Financial coach shares her tips on how to become debt free

After maxing out her credit card and living paycheck to paycheck, Alaya Linton, the author behind Hope & Cents and current Finance Collective member, hit financial rock bottom. Having had a negative money mindset at first, Alaya knew she had to turn around her personal finance habits in order to fight her way out of debt. In just two years, Alaya and her family paid off $74,000 of debt, and she now works as a financial coach helping to inspire other people to reach their financial goals. Read on to see what she wishes she had known at the start of her journey to becoming debt free!

1. When did you realize that you needed to take control of your finances?

My financial "awareness" came in stages and as a result of a few wake-up calls and a rock-bottom moment. For quite some time it seemed like everything was okay because I was able to manage all my debt payments. What I didn't recognize was that I was living grossly beyond my means and was getting myself into an enormous mess.

The first wake-up calls (gradual reductions in my husband's hours from full-time to part-time) came and went without my facing the fact that things needed to change. Not making any adjustments to my lifestyle in the face of a loss of income eventually led to my rock-bottom moment.

We could no longer afford to pay the balance (which was due in full each month) on the one credit card we used to catch our slack. I began to make large purchases on the card just so that I could return the items and reduce the balance due by the amount I was short each month. I was disgusted by having to do this and began to realize that I was out of control.

The final wake-up call came when that credit card—my lifeline—was canceled. With all my other cards maxed out, I had no other way to live beyond my means. I was forced to face the problem—(me!)—and began to turn my financial life around.

2. What was the very first step you took on your journey to financial freedom?

In hindsight, the first step I made towards changing my finances was to address my mindset—although I didn't know that was what I was doing.

One of the problems that contributed to my financial mess was what I thought and believed about money. I would say things like, "There's no way I'm going to get from under this mess...The only way for things to change is if I win the lottery."

I spent a lot of time thinking there was no way to solve the problem, instead of finding a solution to the problem. I had no hope for my situation, and because of that, I continued to stay in my mess—and make it worse.

It wasn't until I started believing I could take control of my finances that I began to. I remember thinking and saying the words, "We can do this. We can clean this up." It was the opposite of what I had been telling myself for years, and that is the moment my situation started to change.

Besides addressing my mindset, the first practical step I took was to start living on a budget. I intentionally planned where my money was going. I no longer had the option of spending more than I had coming in, so it was crucial for me to plan exactly how to spend my money.

3. What do you know now that wish you had known about personal finance at the beginning of your journey?

Because hindsight is 20/20, I wish I knew how important it is to prioritize other important things in my life along with prioritizing my financial goals.

While I was digging out of my mess, I was not intentional about fostering relationships or creating experiences and memories for my family. My primary concern was getting out of debt—which it should have been—but I also needed to address the other things that I value in my life. There is a way to do both; one does not have to be achieved at the expense of the other.

4. What is your #1 rule for getting rid of debt?

This seems obvious but committing to living within your means is my #1 rule for getting out of debt. I've encountered too many people who embark upon a journey to pay off their debt, yet on the side, they are still incurring more.

One of the keys to being able to turn things around financially was making an absolute, uncompromising decision not to incur more debt. All my financial decisions during my debt-free journey and since then are based on that commitment. I have to live within my means. There's no way around that.
There will always, always be opportunities to go further into debt. If you are attempting to claw your way out, you must make an unwavering choice not to dig a deeper hole.

Thanks to Hope & Cents for the words of wisdom! Be sure to check back for more personal stories from other Finance Collective members.

RELATED: 50 everyday expenses you need to stop spending money on

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50 everyday expenses you need to stop spending money on
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50 everyday expenses you need to stop spending money on
ATM fees

"Take a bit of extra time to withdraw money from your bank's ATM and save on the cost to withdraw your own cash or if your bank has a mobile app, use it to find an in-network ATM near you."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Lottery tickets

"According to the Powerball, the odds hitting the jackpot are 1 in 292,201,338.00, and CNN cites that Americans spent $70.15 billion in 2014. Let's save our hard-earned money."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Coffee

"A daily cup of joe adds up if you purchase it at places like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. Save by brewing at home."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Credit card interest

"Maintaining a balance on your card usually you to pay interest each month. Try to pay off your credit card balance in full each month or send more than the minimum payment. As always, use your credit cards responsibly."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Kids meals when dining out

"When you do dine out and if you have kids with you, be sure to take advantage of 'kids eat free' specials. Most restaurants have specific days of the week when they offer free kids meals."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Gas station food and snacks

"Although it may be convenient, prices are always marked up when compared to other stores. So take the time to shop for food in advance at your grocery store and pack emergency snacks in your car."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Pumping premium gas

"Some vehicles may not require premium gas, which is the most costly of the gasoline grades. Stop trying to be fancy, check the owner's manual, and save."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Banking fees

"Don't pay to manage your money at a bank. Find banks that offer free banking or bank online for free like CapitalOne 360. Earn $25 when you open a free checking or high-yield savings account."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Change-counting machines

"Many of us like to keep our loose change in a jar and let it collect over time. Once it's full, don't pay machines to count it for you, go to your bank to deposit your savings or have it exchange for cash."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Wasting gas due to low tire pressure

"You may not know this, but having low tire pressure affects your mileage significantly. Save gas and money by improving your gas mileage by simply checking your tire pressure and maintaining it at the proper level."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Single car washing

"Many car wash places offer a flat monthly rate for unlimited washes, so check with your local car wash to find out if they offer a monthly rate and cash in on a clean car. Or, you can get a discount when you pump your gas."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Bottled water

"Unless you live in an area where potable water isn't safe, don't waste your money on bottled water. Often times, it's simply bottled tap water. Buy a reusable water bottle or invest in a quality water filter, and save (plus you'll reduce plastic waste)."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Cigarettes

"It's a tough addiction to beat, but it is a very expensive to purchase cigarettes daily. Aside from causing deadly health effects, according to Time, smoking can cost you $1 to $2 million in a lifetime. Make an effort to better your health and wallet."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Gift bags and wrapping

"Reuse bags from previous occasions if they are still in good condition. We started doing this last year and no longer have to run out and by $3+ gift bags when we go to events or parties."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Plastic bags fees

"For those living in an area where stores charge for plastic bags (*cough cough Chicago*), bring your own reusable one. Those cents add up!"

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Utility bill payment fees

"Skip the line at the currency exchange or grocery store and pay online using checking account or debit card. Some companies charge to use a debit card, so schedule e-check payment, which is typically free."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Travel size toiletries

"For the frequent traveler, you should buy empty travel containers and refill with shampoo, lotion, etc. as needed."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Paper

"Unless you're a student, you probably don't really need to buy a lot of paper – reuse already printed pages and use both sides."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Magazine and newspaper subscriptions

"Save money and paper by keeping up with free online news services."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Paying for premium streaming music services

"In the digital age of music, don't pay for premium services. Streaming companies like SoundCloud and Spotify allow you to listen to music for free."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Buying books

"If you'd like to truly own a book, then save on the paper and extra cost by purchasing the digital version, or go to your local library and check them out for free."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Library late fees

"Remember to return all materials on time. It'll save you money and allow for other library patrons to enjoy the material in a timely manner. If you do have library fees, wait for a month when they accept canned goods as a payment method (usually around the holidays)." 

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Brand new video games

"Skip the early release and commotion of having the latest video game. Save major bucks by purchasing a used version of the game online or at stores like Game Stop."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

In-app purchases

"Gaming apps are meant to entertain, and while most of them are free, don't fall for the "purchase bonus lives" trap. In-game purchases add up."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Greeting cards

"Take some time to make your own personal cards or send an eCard and skip on the expense."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

New phone chargers

"If you forget your charger and your phone needs to be charged, some time you'll be inclined to purchase a new one, but it can be costly or even poor quality. Always keep your charger handy, look for a charging station where you're at, or simply ask to borrow one."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Expiration dates

"Sometimes, expiration dates may not reflect the true shelf life of a product. Don't waste food (and money) by throwing out a product which may still be fine to consume. Check out Eat By Date and see for yourself the true shelf life of your groceries."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Stuff on your birthday

"When you're heading out and can't or don't want to drive, consider calling Uber or Lyft instead of calling a cab so you can save money on the ride. You can use my linkto get $20 off your first Uber ride."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Batteries

"Save on disposable batteries and purchase rechargeable ones. They can last up to two to three years."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Pens

"Many offices, banks, insurance companies, etc, give them away for free. Save them and skip on the purchase."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Insurance

"Be sure to get the best rate for your individual needs, whether it is car, health, home or life insurance."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Garbage bags

"If your area doesn't charge for using plastic bags, reuse the ones you get from shopping as garbage bags. I do this all the time."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

More house than you need

"While some families "grow into" their homes, sometimes less is more. Save on mortgage and the possibility of purchasing more for a larger home. Downsize and save."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Club/bar full cover charges

"While having a spontaneous night out is fun, if you RSVP when possible, arrive early, or take advantage of online ticket sales, you can skip out on paying in full at your favorite nightlife places."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Leaky faucets

"If you pay for water utility bill, according to the EPA, fixing leaky faucets saves you 10% on your bill. By ignoring it, you not only lose money every day it goes unfixed, but you also waste clean water, at a rate of 10,000 gallons per year."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Fast food restaurants

"Improve your health and wallet by not eating fast food often. It may be cheap, but it adds up, especially if you eat out a few times per week. Instead, spend the money and the time to grocery shop and prepare meals."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Cool drafts

"Save on heating and electric bills by fixing drafts and keep the warmth and cool in your home during the winter and summer."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Unnecessary data phone plans

"Unless you need unlimited data for work, you should not spend much on your cell phone bill. I save a ton of money on my cell phone bill by using Republic Wireless."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Pet food

"You may not be able to cut out this expense completely if you have pets, but you can score free cans of pet food with coupons occasionally so you won't have to spend as much."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Buying lunch

"Sometimes you're running late for work and don't have time to pack a lunch. Buying lunch often costs much more than preparing and bring a meal to work. Spend some time planning, purchasing and preparing meals ahead of time so they're ready to go, even when you're in a hurry."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Leaving electronics plugged in

"Even though you may not use them often, electronics that are plugged in still consume energy. Unplug appliances you don't you often and keep other electronics on a power strip, turning them off when not in use."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Prepared grocery store meals

"When you do go grocery shopping, sometimes the already-prepped sub or diced fruits and veggies tempt you to buy them and save time, but you'll be paying top dollar for those products. Plan a list ahead of time and buy the individual food items, then spend the time prepping them yourself in order to save.

If you have trouble making grocery lists and figuring out what you're going to eat each day, I'd highly recommend trying out the $5 Meal Plan so you can receive healthy meal plans and recipes to your inbox."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Vending machine snacks

"Not only are these snacks typically unhealthy (there goes your healthy habit), they are typically much more expensive than their grocery store counterparts. If you find yourself buying vending machine snacks, try to save the money instead and see how much you have leftover at the end of the month. You can probably invest it."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Transportation

"When you're heading out and can't or don't want to drive, consider calling Uber or Lyft instead of calling a cab so you can save money on the ride. You can use my link to get $20 off your first Uber ride."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Brand name items

"Save money by skipping on the brand names, like medicine, toiletries, and certain foods. Remember that healthier options with fewer additives may cost more and in that case they may be worth it. Otherwise, generic is the way to go."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Buying smaller/single packs

"Save money by skipping on the brand names, like medicine, toiletries, and certain foods. Remember that healthier options with fewer additives may cost more and in that case they may be worth it. Otherwise, generic is the way to go."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Purchasing paper towels/paper napkins

"You are purchasing these to eventually throw them out. Save on the waste and save money by buying reusable, washable towels and napkins. Your wallet and the environment will thank you."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Paying extra for night time movie showings

"Primetime showings are typically 2x higher than those during the day. Go to morning matinees or take advantage of weekly specials ($5 movie nights during the week)."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

Movie theater food

"Often times, movie theater food can cost more than the ticket to get in. Try to keep food purchases to a minimum when you can or eat a filling meal before you go see a movie."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

DVDs and On Demand

"Instead of spending money on purchasing the movie, subscribe to streaming services and find an alternative or go to your local library."

Credit: My Debt Epiphany

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