Here’s What Happened When I Took a Free 21-Day Debt Management Course

Desiree Stennett took an online course to help her manage debt. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder
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The hardest part of getting your financial life in order is figuring out where to start.

Credit card debt, student loans and day-to-day bills all demand our attention. And if we were masters at figuring out a juggling act that ends in debt freedom, we would have handled it ages ago.

That’s where a free email course from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) can help. The CFPB is the government agency in charge of monitoring the financial sector on our behalves. It was created after the 2008 financial crisis to make sure nothing like it happens again.

Because I’m in the process of paying off $31,000 in student loan debt as fast as I can, I signed up for the 21-day course to see if it could actually help me get my spending habits in check.

Here’s a review of the course and the three most important lessons I learned in just a few weeks.

Lesson 1: Write Down Your Goals

The first thing you’re asked to do when you sign up for the course is write down your financial goals. You have the option of sending your goals in a reply email or simply writing them down for yourself.

No matter which you choose, just make sure to write them down.

I wrote about how my 30th birthday is coming up and the impending milestone has me thinking about the not-so-great financial decisions I made throughout my 20s.

My financial goals were clear:

  • Aggressively pay down my student loan debt.
  • Build an emergency fund.
  • Keep my credit card balance as close to $0 as possible.

I’ll admit, it’s not 100% foolproof. But having those three goals in writing makes it a little easier to say no to impulse buys that are not in line with them.

Lesson 2: Know What You Owe and When It’s Due

This is a lesson I didn’t expect to be very important. The CFPB sends you a blank calendar for you to plot each of your bills on.

But there’s a catch: If you have to mail a check to pay a bill, you add it to the calendar a week before its due date. If you pay it online, it goes on the calendar two days early.

This was a simple tweak, but it helped me to start thinking differently about bills. Paying them even slightly earlier than they’re due can help break the habit of making last-minute payments. And it also made it clearer to me how much money I really have available spend and how much needs to go to bills or savings or extra debt payments.

This was big, because spending beyond my means is not a big problem for me, but spending down to the last cent without regard for when the next bill is due has gotten me into trouble in the past.

So I can now be sure that I don’t make a hefty student loan payment days before my car insurance payment automatically drafts from my account.

Lesson 3: Cut Back Where You Can, Spend Where You Need To

By the end of the course, with my financial goals clear and a plan for how I could pay my bills before their due dates, the distinction between needs and wants was clearer.

That means when I don’t feel like cooking now, I have a better picture of my finances, so I can be a good judge of whether I can truly afford to order another Cuban sandwich and fries from the restaurant that’s four blocks from my apartment. (Definitely not a need.)

So, Is the Course Worth Your Time?

This course is self-taught and only 21 days long. Based on that alone, you should manage your expectations. You’re not going to change your life or make any serious headway on your debt in just three weeks.

But that doesn’t mean this can’t be another nudge in the right direction.

Most of the information in the course is readily available online — we even cover many of the topics on The Penny Hoarder. But if you’re just getting started with budgeting and paying off debt, the amount of information out there might be a little overwhelming.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to write things down on paper, the worksheets in this course might work better for you than any app. And nothing will make you rethink that $3 knick-knack from the Target discount section like knowing you have to write down every purchase you make.

Desiree Stennett (@desi_stennett) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.