We begin our journey toward financial security and peace of mind by making it a priority to pay off those credit cards, car loans, and other short-term debts. That's right, the first fitness test you need to pass is the "debt" test. Webster's says that debt is anything you're "bound to pay or perform; the state of owing something." Using that definition, very few Americans are free of debt.

Why place an emphasis on getting debt-free as the first step toward a sound investing strategy? Because it's unwise to take on the risks that come with investing unless you have staying power. That means you don't want to be in a position where circumstances unrelated to your investment strategy force you to sell your holdings and use the money elsewhere, such as for interest and debt payments. Also, for Christians, debts are moral as well as legal obligations and they must be honorably met no matter the circumstances.

I once heard a sermon by a noted pastor in which he read a poem called "The Land of Beginning Again." The pastor then presented the claims of Christ, explaining that He is King in the Land of Beginning Again. Each of us has experienced his share of errors, failures, and missed opportunities. We all have things that we would do differently if given a second chance. What wonderful news to know that, in Christ, the slate is wiped clean and we do have the opportunity of beginning again.

In a similar fashion, many who have become weighed down by debt wish they could get free. They have learned that the satisfaction that comes with spending is brief indeed compared to the pressure of making monthly payments which often go on for years. For some, it seems hopeless. You may sometimes feel this way yourself.

If so, take heart! You can make great strides this year. It will require planning, discipline, sacrifice, and singleness of purpose, but there are some excellent books on the market that can help:

• Dave Ramsey has made a big splash helping listeners to his radio program get debt-free. Two of his books worth a look are The Total Money Makeover and The Financial Peace Planner.

• Mary Hunt, through her newsletter and books, has become the queen of frugal living. Her advice is practical and witty. That's why we use her articles regularly in Sound Mind Investing. Check out Mary Hunt's Debt-Proof Living and The Cheapskate Monthly Money Makeover.

Debt-Free Living by Larry Burkett and Taming the Money Monster by Ron Blue are two classics that offer a scriptural way back from financial crisis.

A friend of mine likes to say that the most powerful force in the universe (humanly speaking, of course) is singleness of purpose. Individuals or groups, no matter how determined, disciplined, or talented, will never realize their potential for growth and accomplishment without singleness of purpose. Their time, money, and energies must be focused on common goals. One thing that successful people seem to have in common is an emphasis — perhaps that's putting it too lightly, make that an obsession — concerning setting goals.