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Debt is a terrible thing to weigh down your life financial plan, but it’s possible to learn from debt a great lesson. Living beneath your means is an essential part of good personal finance living, but it’s something that’s not often taught or practiced in the United States. If you’ve failed to live beneath your means in the past, it’s important to start doing so now. That’s a great goal, but I’m sorry to say, if you’ve got a lot of debt, you’ve got to live even farther below your means than you would otherwise.

We’re talking about real frugality here. If you’ve been living off of borrowing for some time now, this might not be a mode that is natural to you. But it’s necessary if you want to turn the tide on your debt. Let’s start by understanding what you’re up against. Lots of people think about their loans only as monthly payments. If you can afford the $300 a month for that car payment, then it means the car is affordable, right?

Not really. This is a trick that low level lenders tend to play on their customers. It’s not a trick, really, but it is often used to prey on people who don’t know the first thing about personal finance. Most readers will probably know what APR is, but to review for those who might not, it’s a combination of interest and fees that a lender charges you to buy, and it’s just as important as the principle when trying to figure out if a loan is for you. Interest is the extra money a lender makes from lending money to you, and the fees are whatever else they decide to (or legally can) charge you extra for funding your loan. Lots of people get set up with loans that are much too expensive in the long run, sometimes paying thousands of dollars more than the product or service is actually worth.

If you find yourself with one or more loans weighing you down, it’s time to go for the old fashioned debt snowball method. This has worked for a lot of people, and it’ll work for you too if you stick with it. Start by paying all the minimum balances of your loans, then set your sights on the balance of your lowest loan. Pay everything you can spare, or a high scheduled amount, to kill off this loan. When it is done, add that monthly payment and the minimum payment from the former loan, and add them to the money you are paying for the second highest loan.

Making this work will require you to find extra money somewhere. This may mean working extra hours or doing without certain things in life that cost you extra money. These sacrifices are hard, but they’re essential for people trying to eliminate debt and start building wealth. But the suffering isn’t in vain. When you have to fight hard to get your financial life in order, you’re learning the value of money. The pain you feel now will pay off when it gives you the respect for money that it takes not to go into debt unnecessarily.

Of course, there are good loans to take on. Mortgage loans, auto loans, student loans, and other kinds of essential loans are affordable and part of a balanced financial life. With a credit check (in the UK it’s instant), you can find out just how affordably these loans can be issued to you. Just don’t take on more than you can handle, and pay attention to both the principle and the APR.