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How to Stay Motivated When Paying Off Debt Becomes a Slog

Allie Johnson

March 7, 2013

Paying down debt is kind of like losing weight or anything else that requires hard work and a change in habits. It’s easy to get really motivated at first, then lose steam once the initial excitement wears off.

For example, I was really focused when my husband and I started our debt repayment push last summer. I spent hours scouring personal finance blogs for debt repayment tips. I combed through our bank statements looking for extras to cut. I found new ways to save — from making my own natural skin care products, to turning up our thermostat, to using ceiling fans to stay cool.

We put every spare cent into debt repayment and paid down more than $12,000 in the first six months. Crossing off small debts when they were paid off was very motivating and helped keep us on track – just as proponents of the snowball method say it will. Soon, though, we were left with one huge debt that wasn’t going to be eliminated any time soon: my husband’s $50,000-plus student loan.

So, right now, debt repayment feels like a slog. The fun of creating a plan is in the past, but the end is a long way off. We continue to make progress, and we’re still committed, but we haven’t been quite as strict as we were in the beginning, and I know we need to find some ways to stay motivated. If you’re in a similar situation, here are a few tips:

  • Do fun stuff while staying frugal. It’s easy to deprive yourself for a short period of time, but it might not be practical for the long haul. CoupleMoney.com recommends continuing to take vacations and enjoy fun nights out — just try to use half-price deals or go to free events to keep entertainment spending in check.
  • Celebrate in increments. The husband-wife blogger team behind NotMadeofMoney.com recommends setting milestones along your debt payment journey. (Since we have just one big debt left, this makes sense for us. Each $10,000 increment will be a huge achievement and will make the debt look and feel that much smaller. We plan to treat ourselves to a nice dinner out each time we knock another $10,000 off our total.
  • Make a graph. Finance blogger Kacie of Sense to Save, guest blogging at Money Saving Mom, recommends creating a visual depiction of your debt. I love this idea, and it reminds me of another tip I once read, which was to divide your debt into chunks and create a graph, with each square representing, say, $100. If you make a payment of $300, you color in three squares. That gives you an easy, quick way to see how far you’ve come and how far you have left to go. I definitely plan to use this tip, and I’ll put the graph on the fridge where we can see it daily.
  • Think about life after debt. We recently sat down and talked about everything we plan to do when we’re out of debt. When we first started our debt repayment plan, we had very specific reasons for wanting to be out of debt. Maybe you also have a big goal — such as buying a house, going on a dream vacation or sending your kid to college. Whatever your motivation, now is the time to think about what life will be like when the money that’s now going to pay creditors can be used to make your life better.