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Related topics: debt, debt reduction, spending, credit cards, emergency fund

You've paid off thousands of dollars in credit card and loan balances. It took years of effort, sacrifice and hard work. Now that your statements finally read zero, your cards are open and the spending limits are high. A delicious sense of freedom is calling. Just a charge here and there won't hurt, right?

Careful, though. It's easy to get caught up in the debt cycle again, especially if you're itching to break free of that old restrictive budget. Here are tips from the experts to help you stay the course:

1. Remember the agony. Living in debt was dreadful, wasn't it? All that pressure and anxiety, maybe even physical ailments. Keep those painful memories alive, says Denise Winston, the founder of Money Start Here, a financial education company in Bakersfield, Calif.

"Make a list of how awful you felt about being in debt on the outside of an envelope," says Winston. For example, you might have had low self-esteem, stress, insomnia, high blood pressure, relationship problems or lost productivity at work. Then place your credit cards inside the envelope and seal it. When you're tempted to charge something you can't afford, you'll read your own words about how debt affected you -- and decide to stick to your spending limit.

2. Involve your friends. Sometimes you need the support of loved ones who know what you're trying to achieve. Therefore, says Winston, lean on them to keep you on the straight and narrow. "Make a pact with a friend and vow to call each other prior to any charge or temptation to charge." You and the friend can further the challenge by promising to share your credit reports with each other every six months or so.

Keep in mind that you'll want friends who inspire you, not depress you. Make sure you choose those with positive attitudes.

3. Employ social networking. Shelagh Braley, the CEO of My Life List, a social network for goal achievers, believes that making a public, online announcement can make all the difference in maintaining a financially healthy life.

"Use your social networks to declare your goal, ask for accountability and gather support and knowledge you need to get there!" says Braley. "Guaranteed, there are other people in your circle who share your desire to stay debt-free and are just waiting for a reason to commit. Then you can all do it together."

4. Broaden your budget. A perpetually tight financial belt is a problem, so loosen it up a notch before you rip it off. My Money Mess personal finance blogger Christopher Scully stresses the importance of constantly refining and revising a cash-flow plan. If a budget isn't elastic, you'll eventually stray.

"Build in achievable goals, then rework your budget to include saving for it," says Scully. "Allot some sort of reward money for hitting monthly milestones on the way." By doing so, you'll prepare for long-term objectives while having enough funds to satisfy your desire for spending liberty.