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5 Steps to Lower Your Financial Stress When You’re Drowning in Debt

“You can’t calm the storm, so stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself. The storm will pass.” ~Timber Hawkeye

I never anticipated the stress and pressure that come when you are no longer able to pay your bills on time.

Knowing that you owe money, and that your current income isn’t going to cover it, is a heavy reality to face.

I found myself starting to envy low-income, salaried employees. Even though they don’t earn a lot, which I’m sure brings its own challenges, they aren’t eligible to receive huge credit. This protects them from ever finding themselves owing millions.

My husband and I have recently gone through a time when we found ourselves way overextended. Due to a series of bad beats and various twists of fate, we found ourselves in over our heads. And this is not a good space to be in.

It’s a sickening feeling that has seemed to overshadow all the other areas of our lives. We’ve felt unable to breathe, knowing that debt is hanging over us. When the phone rings from an unknown number, we’re hesitant to answer it. It could be someone wanting to know when we will pay a bill.

Small Beginnings

It didn’t start out like this. Let me backtrack. I grew up on a farm in an average-income-earning household. Although we didn’t lack for anything, we weren’t wealthy.

My husband and I married early on in life and started out with very little. We set up a small business from home soon after we got married. I was halfway through studies at the time and managed to juggle both. Our expenses were minimal, and even though it felt like hard work, we seemed to prosper.

Friends would comment and say we had the Midas touch. As the business grew and branched out, money always seemed to be plentiful. We didn’t start out intending to reach a massive bank balance. Our aim had been to reach financial independence sooner than later. Words like “budget” or “frugalness” never seemed to enter our thinking though.

Over the years, we upgraded our living, our home, our cars. We took overseas holidays and bought properties. As our affordability increased, so did our expenses. In a short space of time, we up-leveled our lifestyle requirements.

The Storm

The stress and anxiety of knowing you are unable to catch up on financial commitments is scary. We had some business ventures fail, we bought out a partner, there was a notable economic downturn. We had new competitors enter the market that we could no longer match, as our running costs had become so high.

Then things came to a boiling point; a perfect storm was in the making. A few clients didn’t pay for larger projects. This meant we had to put out money to complete the work, but nothing was coming in. Our rental property didn’t have a tenant in it for a few months, and major maintenance needed doing. Staff went on strike, and several employees had to get retrenched and paid out.

The strain on our marriage was palpable. The weightiness of the situation was hard to bear. There wasn’t going to be a quick-fix solution. We had to rally, face this storm head on, and ride it out over the next two years.

Downsizing

We took massive action to downscale. It’s very easy to upscale and commit to new financial obligations. Downscaling is hard because it feels like you’re taking a step backward. And in a sense, you are, although you’re going back to go forward.

The new forward for me looks like being out of debt. The new goal is to have a business buffer of funds available to get through unexpected setbacks. We never want to experience the stranglehold of debt again. No fancy dining or luxury goods are worth the stress and worry of financial pressure.

And so, we downscaled throughout the business. Everything got cut back down to size. All the unnecessary extras we didn’t need got cut away. We opted to move home. We cut our rental amount by a third.

I swapped my shiny floors and designer fittings for a modest, old-school, rustic duplex. We no longer have to worry about hiring a gardener or keeping the pool clean. We cut up our credit cards and canceled every debit order we could.

We Have Everything We Need

To be honest, we still lived well and had everything we needed. But only just. When our new large screen TV stopped working, a month or so out of warranty, we started to use an old spare one we had in the garage. When winter came around, I took my allocated winter clothes budget and put it toward better use. That year I made do with what I had. Priorities dictated there were more pressing things to spend on.

My motto became “If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it.” Look for cheaper alternatives. This may be obvious to people who earn a set income and aren’t in a position to over-spend. But it seemed I had to re-learn it.

For a year, my children didn’t get any new toys. In fact, I packed all the old ones away, only took out a few at a time, and tried to think of creative ways we could play with them.

By the time Christmas rolled around, there was a financial improvement, so we spoiled the children with presents. The funny thing is, the novelty of the new toys wore off quickly. They didn’t seem to play with the new ones any more than they did the old ones. It seemed the more they had, the less they appreciated it.

If you’re going through something similar—if you’re drowning in debt and need to claw your way out—perhaps my lessons may help.

5 Steps to Lowering Financial Stress

1. Know exactly where you stand.

Get all your financials listed on a spreadsheet. Open communication is key between the role-players involved. List all your debt, liabilities, and expenses, and your income, investments, and assets.

The starting point is to gain clarity on where you stand. You need to know how far you have fallen behind so you can plan to rectify your situation as soon as possible.

It’s easy to start blaming or regretting or going around in “if only I had done this” circles. We had made one bad judgment call, and that may have changed everything. In hindsight it seems so obvious, but at the time we did what we thought was best.

We had to stop hypothesizing and going back over bad decisions. We needed to work as a team, and now more than ever, we had to support each other, and not go back to “we should’ve.”

2. Make a plan.

After getting a realistic view on where exactly you stand, you can start working on a plan.

Although we felt like throwing in the towel, we had to get our mindset right.

There are usually more options than you think to get things back on track. Under stress we tend to go into survival mode, and this isn’t conducive to creative problem solving.

Try to take the emotion of the situation away when you start to problem solve. Imagine this scenario is happening to someone else, and you’re there to help figure it out with them. You will need to research various options.

Try to make a plan, even if your initial plan changes along the way. It’s important to gain back your sense of control.

Communicate with the role-players. If you owe the bank or your credit providers, call them and meet up to discuss options. Ask for extensions. Get advice from people who have gone through similar experiences.

3. Live within your means.

Cut everything back to what is manageable. Yes, you will feel like you have lost some of your status. We moved from a prestigious housing estate to a random lower end suburb. It was a major personal downgrade, but I’ve come to learn that we are so much more adaptable than we realize. We actually need very little to live comfortably.

We cut back on luxury items and learned the art of patience. Instead of buying on demand, if I wanted something, I would wait until I could afford it. I found that by doing this, it also eliminated impulse purchases. After waiting and giving it more thought, often I decided I didn’t need that item anyway.

We had to get in touch what is most important. When you have only a limited supply to work with, you have to focus on what’s a priority. You need to weigh up the options and decide where you will get the most value for money.

We implemented a budget, where we allocated amounts for the month, so we could plan to get through.

4. Get back to your intrinsic values.

Both my husband and I have never been particularly materialistic. We love quality products, but we’ve never been into flashy status items, although we’ve certainly grown accustomed to the finer things in life.

During our financial crisis, we had to come back to our core values and to the intrinsic value of things. I got to a point when I realized, it doesn’t matter if we lose everything; our health and well-being are most important. We can start over again if we have to.

I stopped fearing the worst and worrying and stressing. Instead I became fascinated by how the whole experience unfolded. I tried to learn and glean from this what I could.

A few key lessons from my experience:

  • I never want to be in this situation again, so I’ll need to maintain these changes.
  • I only need to get through one day at a time.
  • Laughing through tough times is much better than crying through them.
  • To be a strong team, you can’t have internal conflict.
  • We had to accept the situation and make the best of it.

A few things we did to get back to our values:

  • We started to value every penny again.
  • We focused on all we did have, not on all we didn’t have.
  • We forgave and moved on.
  • We left karma to deal with our wrongdoers.
  • We tried to cultivate a long-term vision, and this was merely a glitch in the road.

5. Practice gratitude and generosity.

Not your typical response when the financial pressure is on. But when you have little, it’s easier to be grateful for the small things in life. If you have a lot, it’s more difficult to be mindful of and value the small things. You tend to develop bigger and better expectations when you have much.

We stopped expecting and taking things for granted. We started for be more thankful for everyday things.

I tried to remain generous, if not with monetary resources, with what I could be generous with. A smile, a text message of encouragement to someone. A flower picked out the garden and given with a hand-written note. Or a listening ear might be what someone else needs. Too often we are so caught up in our own drama, we fail to consider what others are going through.

As we give to those less fortunate, we start to appreciate our great wealth. It puts things back into perspective.

6. Calm yourself while you get through the storm.

This experience has definitely taught me that we can’t control life. We can plan and set goals, but ultimately a lot of things are out of our hands. Life happens, and it doesn’t always unfold how we imagined it would.

During these times you have to find your inner grit. Your character gets tested and refined. You start to move way out your comfort zones and you land up somehow expanding but not breaking.

And just when you think you can’t take withstand the storm anymore, you look back and notice how far you’ve come. You realize how much you’ve grown, and you’re stronger than ever.

Things that helped me get through:

  • Find my composure daily through meditating, deep breathing, consciously releasing muscle tensions when I notice it, practicing self-compassion, celebrating small wins, and staying focused on the bigger picture
  • Remember “This too shall pass”
  • Don’t give in to self-pity or start whining to others
  • Take responsibility for my part in getting here
  • Remember that there is always more money to be made
  • Don’t give way to scarcity thinking
  • Sell or offload what I don’t need
  • Think out the box how to re-structure
  • Keep my life simple

I’m glad to report we are well on our way to righting our finances. I honestly wouldn’t trade this experience or go back in time and change things. It hasn’t been pleasant, but I’ve learned so many valuable lessons that I will take with me going forward.

As we build up again, we are going to keep our expenses under control. We are going to be a lot more cautious, and never over-extend ourselves again. We will never enter into bad debt again.

This time has made me respect the beauty and harsh reality of life and tread a little lighter as I move through it.

About Sam Theron

Sam specializes in helping woman declutter their lives. She coaches them on how to organize and design a life that suits them best. She is now offering online courses where you can work with her virtually. Sam resides in sunny South Africa and loves yoga and being in the ocean. You can learn more about Sam Theron here.

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