You’re probably keeping it a secret. It’s taboo to admit you’re mired in credit card debt, especially when everyone else around you is so intent on keeping up the appearance of prosperity.
But that can also mean you’re forced to suffer in silence as you secretly struggle to pay off high interest debt that just won’t go away, all while appearing to maintain your lifestyle as per normal.
That can’t be easy. Here are five tips to make the road to being debt-free a lot shorter.
1. Calculate how long it would take you to pay off your debt completely
Singaporeans who get mired in credit card debt often find themselves there due to carelessness, at least at the start. They don’t bother to calculate how much they would need to pay off each month and for how long in order to be completely debt-free. As a result, they end up repaying too little each month, and the debt balloons.
By the time they realise they’re in trouble, the debt has swelled to an amount that’s so intimidating that they lose their sense of control.
Whether you’re in four, five or even six figures of debt, take a deep breath, sit down and do the math. Figure out how long it’d take you to pay off your debt in full if you paid $500 a month. Then do the math for a repayment rate of $1,000 a month, $1,500 a month and so on.
Use this idiot-proof debt payment calculator—even if you got F9 for O level E Math, it should work for you. Remember to find out how much interest your bank is charging you and add it to the figure at the end of each month.
For instance, if you’re in $10,000 worth of debt and your bank is charging 24% interest, you’ll pay off that debt in one year if you repay $1,000 every month. Pay $1,500 every month and you’ll clear your debt in 8 months. If you can set aside $2,000 a month, you’ll be debt-free in 6 months.
When you know exactly how much you need to pay each month in order to be debt-free 6, 12 or 18 months from now, you can set a goal to put aside a certain amount each month instead of blindly paying “whatever you can afford”.
2. Scale back your lifestyle drastically
Now that you know exactly when you can expect to be debt-free, you’ll see that it’s not the end of the world—that is, if you actually do manage to stick to your repayment plan.
You’ll also see that the faster you pay off your debt, the shorter your time of suffering will be. Think of it like bootcamp—painful and intense, but short.
Take the previous scenario we discussed, for instance. To pay off $10,000 of debt in 6 months, you’d have to set aside $2,000 every month. That might seem like a huge amount to Singaporeans earning the median income. But on the bright side, you’ll only have to live like a monk for 6 months. On the other hand, if you choose to pay only $1,000 a month, you’ll need to spend a whole year worrying.
Of course, how drastically you can cut back really depends on your circumstances. If you’ve got an infant at home to look after, don’t go replacing baby food with blended instant noodles to pay off your credit card debt.
As a general rule of thumb, you should cut back as much as you humanly can without putting you and your family in danger. That means no vacations, no shopping except for what’s absolutely necessary, and eating at home as much as you possibly can. And don’t worry, those $18 beers you knock back after work aren’t actually necessary for your survival.
3. Find ways to raise your income
So you’ve worked out how much to repay each month, and are ready to live like a monk for the next few months/years until your debt is repaid.
But what happens if your income just doesn’t permit you to repay a meaningful amount each month? Then you might have to find ways to boost your monthly income until your debt is gone.
Again, yes, we all know Singaporeans work very long hours, and trying to fit in a second or third job isn’t sustainable for most people. But remember, the faster you repay your debt, the faster you can stop. So depending on your stamina and working hours, try your darndest to dedicate some time to income-boosting activities.
For degree holders, one of the easier ways is to go on the hunt for tuition students, especially in the lead up to final exam time when kids need a quick boost for a couple of months. Creative types should definitely try to find freelance assignments for spare cash. Otherwise, look out for part-time or one-off assignments at roadshows and events.
You could also try other tactics like selling your belongings on Carousell or eBay, renting out a room on Airbnb (I have a friend who rented out half his bedroom to a student from China for $500 a month, so you don’t actually need much space if you’re desperate enough), being a pet sitter and so on.
Even if you don’t want to tell a single person in your life about your credit card debt problems, don’t discount the possibility of seeking credit counselling.
The folks at Credit Counselling Singapore, a registered charity, will keep your information strictly confidential so no one will ever find out. Although, when you are finally free from debt, you might want to consider sharing your story with others who could use some help.
They can help you come up with a debt repayment plan, consolidate your debt so you pay lower interest, and teach you how to downsize your lifestyle.
5. Surround yourself with people who will help, not hinder you
Unfortunately, peer pressure did not automatically die once you received that O level certificate. In fact, the people around you might be indirectly responsible for your spending habits.
So make sure you surround yourself only with those who are supportive and don’t pressure you to spend more than you should during this very sensitive period.
It could mean distancing yourself temporarily from friends who party only at expensive places, or rejecting a few wedding invites.
But on the bright side, you may get to rediscover cheap or free activities with other friends and family members. And trust me, there will be some friends and family members who will be only too happy to support you in your bid to downsize your lifestyle and vanquish your credit card debt. Finding out who these people are could be a blessing in disguise.
This story was originally published in Moneysmart.