I wish someone had told me when I was in college that getting a credit card with a student ID was stupid. I wish someone else would have explained to me what 21 percent interest on store credit cards meant.

Before I turned 30, I was massively in debt with kids, student loans, and no end in sight. Fortunately, with a lot of reading and a lot less spending, I got out of debt before I turned 40. It was a long road–and no fun at all. If I had only realized when I left for college that I was not going to be able to live the way my parents did (after working for 20 plus years, I might add), I might have saved myself a lot of pain. Then again, I was pretty stubborn in my 20s, so maybe not. Either way, you can avoid debt and be debt free by the time you’re 30, if you follow these rules:

1. Don’t go to college unless you have to.

This goes against everything everyone told you in high school, I know. I thought I had to go to college in order to “be a person.” Turns out, it’s not remotely true. If you want to be a nurse, a lawyer, a physical therapist or a rocket scientist, then yes, go to school and go to a good one. But if you want to be a writer, a welder, a restauranteur, a baker or something else entirely, avoid the four-year degree. Look instead for a community college that offers certification or an Associates degree in your potential field. Apprentice with someone to learn how to be a carpenter or commercial fisherman. My husband has a degree in English and taught himself computer programming. He is now a leading computer programmer and systems administrator. Be practical about what your job plans are and avoid the massive debt.

2. Spend less than you make.

This sounds obvious, but it is sometimes harder than you think. You need to determine just how much you bring into your household each month, and spend less than that. So, even if that couch looks really awesome, you can’t get the store credit card (even if they give you 10 percent off just for filling out the application). If you need a car, you have to save up for it and take the bus or the subway until then. It seems like a pain sometimes, but when you realize how much you are not spending every month in payments to this, that and the other thing, especially once the couch is stained and the car needs repairs, it’s really much better–and more freeing to not be working just to pay off debts to someone else each month.

3. Pay yourself first.

Yes, I know that you have to pay the rent and the power bill and the cell phone bill and the cable bill. But pay yourself first. Take 10 percent right off the top and send it to your savings account. This way, if your car (the one you paid cash for) does have a problem, you’ll have enough saved to pay for the repairs or buy a new one without damaging your monthly bills. If you are having trouble paying at least 10 percent of each check to yourself, then consider lowering your expenses. Get rid of cable and watch shows on the Internet. If you can’t afford your Internet bill, visit the library to use their wi-fi (and get more free entertainment by borrowing books).

4. Make debt your first bill.

If you have debt, make it your first bill (except for rent and savings). After saving an emergency fund of about $1,000 in the beginning, work towards paying down debt your first priority. After you pay yourself via the savings account, pay as much extra as you can towards debt. Reduce your other expenditures in order to get that debt paid down.

5. Don’t use credit cards for everyday expenses.

Unless you are using your credit card to save up rewards or miles and are sure you can pay it off each month, do not use your credit card for everyday expenses. If you must keep a credit card, and you really shouldn’t, keep one and put it away for emergencies only. Like that pair of glasses you need when yours break or the car repair that you don’t yet have enough in savings in to cover. As you start saving money in your emergency fund, you will have cash to depend on instead of credit and you can eliminate credit cards from your life entirely. Despite what it felt like in college, credit cards are not free money.

6. Stop paying for stuff you don’t need.

Gym memberships, cable TV, concerts, movie rentals. Get rid of it. Stop paying for extra stuff. Learn how to shop cheap. Go to thrift stores for basic needs like utensils for the kitchen, a chair for the living room, new clothes. There are lots of groups on Facebook now advertising used items for sale. Go for a run or a bike ride instead of going to the gym. Use a yoga home video instead of paying for classes. Skip the spendy concert and go to a free concert in the park. Soon, you’ll realize that forking over your hard-earned cash for stuff that nets you very little in return is more painful than going without it.

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