater. The timeline, longer.

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The most important step you can take in this journey is to stop making the problem worse. If you’re in debt, stop digging. Only then can you begin formulating a plan to make your situation better.

The Little Things Really Do Matter

When you aren’t making a lot of financial progress, it’s easy to assume that the little things don’t matter. Your satellite television bill only costs $50, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that all of those little things can add up in a big way.

Over time, we learned to cut the things out of our lives that weren’t adding value. We also began focusing more on the frugal lifestyle we had enjoyed up to that point; we cut coupons, shopped around for deals, and looked for ways to save on items we planned to buy anyway. And at the same time, we took small steps like switching our bank account and starting a side hustle to raise extra funds.

Those small steps may not add up to much on their own, but together, they made a big difference to our bottom line.

It Never Pays to Care What Other People Think

When you’re too young to know any better, it’s easy to get caught up in what other people think. Unfortunately, that philosophy often works its way into our financial lives. If you listen to other people too often, you can wind up paying for things you never wanted in the first place. Trust me, it can happen!

But once you reach a certain point, you just stop caring. Fortunately for us, that change of mindset happened fairly quickly. While it’s okay to care what other people think or feel, you should never base your financial decisions on the desires or opinions of others. After all, your friends and family aren’t charged with funding your retirement, paying for your children’s college, or financing your dreams; you are.

The Most Important Lesson of All

Here’s the most important lesson I learned throughout the entire process – being in debt sucks. There’s no bigger buzz kill than knowing that you have to plan your entire life around paying various debts. Further, being in debt can hold you back from living the life that you truly want to live – whether that means traveling the world, going back to school, or simply switching to a career or field you love.

Unfortunately, the only way out of debt is through your own efforts, whether that means cutting your spending in order to free up extra income to pay it down or starting a side hustle or business to improve your financial situation over time.

Like anything else in life, the change in mindset required to get out of debt can only come from within. You not only have to want it, but you have to craft a plan to make it happen.

What lessons did you learn from being in debt? What lessons are you still learning?

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