Yesterday, MSN’s Smart Spending blog posted a version of my recent article about the dirty secrets of debt reduction (and what to do about them). “You make it sound so easy,” one commenter wrote. But it’s not, and I know that. Here is a reprint of a post from June 2007 that acknowledges this fact.

Last fall I wrote an article describing how to get out of debt. Debt elimination involves three steps, I said:

  • Stop acquiring new debt
  • Establish an emergency fund
  • Implement a debt snowball

A visitor named ST recently left this comment about that article:

Seems that this post is about putting “overcoming your faults” over good financial sense. If you cannot equate credit cards with cash, that’s your problem.

If you think the advice here is good financially, it seems that you should go into therapy instead. Go into more debt in order to figure out how to live within your means by dealing with what’s making you act irrationally. A good friend of mine did that: therapy, then got a new job, then went to the bank and got a 6% loan to cover all her debts and paid off all her credit cards, starting with the highest interest (like any one with sense would do).

If, on the other hand, you’re in debt because of extenuating circumstances or college is just too darn expensive, then do what all the books say. Make a budget, consolidate debt, use 0% offers, use the one credit card with a 0 balance as it is cheaper than cash. You’ll get out of debt years faster than with this tripe. Come on, that bit about the “lowest balance,” is just inane. Why not do a balance transfer?

I get comments like this from time-to-time. “This stuff is easy,” some complain. “Why do you people have such a hard time with it?” These people are right — personal finance is easy — but I think they’re missing an important point. While the concepts are easy, their implementations are not.

Human beings are complex creatures. Some of us are highly logical. Some of us are emotional. Most of us fall someplace in between. We rarely make decisions based on optimal paths; more often, we choose what makes us happy in the short term. I’m not saying that this is the right thing to do — it’s just what happens. For those who routinely make financial decisions based on emotion, it can be difficult to turn things around.

Complaining that personal finance is easy and “why doesn’t everyone do what they ought” is like saying that running a marathon is easy so why can’t everybody run one? Most of us understand how to prepare for a marathon — eat right and run a hell of a lot — but few of us have the dedication and mental fortitude to complete one. However, with a little discipline and some hard work, most people can complete a 10k race.

It’s the same with personal finance. It’s easy to say, “To build wealth, you must spend less than you earn”, but it’s another thing to do it, especially over the long term. In some ways, building wealth is more difficult than running a marathon. Training for and completing a marathon takes months. Dedicating yourself to a sensible financial plan is a lifetime process.

If personal finance were really as simple as understanding the math, we would all be rich. But it’s not. And we’re not. That’s why I think any small financial victory is important. That’s why I run this web site, and why I share whatever tips I can find.

I always say “do what works for you”. Some people are able to succeed by paying high-interest debt first. But some people — myself included — have only been able to succeed by trying another approach. The approach may not be best from a mathematical viewpoint, but I believe that any method that actually helps you meet your goals is better than one that doesn’t.

I still believe this. Personal finance concepts might be simple, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. I don’t mean to imply that they are. It took a lot of hard work (and a little luck) for me to get out of debt. It didn’t happen quickly, and it wasn’t easy.