Stuck in debt? Try coloring your way out of the red
By Susan Johnston Taylor
December 4, 2015
Personal finance advisers often suggest various approaches to paying off debt, but there may be a new option: coloring your way out of the red.
Like many Americans, 35-year-old Amy Jones wasn’t all that motivated about paying off the $26,400 in debt she had built up on her five credit cards. She would pay off one balance, only to accumulate more debt soon after.
“I rationalized that I would eventually take care of it,” Jones says. “Maybe it would be when I got married.”
But in April 2015, her tax adviser told Jones she needed to get serious about paying off her debt for good. And she did. In fact, Jones managed to pay off all $26,400 in less than a year.
However, instead of paying off the smallest debt first (the snowball method) or starting with the highest interest debt (the avalanche method), Jones took a more creative approach.
Jones had seen her mother coloring as she worked toward meeting her sales goals with Discovery Toys, so she adapted that strategy. She drew 264 swirls (similar to what she’d been doodling for years) on a blank canvas in black Sharpie marker. Each time she paid off $100, she’d color in a swirl to track progress toward her goal.
This visual approach helped Jones to look at tackling her debt “as a piece of art, as something that I could enjoy and make it a little bit of a game for myself,” she says. “It was something I could make progress on and color in.”
Jones kicked off her debt repayment effort with a lump sum payment of $4,000 from her emergency fund. As the months progressed, her former debt was taking on a colorful life of its own until all the swirls were filled in.
So how does coloring away debt compare to traditional repayment strategies?
“The whole getting out of debt journey is a long, complicated thing,” says Dilip Soman, co-director of Behavioral Economics in Action at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. “Anything that gives people a sense of progress can increase motivation.”
Soman points to downloading files online or waiting in a phone queue. Knowing how long the download or call wait time will last doesn’t make the time go faster, but it assures you your wait won’t be indefinite.
Having a visual representation of debt repayment progress works similarly, Soman says.
Financial behaviorist Jacquette M. Timmons says she believes Jones’ approach could actually be more effective than fixating on numbers in a spreadsheet.
“When you’re just looking at a spreadsheet, sometimes you only see how much further you have to go,” she says. “You don’t see how far you’ve actually come. The exercise of coloring helps you to get out of your head.”
Coloring can also stimulate more creative ideas for meeting your goals. “It could help you to not just focus on cutting expenses but also begin to explore what else you could do to earn more money,” Timmons says.
That’s exactly what Jones did.
When you’re just looking at a spreadsheet, sometimes you only see how much further you have to go. You don’t see how far you’ve actually come. The exercise of coloring helps you to get out of your head. It could help you to not just focus on cutting expenses but also begin to explore what else you could do to earn more money.”
— Jacquette M. Timmons,
When Jones shared a photo of her debt repayment map on Facebook, the response was overwhelmingly positive. After friends nudged her to make her maps available to others, Jones used her background in visual marketing and Web strategy to launch MapYourProgress.com, where she sells a variety of maps as prints and digital downloads. It has become her full-time, home-based business in San Juan Capistrano, California.
Jones’ whimsical designs can be used to map one’s progress paying off debt, losing weight, working toward sobriety, or creating other positive habits. In November, Jones created a design of a mustache with 30 swirls to map Movember, an annual event involving growing mustaches during the month to raise awareness of various cancers.
Since launching the website in June, Jones says she has more than 400 customers primarily in the U.S. Canada, the U.K and Australia.
The most popular map is a 150-swirl vortex. That was a surprise, Jones says, as “I figured people would like the 100-swirl map best because it’s so easy to divide your financial goals by 100.”
“I think the 150-swirl map is popular because people enjoy coloring, and it gives them more to color and perhaps more frequently.”
That makes sense, as adults coloring their way out of debt — or just coloring — is booming. In 2015, adult coloring books often have landed on Amazon’s best-seller lists. In November, Barnes & Noble opened all of its nearly 650 stores for an afternoon of adult coloring.
For Jones, coloring the maps “is about shifting your entire orientation to goals into something that is more loving and beautiful and playful.”
That’s not to say that Jones hasn’t made adjustments to stay out of debt.
“I suppose my spending did change, but it was more about me being conscious and prioritizing the payments instead of waiting until the end of the month to see how much I had left over,” she says.
Timmons suggests another benefit to Jones’ strategy of coloring away her debt. That $26,400 debt mountain can feel overwhelming, but it’s not as frightening when divided into increments of $100.
“You can’t swallow the elephant whole and not choke,” Timmons says. Breaking down goals into parts “can have a calming effect.”
Jones experienced that firsthand. Now what worked for her is helping others. She says coloring swirls as progress is made helps “people get motivated and stay accountable to their goals.”