How to Stay Motivated to Pay Off Debt

Updated on April 22, 2020
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Dennis Ebris is an online marketer, entrepreneur, husband and father. He has been almost entirely debt-free since 2014.

Debt is a four letter word for a reason. I'm not here to convince you that you need to eliminate debt. You already know that, that's why you're here, so I'm not going to beleaguer the point.

We're here to talk about when you're deep in the trenches of paying off your debt and struggling to stay motivated. It happens to everybody. It's hard to not get exhausted when you feel like you're living a substandard life. You frequently find yourself thinking:

  • "How long is this going to take?"
  • "When's it going to end and when can go back to normal life?”

Stop Looking at Other Peoples' Lives on Social Media

You wonder why you see the pictures on Facebook or Instagram of your friends going out doing all these fun things you’d like to be doing. You wonder why your kids are bored, or why they have to be bored. Perhaps you wonder, “Why can't I just take my wife out to a nice meal, this one time?”

It gets really hard when you're trying to pay everything off and do the responsible thing, but you see life happening all around you. Just remember, you're only seeing the highlight reels of peoples' lives on social media.

Let's get to the core of what we're doing here; how to stay motivated when you're paying debt off. Some of this stuff you already know and that's okay, but I hope to add a bit more insight to the ways you can stay motivated and provide a few new ideas as well.

Content makes poor men rich; discontent makes rich men poor.

— Benjamin Franklin

Setting Short Term Debt Payment Goals

To start, you need goals. And when I say goals, a lot of people think, “Okay, I'm paying off debt. I already have that as a goal.” It should be your end goal to have all of your debt paid off, but you need other goals.

Defining What Debt-Free Means to You

When you start paying off debt, especially if you have a huge amount of debt, you need to firstly define what being debt free means to you. When I first started writing online, I discovered that a lot of people considered themselves debt-free when they had all debts paid off, except their mortgage.

The mortgage was always an acceptable debt to them, but it wasn't to me. Everyone's got one, so they say. You need to determine, firstly, what your definition of debt-free is. My definition of debt-free does not allow for mortgage debt.

Setting Specific, Realistic Goals (when I grow up I want to rule the world!)

When I hear someone discussing their debt, “I need to stop spending and pay that debt off,” and then they say their goal is paying off all debt, it's kind of like imagining a guy has two broken legs and decides he wants to climb Mount Everest.

While that might be something you could hope to do in a few years, you need short-term goals. No one can go straight from sitting on a couch to climbing Mt. Everest. So, what are some ways that you can break that bigger goal up into smaller goals? That's what we're really talking about here: you need to establish short term goals.

Setting Short-Term Goals

A short-term goal could be paying off an individual debt, perhaps one with a high interest rate, or one with a large payment that cuts into your cash flow each month. Maybe you’re making regular payments on your student loans and your mortgage and you're fine with that, but you're really disappointed in that lapse in judgment last week when you bought the giant $4,000 curved screen television, on credit.

Your short term goal could be trying to pay off that less-than-responsible purchase you made. You can also set incremental financial goals, for instance, “I want to pay off $5,000 of debt in six months,” which after successfully completing, could be followed with, “I want to pay $10,000 of debt off in 12 months.”

There are many ways you can come up with goals and you just need to find what fits best in your budget. Once you've set a few goals, you need to use a system that will help you methodically achieve those short term goals.

Choosing a Debt Management System

When I say "choose a debt management system" it really sounds more complicated than it is. It isn't a software, or service you pay for, but really a set of steps you can follow to pay down your debt. There are a lot of systems that others have thought of such as:

Dave Ramsey's Baby Steps:

There are many systems out there. A common one that many have tried, including myself, is the Dave Ramsey's baby steps system. It's a very high-level set of seven steps to help get you into a more stable financial situation. To be honest, the baby steps, by themselves, won't help you too much. They really function as a nice, simple checklist to let you know you're making progress.

The Debt Snoball Method:

In Dave Ramsey's "Baby Steps," the second step of the system is simply "Pay off debt." Which leads to another system of his called the "Snowball Method." His Snowball Method organizes all of your bills from the smallest amount due to the largest amount due. The main idea is that you pay off the smallest debts first, and then all of the money that would have been used towards those payments, then gets rolled over to your next biggest debt.

He describes it as a debt snowball. You continue making payments and paying down the debt. You pay the minimum on all of your other debts except the one that you're focusing on, throwing all of your available money at that one small debt. Once that's paid off, you then take that money towards those payments and throw it up the next smallest debt, all the way up until you've got this giant snowball of money going at your largest debt.

Many financial folks don’t like Dave Ramsey's snowball method, because you ultimately will pay more in interest over the life of your aggregate debt. To his credit, he does state that the snowball method is about behavior modification, not math.

The Modified Debt Snowball Method

To remedy this, you can modify the system to pay off your highest interest debt first and then focus on the next highest, and the next highest until you've paid off all your debt.

If you pay off the highest interest debt first, then in the long run, you're going to save more money. Dave Ramsey system isn't based on the idea of paying the least amount of money possible. It is just to motivate you because you'll see debt is getting paid off.

The Simple Habit System

Another system you could try is very simple. Let’s say you want to pay $500 each month towards debt, allocated however you decide. Each month, you make it a point that at least $500 of your income goes towards paying off debt. As you can see, it's a very simple system. Your first step should be to create a habit.

There are a lot of ways that you can choose to approach your short term goals. You just need to choose which system works best for your short term goals. Do you just want to work on paying down individual debts?

Do you just want to look at all of your debt as one giant, big bucket, making specific payments towards that giant bucket? It's all up to you. No matter what system you go with, one thing is for sure, the debt will start to shrink.

Giving Yourself Rewards

The next step in getting yourself motivated to be debt free is to give yourself real constructive rewards for achieving your goals. What I mean by that is you need an actual reward that will inspire you, but at the same time it needs to not work against you.

Choosing the Right Sized Reward

I will discuss this a bit later, but whatever you reward yourself with has to be small enough that it doesn't work against your goal of being out of debt, but big enough that you'll actually be excited to work towards it.

Examples of Rewards for Paying Down Debt

I couldn't possibly give you an exhaustive list of possible incentives, since everyone is motivated by different things. Here are some example goals and rewards.

  • Each time you pay off $5000 worth of debt, go out to a nice dinner with your spouse.

  • After you've paid off that credit card, throw a barbecue with some friends.

  • Once you pay off your student loans, purchase that electronic gadget that you really wanted, but didn’t buy because you focused on those loans.

Going out to a fancy dinner or attending a concert after you've paid off $5,000 worth of debt can a real motivator for some people. It won’t critically impact your goal. A single $100-$200 meal isn't going to ruin your end goal.

Perhaps even a reward of a $50 meal out and for some people that might motivate them. Maybe for a couple with kids who never gets a date night, a $50 meal out while the kids are at home with the babysitter is all the motivation they need! You just need to find what motivates you.

Treat Yo Self:

Automating Your Payments

The next suggestion is to automate anything that you can. Automation is your best ally in your battle against debt.

The first step is to set up recurring automatic payments larger than the minimum that you owe. Not only does it make it easier for you to pay off your debts, assuming that you're not overdrawing your account, but it takes the thought out of it for you.

Does Thinking About Debt Stress You?

Keeping your debts at the forefront of your mind might be good for some people, but if you find yourself overly stressed, then constantly dwelling on the financial burden isn’t helping you be productive. Again, it’s different for different people. For me, having those things on my mind motivates me. In that case, certain automations that take my mind off of it isn't a help for me.

On the other hand, I know a lot of people who lose sleep over debt, and in those situations, focusing too much on your debt can only make the person feel more overwhelmed. This is why automation is so important. It can remove that burden from you.

Automation Prevents Late Fees

In case you’re not already aware of this fact, you can use an automatic payment system for paying bills. Let's say your credit card provider allows you to automatically make payments, or perhaps you owe a store balance and they allow you to set up automatic payments. Automation can prevent paying high late fees for not making payments within the statement date.

Some people may be uncomfortable with the idea of giving permission to a company to automatically pull money out of their account. If you're one of those people, you can use your bank’s bill pay service to automatically send payments.

Free Bill Pay at Your Bank

So far, I have not run into a situation where I couldn’t use bill pay to pay off my bills. The bank I use allows me to control it. Let's say the holidays are coming up and you can't make a payment or you have to reduce payment. You can adjust the amount you can pay inside of your bill pay.

I like this method of automation because instead of having 20 different websites to log into and reduce payments or adjust payments, you can do everything from inside of your online bank account.

But I Think I Need That Money! (You Don't)

Automation is such a powerful tool because you can set it up in a sustainable way. It just does its thing in the background, requiring no discipline on your part. One of the biggest hurdles for people is their lack of discipline. It’s easy to think of a million reasons why you should pay the minimum this month.

When you automate things, you stop thinking about the reasons why you need the extra funds and should only make the minimum payment. You don't have to think about it, and for a lot of people, the true value of that is you don't have to be motivated.

Automation is great because it eliminates the need for motivation.

You can maximize paying off your debt and there's no motivation necessary. There's no energy being expended on your part. Again, it's going to come back to what your personality is and how your mind works.

Automation may be the best thing to have ever happened to you when it comes to paying off debt. As I said before, if you're the kind of person that needs to always have your mind on it, then automation may not be for you, but if you struggle with remembering to pay those bills on time and staying disciplined, automation is the answer.

Monitoring the Progress

Now that you’re motivated to pay off debt, it’s important to monitor the progress you’re making. Making payments without monitoring the progress towards your debt free goal will make the task this indefinite thing.

You just feel like you're forever going to be paying this monthly bill. It can feel like you’re swimming, but can’t see where you’re supposed to get to, so it feels like an endless ocean of debt with no land in sight.

Ways to Monitor Your Debt Payment Progress

Figuring out how to monitor your progress can be as simple as logging in to your accounts and watching the balance go down. That's what I did with my mortgage. You could also keep a list of your debts, a simple print out, you know, kick it old-school.

List your debts:

  • Mortgage: $75,000
  • Student loans: $20,000
  • Car: $16,000
  • Credit card: $12,500
  • Second credit card: $4,800
  • Medical: $900

As you pay those debts off, cross them off your list and you'll see you'll have a physical list right in front of you, tracking your progress.

Thermometer Visual Progress Tracker

Sticking with the old-school approach, you could use one of those classic fundraising thermometer-style posters. At the start, your thermometer is empty. As you raise money, you use a red marker and color in part of the space representing the amount of money that's been paid off.

At the top of your thermometer, you can have your total debt, with marker ticks at other areas along the thermometer representing the individual debts that make up the total amount of your debt. And then as you make payments, just go ahead and scribble a little bit on it to fill in that thermometer until you hit the top of the thermometer.

Being Disciplined

The last thing that I have to say on this subject is that you shouldn't, whatever you do, work against yourself. I touched on this a little bit when I was talking about constructive rewards.

Being disciplined is the most important part of paying off debt. Whether you get your discipline from automation or from strictly managing everything yourself, it’s imperative to not work against yourself. You can't take out more debt.

Don't Take Out Anymore Debt!

Just don’t do it. You have to cut off your bad habits. Don't continue the things that put you into debt. If it was purchases made on store credit; stop going to those stores, at least while you're trying to get your debt under control.

How to Control Spending at Stores

If you end up with an overflowing cart at the grocery store, despite your list of seven items, then consider only going into the store with enough money to buy what's on your list. Make sure you account for any sales tax.

Limit "Browsing"

Limit your browsing by creating a list before you go. Only get the items you truly need. If you find that your eyes still wander while you're at the store, then use the list and do your shopping online rather than in store. When you’re inside a store, it’s easy to browse and find things you ‘could use,’ but don’t really need. Ordering and choosing pick-up or delivery can prevent the temptations of browsing.

Say "No" to Payday Loans and Borrowing Against Future Earnings

You just need to cut off the bad habits that put you into debt. People often struggle with this. They'll get into the payday loans and the cash advance cycles, where you're taking out payday loans and then you're using your paycheck to pay the previous payday loan.

You're taking on additional debt to continue living. If that's a problem you run into, you need to realize the underlying larger problem. You have a cash flow problem, where you spend too much for the income you have. You need to cut off your spending, another common bad habit for those struggling with debt.

I never look back, darling, it distracts from the now.

— Edna Mode

Stop Looking Back

The enemy of moving forward is going backwards. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s something we have all either witnessed or experienced ourselves. Maybe you've been that person who decides to go on a diet. After a week, you reward yourself with a cheat day. Let’s say you give yourself one cheat day a week, and then before you know it, you've fallen off the bandwagon.

Accept this as a new way of life for you and you can stop looking back. Stop thinking about the things that used to make you happy (shopping, dining out, expensive possessions) and realize what is making you happy now:

  • Achieving your goals.
  • Not being tempted by consumption.
  • No longer being controlled by your wants.
  • Taking control of your life.

When you have cheat or splurge shopping spree sort of days before you’ve met goals, you're going backwards. Just keep moving forward. We're all humans. We need to have a certain level of quality of life, and I get that, but it needs to be within reason.

Say Goodbye to Bad Habits—and Mean It!

The biggest thing I can suggest is to cut off the bad habits, don't take on more debt, and figure out a lifestyle that's of sufficient enough quality that you can continue paying off debt, while still giving yourself big enough rewards for meeting your short term goals.

When you reward yourself, you feel rejuvenated and motivated to continue forward towards that longer goal. And hopefully, at the end of all of this, I will see you at the top of Mount Everest!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


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    • DominiqueCM profile image

      Dominique Cantin-Meaney 

      5 months ago from Montreal, Canada

      I do like the advice that you give in this post. I will definitely make note of them.

    • profile image

      B.Sajeev Kumar 

      15 months ago

      Hi, A very useful post which if followed to the tea could get any one in the deep sea of debts to the shore within a timeframe. Much time and research seems to have put in by the author. Really a tremendous and commendable job.


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