How to Stay Motivated to Pay Off Debt

When you have a lot of debt to pay off, it can feel nearly impossible to stay motivated for the long haul.  Especially if you can’t put a lot of money on debt, you may be wondering how you stay motivated until all your debt is paid off.

We tend to believe that motivation is an intrinsic thing, when actually, we often pull motivation from outside sources.  Sure, intrinsic motivation is great when we can get it, but we can also source motivation from the outside when we can’t find it within ourselves.

Not to get all cheesy, but that’s kind of the beautiful thing about being part of a community.  In this case, a community of people who are on fire about their financial goals.  When we don’t have any of our own, we can borrow from outside sources like other people and the content they create.

Just like any goal that takes time, you need to make motivation a habit.  Think about it: if you’re on a diet, you find ways to motivate yourself.  You look at photos of your ideal body, you research fun new recipes to try, you get yourself an accountability buddy, right?

Financial goals like paying off debt are no different from any other long-term goal.  The thing to remember is that you need to make motivation to pay off debt a habit.  If you wait until you’re about to binge spend, you’ve probably waited way too long to seek motivation. Make motivation a daily habit.  Choose one or a few of these ways to keep yourself motivated.

Set a Little Money Aside for What You Want

If you live an ascetic lifestyle, you’re bound to screw up occasionally.  It’s my opinion that unless we leave ourselves a little bit of cash to enjoy life in moderation, we’re likely to backslide into a spending spree to rival those $1,000 shopping spree giveaways from the ‘90s.

Our brains don’t handle it well when we try to go a long time without joy.  If you’ve set yourself to an impossibly high standard, you’re bound to screw up big at some point.  It’s better just to schedule in some spending cash that you can use without any guilt.

It’s just like scheduling a cheat day during a diet.  Allowing yourself small treats from time to time will keep you from either giving up altogether or bingeing on fat and sugar. You can either save a little bit from every check and sock it away for use later, or you can schedule a check in the future when you opt not to pay off debt and spend with abandon.  Just make sure you’re not leaving it up to your instincts.  Control the release valve.

Keep Pictures of Your End Goals

Let’s say you have a goal to be a really good artist, but today you don’t have any artistic skills.  So you take classes, you practice every day and get ever-so-incrementally better.

One of the ways you might stay motivated is to look at the art you want to be able to create and imagine yourself selling art on Etsy or getting your paintings into a gallery, or whatever the case is.

You can use the same method with financial goals, though it may look a little different.  Usually with financial goals, debt payoff is not the end goal (though for some it is). Debt payoff is usually the means to that goal.  For example, mine is having extra spending money—I want to buy a home, save a bigger retirement nest egg, get Invisalign, travel.  And so looking at houses I’ll be able to eventually save for or checking out pictures of Italy.  It gets me on fire to get this smaller goal done so I can get to the bigger goals.

Consume Finance Content Regularly

Nothing motivates me like consuming finance content!  It’s worlds better than bingeing entertainment TV because I often learn new things.  In fact, it’s a big part of what motivated me to start my own blog, because I wanted to be part of the community that helps motivate other people to hit their goals.

Regularly consuming personal finance content like blogs, books, videos, and podcasts keeps me engaged.  You can pick any sub-topic you like.  You can focus on material that stays focused on paying off debt, like this post, or you can pick a topic that’s next in your list of financial goals.

Some good topics might be stock market investing, saving for a home, budgeting, calculating your retirement, or real estate investing. And you don’t necessarily have to follow all the advice in these books, but reading them will help you develop the habit of tracking and maintaining your personal finances overall, which can help keep you motivated on your long-term goal.

Get a Buddy to Keep You Accountable

Just like in fitness, an accountability buddy might be your ticket.  Especially finding someone who’s working on a similar goal, or at least a financial goal, is your best bet.  Make sure you choose someone who is going to remember to ask you.

If you’re doing this with your spouse, this could be your accountability partner.  My husband and I check in on our finances every month, but if you don’t have this built-in accountability partner, choose a close friend who isn’t afraid to take you to task if you fall off the wagon.

Finance groups on Facebook, etc.  Also look for groups and friends who are on their way to financial freedom.

Tell Everyone What You’re Doing

Peer pressure’s a bitch, ain’t it?  But what if it could be a tough bitch fighting in your corner?  A little social pressure never hurt anyone.  I mean, think about it:  a lot of times we’re good people because we adhere to the social contract.  It keeps us in line, which can be a good or a bad thing.

In this case, it can be a very, very good thing.  This is the more extreme version of an accountability partner.  It does require a lot of vulnerability, though!

For myself, I decided to tell the world what I was doing by starting my blog.  It’s another way of keeping myself on track while also contributing to the personal finance community, and, hopefully, one day becoming a stream of income for myself and my own finance goals.

But, you don’t have to start a blog to do that; you can also make an announcement to your friends and family—on Facebook, over the next family dinner or friends gathering, whatever works for you.

Sobriety is a lifelong journey—longer than any debt payoff plan we might have, for sure.  Ashley Kesner of the blog Free Your Ghost used the public announcement method to get sober.  It required an enormous amount of courage to be that vulnerable, but it worked wonders for her, and as of today she’s more than a year sober.

If that’s not an endorsement for this kind of motivation, I don’t know what is.

Keep Learning/Preparing for Your Next Finance Goal

After my debt is paid, I want to focus on real estate and stock investing as my next steps to the ultimate goal of retirement.  I’m super stoked to get these next steps started, and so continuously learning about them and planning for them is a great motivator for me.

It’s almost like the treat rule for me, but it’s focused on hitting my next goal.  When I feel prepared to take it on, it makes me want to finish the goal I’m currently working on to get to it. I’ve been learning a lot about real estate investing and retirement planning for this reason, and it works wonders to keep me on the straight and narrow debt payoff path.

Review Your Progress Regularly

When I first started my debt payoff journey, I asked my husband if we could sit down on the first of every month to review our debt and the progress gained in the previous month.

Not only was it a great way to keep us on track as accountability partners, but it allowed me to actually see the debt numbers dropping.  I even got all fancy with it and came up with charts and projected timelines and everything.

Honestly, I really looked forward to these debt reviews, and being able to see the numbers accumulating in our favor was great motivation for me to keep going.

I would, however, caution you to find the frequency sweet spot.  If we’d only looked at our debt every six months, we may have lost steam from not really looking at the numbers, but if we looked at our numbers every week, the progress might have been so minimal that it might not have been very motivational.

I think the frequency matters when you’re talking about motivation.  For some people it might be better to only look at numbers every two months or every quarter, while others might be motivated more by looking at numbers every couple of weeks.

Find what works for you and roll with it.

Make an Extra Principal Payment

I feel like once you get used to the lifestyle changes of paying down debt, and you’ve already got some motivation under your belt, you might find that your special reward treat is making an extra principal payment.

It’s so lovely to make that extra payment.  Usually you’ve already made a payment for the month, so the whole shebang goes on the principal of the debt.  And that’s sexy.

And motivational!

Debt Snowball Instead of Avalanche

There are two ways to pay off your debt.  The more efficient route is debt avalanching, where you pay off the highest-interest account first, and the snowballing method is where you pay off the smallest account first.

There’s a reason snowballing is more popular even though it’s not as efficient.

It’s incredibly motivating to see that first debt paid off, and if you can get even a small win early in, it can boost your confidence in your ability to make it through the journey.  Plus it feels nice to then apply a bigger payment to the next one, rather than seeing all smaller payments.

So if you’re just about to start, and you haven’t decided which method you’ll use, you may want to try snowballing first and then, when your motivation is high, you could maybe switch to the avalanche method later if you prefer.

The small wins offered by the snowball method could help you stay motivated to pay off debt.

Plan Your Next Treat

If you’re leaving yourself a little leeway by hitting a mini-goal and then treating yourself to something you want, and if your debt payoff seems a very long way off, then looking forward to your next mini-treat with your spending money can be a great motivator!

Looking forward to buying that cute dress or the special computer part you’ve been eyeing is a good way to pay it off faster.  I don’t recommend window shopping, per se, but if you have something specific in mind that’s an object, you might want to keep a photo nearby that you can look at.

Or if it’s less tangible, like a trip to the bowling alley, you can reminisce on that trip and polish the bowling ball.

Add Up How Much Extra Money You’ll Have Every Month (and Plan What You’ll Do With It)

How much money will be freed up once you’re done paying off the debt?  Have you calculated the total amount you spend on your debt every month?

Because I did, and the number was stupid.  I just kept dreaming about all the different ways I could potentially use that excess cash once it was freed up from paying off things I’d bought a long time ago!

I mean, I could invest it in something exciting, or save up for a house, or get myself some braces.  I could save up for a nice road trip down Route 66!  I could really speed up my retirement savings!

Your dreams might be different from mine, but whatever it is, imagine how fast you could save up for some of the bigger things you’re interested in, if only those $200, $500, $1,000 each month could be yours again.

Heck, maybe all it would do would be to allow you to have some breathing room every month, or make it so you can stop living paycheck to paycheck.

Create a Visual Progress Tracker

Okay, don’t laugh, but you know those little goal trackers they use in working environments everywhere?

Like your new goal is to get an additional $750k in revenue for the year and they keep a giant thermometer on the wall that they color in, or they have a little runner that they move along the track toward the finish line?

That’s what I’m talking about.

Hey, I said don’t laugh!  (Also, eye rolling and scoffing are totally off the table as well.)

Yours doesn’t have to be that cheesy, of course, but visual trackers to goals can be hugely motivational, which is why corporate environments use them.

You could figure out how much time it’d take to get to your goal and then simply keep a calendar on your wall that marks off the days, weeks, or months until your goal.

Or if you want something less visible, you could keep a bullet journal and color in little dollar signs for every $1,000, $5,000, or $10,000 in debt you pay off.  It’ll feel satisfying and provide you a visual reminder of how far you’ve come.

If bullet journaling isn’t your thing, pie charts and other chart trackers can be creating in Excel.  Did I mention that I love Excel?

Any visual motivators that help you track your progress can go a long way toward keeping you motivated to pay off debt.

Create an Extra Stream of Income to Pay Off Debt Faster

One of the best ways to keep yourself from losing motivation is to simply get the job done faster.  One of the best ways you can do that?  Earn more money and put it toward your debt.

You could pick up more hours at work, but I think the better course of action is to create an additional stream of income.  The more passive, the better.

And keep it after you finish paying off your debt.  You can use that same stream of income later to hit other financial goals!

Set Mini Goals

I’m going out on a limb and saying that paying off debt is just a smaller goal that gets you to a bigger goal.  Debt payoff is rarely the end goal.  What we really want is freed up money, or to retire sooner, or to be able to save more, or to stop living paycheck to paycheck.

All goals can be broken down into smaller goals.

Well, you can break your debt payoff goal down into even smaller debt payoff goals.  When I’d review debt every month, I’d make a mini-achievement out of anything.  It could be as excellent as completely paying off one debt, or as small as saying, “By the end of next month we’ll cross the $10,000 mark!”

Or even the $1,000 mark.  You get the idea.

Having a smaller goal breaks up the monotony of waiting to get to the big goal.  Imagine waiting 40 years to retirement and never getting excited about the smaller goals along the way, like being able to now contribute 18% of your income, or hitting $325k in net worth.

If I’m reading a really long book that’s a bore and a chore, sometimes I have to look at “this ten-page chunk” as a master achievement.

Seek Out Others’ Success Stories

Knowing that others have come before you and succeeded can be insanely motivational.  That’s why we are drawn to motivational speakers.  They tell their stories of overcoming, and it makes us realize that there’s no “special something” that lets someone succeed or not succeed.

It shows us that we, too, have what it takes.  Maybe we’re even in a better position than the person who tells the story, so we know we can do it.

Sometimes stealing a little bit of others’ motivation works!

If you want some motivation today, check out my debt payoff journey.

What Motivates You to Pay Off Your Debt?

You can choose any or all of these motivational methods—find the ones that work for you and go for them!  The important thing is that you make motivating yourself a habit until your debt payoff becomes the habit in itself.

If that means you motivate yourself every day, then do it every day.  Hell, do it several times a day.  Whatever you need.

Just don’t leave your motivation up to chance or wait for it to strike, because it can sometimes be hard to come by intrinsically.

Do you have other ways to stay motivated to pay off your debt?  Or do you use some of the methods I mentioned above?  What have you found that works, and what doesn’t work for you?

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