The Simple, No-Cost Step I Took Before I Paid Off Thousands of Dollars in Debt

published Jan 30, 2021
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Confession: I used to have credit card debt. Like, a lot of it.

I wasn’t proud of it. In fact, it haunted me. And I found little consolation in the fact that the average American household also holds several thousands of dollars’ worth of credit card debt: According to a survey by NerdWallet conducted in Sept. 2020, that number is $7,027 per household, or over $416 billion nationwide.

Racking up my credit card debt wasn’t an overnight process, and I knew paying it down wouldn’t happen in the blink of an eye, either: Just as I had slowly accrued balance after balance starting in college, I would have to be diligent about paying it off over time. And for me, that journey started with a simple step: I needed to get brutally honest with myself about how much money I actually had coming in.

In other words, I had to take a good, hard look at my checking account.

So, to hold myself accountable, I opted into a free feature through my bank’s client interface. It wasn’t a magic bullet by any means, but it helped me heal my shame about money, and kept me honest with regard to how much I could feasibly spend each day without needing to use my credit card at all.

In the beginning of my debt-paying journey, I set up daily emails alerting me about my checking account balance.

No, not your credit card balance — your checking balance, aka the money you already have. Through my bank’s app, I opted in to receive daily emails each morning giving a brief overview of my checking account balance. (If you’d prefer not to receive these emails, you can also set a reminder on your phone or in your planner to check your balance each morning manually.) Each morning, I receive the email, make a mental note of how much money currently rested in my bank account, and use that benchmark as a reference point if I needed to make any purchases that day.

Really: All I did to start is read the email, and commit it to memory.

My bank also provides options to receive notifications each time I make a purchase through my debit card, if a check or direct deposit hits, or if there is any other kind of activity on my account. I have an additional alert set if my account dips below a certain threshold, but receiving an email each and every time there’s movement on my account seemed stressful when I first decided to take control of my funds.

Credit: Samara Vise

How does knowing how much you have in a checking account help pay down debt?

For one, understanding how much money I had on any given day — and therefore, how much I might be able to spend without needing to use credit — helped my relationship to money. By engaging with my account daily, I grew more comfortable with the concept of thinking about money. Before, it was very much an out-of-sight, out-of-mind problem — if I ignored my balance, it was a problem for future me. Opting into the emails challenged that avoidance behavior, and made me feel more secure about my money decisions overall.

And addressing my own habits with money is just as important as scheduling a bank transfer. “Anyone can learn to budget and invest; the significantly tougher piece is the mental and emotional commitment,” Amanda Holden, a writer and the founder of Invested Development, previously told Apartment Therapy.

Experts universally recommend you confront your “debt number” and get really honest with yourself about what you owe when you start paying back your debt. By also getting honest with myself about what I had, I could make better informed decisions about how I allocated my money, including:

  • How much money I could spend that day (or week) without risking a need to reach for my credit card in the near future.
  • Whether my monthly budget was realistic, and if not, if I could either make it smaller (and therefore transfer more money to savings or to my credit card balance) or reallocate certain categories accordingly to better prepare me for the following month.
  • If I didn’t spend any money the day before, could I feasibly transfer $20 to my credit card balance without it hurting my checking account in the long run? (The answer was almost always yes — and those small transfers add up!)
  • And on days when I felt particularly confident about my bank balance, could I transfer more money to my credit card bill as a one-off “bonus” payment that month?

Remember: Paying off debt is a multi-pronged effort.

There are plenty of other ways to set yourself up for debt-repayment success, including setting up automatic payments, you still have your old budget rather than a new one — that extra money can go to your balance instead.

Of course, if you’re hurting right now and your debit balance is dwindling faster than money is coming in, that’s a different kind of problem, and might give you some very valid anxiety. If that’s the case, there are ways to save money and even make a little more money from home if you need the assistance.

And if you don’t have a savings account right now, it might make more sense to focus on that for the time being. As Victoria Sechrist, a certified financial trainer at The Financial Gym, previously told Apartment Therapy, “When you’re paying down credit cards or student loans or any other type of debt, it can seem really appealing to throw all of your extra money towards it in order to get rid of it, but right now those extra dollars are better suited for savings.”

Paying down my debt was a multi-year process, and it took a lot of work and diligence. I also committed to the “snowball” method of paying off my debt: Each month, I had a certain amount of money to spread out across my credit card debt, which I used to pay the minimum (plus $20 or so, to provide a cushion) to every balance but the smallest one, which got the remaining amount. Once I paid that off, I targeted the new smallest balance, but the budget remained the same and I was eventually able to direct the full force of my debt budget to the biggest (and only) balance.

But all of that started with opting into a daily email from my bank, so that I could learn to trust myself with the money I did have, and then redirect it in a way that my future self would thank me for.