The average American household carries over $130,000 in debt. Contrast that with the median household income of just over $59,000, and it’s quite clear that many Americans are living well beyond their means.
Your typical adult pays $280/month on her student loans, over $400 for a car payment, $180 to credit cards, and $1,000 on a mortgage. In other words, the average person is drowning in debt.
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These stats show averages only, and there are plenty of millennials with student loan payments far above $280/month. When I finished grad school, my monthly student loan payment was $816 per month!
So many Americans are buried in debt, and most of them remain stuck in debt instead of paying it off as quickly as they can. Why?
While there certainly are some people who are truly in extremely difficult situations, the truth is that most middle class Americans have the ability to pay off their debt but choose not to. I would argue that the main reason why is that we prefer to be comfortable.
Getting Comfortable Being Uncomfortable
There are many skills that are helpful when you’re trying to get out of debt. Being able to budget, control your spending, and think long-term are a few important traits.
I believe that the most important skill that you need to master in order to get out of debt is to be “comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Most people don’t want to do that. We’d prefer to drive nice cars, live in spacious homes, own nice stuff, go on vacations, and get what we want right now…even if we can’t afford it and we’re drowning in debt.
The thing is, you won’t get out of debt if you continue living the lifestyle that put you in debt in the first place. “If you want something you’ve never had, you’ll have to do something you’ve never done.”
Living below your means isn’t comfortable. No one wants to drive a 20 year old car, live in a shitty studio apartment, eat rice and beans all day, and work 80 hour work weeks. That doesn’t sound at all appealing.
This kind of life isn’t fun or glamorous, but it can get you where you want to go. If you’re like the average American, you spend $1,860 of your monthly budget on debt.
What if you were debt-free? What could you do with nearly $2,000 extra each month? Anything you want!
If you’re willing to live below your means and be uncomfortable for now, you can live your dream life later. Isn’t that worth it? I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Believe me, I know it’s not!
What It Looks Like
I drive a 19 year old car. On your average January day in Minnesota, I head out to go start my car in -10 degree weather. I remove the covers I put on the windshields to prevent ice from forming on my windows. Next, I begin scraping ice off of the inside of my windows (yes, my car freezes over on the inside) as my fingers begin to go numb.
Once I’m done, I go back inside to let my car “warm up” for 10 minutes. By the time I go back outside, my car still doesn’t feel anything close to resembling warm and the defroster hasn’t done much of anything. I’m wearing two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, fur boots, a hat and earmuffs, and gloves underneath my mittens.
I’m always aware of the possibility that my old car could break down and I don’t want to get frostbite in the time it would take a for a tow truck to arrive.
I’ll be honest – I do not enjoy driving this car. It’s usually making some sort of bizarre noise and it’s so rusty that occasionally, parts of my car actually fall off. When the polar vortex sent some arctic air our way (with temps as low -35 and windchill down to -60), my car was the only car in our household that wouldn’t start.
Do I sometimes daydream about what it would be like to own a nicer car? All the time. I imagine a car with a remote starter that I could hit while I’m still inside. I could let the car warm up for 10 minutes and then head to work in a car that’s actually warm.
I wouldn’t have to scrape ice off the inside of my windows and I’d be much less worried about my car not starting or breaking down on a bitter cold day. I don’t think I’d be any happier, but I would be much more comfortable.
I’d be lying if I said I’m not tempted to buy a newer car. If I bought one right now, I’d have to take out a loan and I’m not willing to do that…but it’s definitely something I’ve thought about a lot.
How We Do This
I’m not saying you have to drive a 20 year old car if you want to get out of debt. We all have our own unique situation and “living below your means” looks different on everyone.
You don’t necessarily need a junk bucket vehicle, but you will probably need to do some things that make you feel uncomfortable. Maybe it’s working more hours than you want to. Perhaps it’s downsizing to a smaller home. It could involve eating out less or going out with friends less often (or finding cheaper things to do).
Whatever it may be, you need to get used to living below your means rather than always getting what you want exactly when you want it.
If you’re ready to begin, how do you get comfortable being uncomfortable? Most middle-class Americans are used to being comfortable and we’re typically okay with going into debt if it makes us more “comfortable” in some way.
Accepting discomfort is not natural for us. Instead, we try to avoid it as much as possible. We might use things like alcohol, food, or overspending to try to “escape” from uncomfortable feelings.
So how do we resist the urge to try to avoid discomfort? How do we start embracing it instead?
Here are a few tips for getting comfortable being uncomfortable!
- Practice – It gets easier the more you do it. At first, it will be tough and that’s okay. Just keep going until it becomes a habit and it feels more natural.
- Think Long-Term – Remember that this is only temporary. You are not going to be in this uncomfortable place forever.
- Try Difficult Things – Push yourself outside your comfort zone and do things that make you uncomfortable. Whether it’s going to a new yoga class, climbing a mountain, or anything that makes you feel discomfort, try it! When you see that you can do things that aren’t comfortable, you’ll be more confident in your ability to live below your means.
- Breathe – During yoga class, our instructor often says “Just breathe. In yoga, we practice getting comfortable being uncomfortable. Breathe through the discomfort.” This can be applied to life. We don’t stop doing yoga just because it feels uncomfortable. There are many things in life that are worth doing even though they are difficult. Just keep breathing and push ahead.
Get out of Debt
If you want to get out of debt, you need to learn to embrace discomfort and live below your means. Remember, this is only temporary!
It will not last forever. The discomfort you feel now will be worth it when you’re debt-free and able to live as comfortably as you’d like. As Dave Ramsey says “Live like no one else now so later you can live like no one else.”