What will you do when your debt is paid off?

I've been in debt just once: during and after a two-year-long divorce, a time during which I was also a midlife university student. Good times!

Nineteen months after the divorce decree, I zeroed out my legal debt. I also took a deep breath for the first time in years. Unfortunately, I had no idea what to do with the extra money each month.

What I should have done: Visit a fee-only financial planner.

What I did instead: Put all the extra money in the bank — in a general savings account.

(This object lesson is brought to you by the letters G-E-T-A-C-L-U-E.)

What will you do once your debt is retired?

Even if your final payment is years away, now is the time to blue-sky what you will do when your obligations are met. Otherwise, you might:

  • Return to the same habits that helped lead to indebtedness, or
  • Simply tread financial water, the way I did.

Having a plan = having a goal. Your dreams may vary: funding retirement (essential!), learning to invest, starting a business, buying a home.

The future sneaks up on you when you are looking at months or years of sameness. Work, pay bills, get by on what's left. Pinch, do without, worry. Lather, rinse, regret.

That's a recipe not just for future financial backsliding, but also for opportunity cost. (More on that in a minute.)

Nothing of value?

Put another way: Suppose you dieted and exercised for a year after a heart attack. Smart move. Yet you wouldn't be human if you didn't resent the process now and then. So sick of workouts and salads. Oh, to sleep until noon and then have a brunch made entirely of cupcakes.

Upon getting a clean bill of health, it'd be tempting to burn your gym card and enroll in the Ice Cream of the Month Club — but then your health problems would just return. Far more sensible to create a plan of regular exercise and smart eating, with occasional treats.

The same is true of money. If your previous issues were recreational shopping and daily meals out, revisiting them could mean additional debt. New shoes and sushi sprees (say that five times fast!) are lots of fun. They also represent tremendous opportunity cost — expenditures that bring nothing of lasting value.

Just as a health-conscious person can indulge in an occasional cupcake, you are entitled to spend on yourself once you're back in the black. The issue is how you spend, i.e., making choices that lead to happiness and security.

One simple question

How do you know now what you'll want later? Financial planner and New York Times columnist Carl Richards suggests jump-starting the process with one simple question: Why is money important to you?

Does it mean freedom? Flexibility? Security for those you love? Giving back? The chance to have your own cupcake franchise?

“Before you can plan, you have to know why you're planning,” says Richards, author of “The One-Page Financial Plan: A Simple Way to Be Smart About Your Money.”

That simple question leads to others:

Employment: Will I stay in this job after I've vanquished my debt? If not, what kind of work would I seek?

Family: Do we want kids? What would it take to be financially secure enough to do that?

Real estate: Do I want to buy, either for myself or for additional income? How can I learn more about this?

Entrepreneurship: What can I do now — take classes, apprentice, apply for grants — to be ready once I'm financially free?

These questions all have the same underpinning: What would I do if money were no object? You can't answer that question in any meaningful way without thinking it through.

So start thinking! What will you do when your debt is paid off? Do you have specific plans or pie-in-the-sky dreams? How will you implement or refine those ideas?

More about...Budgeting, Debt

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