The #1 Tip for Avoiding Debt: Start With What You Have, Not What You Need

The Best Tip for Avoiding Debt | Change your mindset. It's about starting with what you have, not with what you need. It's not easy, but it can be done. Via
I often get emails from readers, who are looking for advice on getting out of debt. I love these emails, because it means that people are connecting and looking for solutions.

Almost every email I receive shares a common thread: “How can we make it on our income with all these expenses?” I was asking myself this very question six years ago when my husband and I first decided to get out of debt.

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, and worrying about how to respond, when people ask me it.

Then suddenly today in the car, the answer came to me: We’re starting in the wrong the place.

As a society, we have been acculturated to start with our needs.

I need to get a cup of coffee.

I need a new pair of shoes.

I need a new car – this one isn’t safe enough / big enough / fuel-efficient enough.

I need to pay my kids’ tuition bill.

I need to save for retirement.

Without even debating whether these are actual needs (vs. wants), it occurs to me that when we start the discussion with what we need, we’ll never be able to make it.

Because our needs are infinite.

And the broader we define the term need (and in western society, we define it pretty darn broadly!), the longer that list becomes.

Our income, on the hand, is decidedly finite.

We can get a raise, we can make a career change, but ultimately, 99.9% of us will never experience the Bill Gates type of infinite income.

I think this is why debt has become an acceptable solution in our society: We’re stacking a potentially infinite list of needs against a rather finite income. Of course, that’s an “impossible” scenario to make work.

I get how this happens, because it’s exactly what we did for a long, long time.

But at a certain point, my ostrich-like attitude toward this “acceptable” solution started to fade away, and I became riddled with anxiety.

Even time I heard the mailman’s footsteps outside our apartment, my heart lurched: What new bill was he depositing in our mailbox?

I’m strangely grateful for my displaced mailman phobia, because it started us down the road of living with financial freedom: The freedom that comes from starting with what you have.

Did that mean we had to go without? Absolutely. That list of needs is infinite, remember? 

Going without is never easy. Saying no to yourself, your spouse and your children can be difficult – physically, emotionally and relationally. But in our experience, it was far less painful than the path of consumer debt paved with rationalizations and acceptable solutions.

(Conversely, we also learned that many of those things we once thought were needs, we hardly even miss! Cable is one that always comes to mind, but there are many more, too.)

If you’re struggling to stretch your income to the end of every month; if you’re stressing over your debt load; if you’re afraid of the mailman… I would gently encourage you to take a step back and ask yourself: Are we starting with our income, or with our needs?

If you, too, realize that you’re starting with what you need, try turning the question on its head.

No longer ask yourself, “How can I do all this on my income?” but rather “How do we choose to allocate the income that we do have?”

This is more than just semantics. It’s a change in mindset. And that change can put you into the driver seat with your finances, perhaps for the first time in your life.

Your finances don’t have be controlled by your needs. Instead, you can be in control of your greatest financial resource — your income.


  1. Well said Mara!

  2. I love these types of posts. They put everything in perspective. Thanks!

  3. Anne Dillon says

    Great post Mara. I think we all need to make sure we are using the word “need” appropriately. No one NEEDS a cup of coffee- they want it. We only NEED a new pair of shoes if we have none and only NEED a car if ours isn’t running and can’t be repaired. Arguable we only NEED food, water, clothing and shelter. The rest are wants and we have forgotten this.
    Thank you for the reminder.

  4. The sweetest bit of this is that you are “worrying about how to respond.” Not that I want you to worry–it just shows the passion you have about your job! Great post. I couldn’t agree more.

  5. I didn’t really understand your point about the dentist. Do you mean to say that you should not bring your child to the dentist if he has a cavity?

    • Mara Strom says

      Sefira – I think my point is just that the mindset of “do it now, figure out how to pay for it later” gets us into trouble quickly! Of course, getting a child’s cavity filled is important — but there has to be a way to pay for it. It has to be intentional part of one’s thought process. Part of this is having an emergency fund. But a bigger part is starting with the mindset of what you have (i.e. your income/resources), not with what you need (since that’s essentially limitless).

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