Anyone who gets serious about paying off debt knows that starting a debt pay down journey is the most difficult part. It’s brutal to face the music and really assess how buried you are. But once you’ve done that, and have put your debt pay down strategy in play, it’s incredibly liberating. The starting gun has gone off. The race has begun. And you’re out there in front. But it’s a long race, one that can involve many sacrifices and setbacks. It can get tiring. It can get old. It can get downright depressing. We need to learn how to stay motivated and remember that paying off debt feels good – even when life happens.
In the beginning…
When I could no longer avoid the glaring danger of being over 50, broke, and in debt, I knew I had to change my relationship with money because, apparently, we weren’t getting along very well. I mean, as soon as I had any, I’d get rid of it. (Pretty cold blooded, eh? If money were a friend, I‘d been a pretty shitty friend.)
The fear of seriously looking at my consumer debt and lack of savings kept me paralyzed for far too long. I had to take action. (If not now, when?) I had to either change my lifestyle, or make more money. So I decided to have a go at both.
With newfound determination, I picked up a side gig, isolated expenses that I thought I could eliminate without dying, and most importantly, I used free resources to create a debt pay down strategy that would have me debt free in just a handful of years.
I was excited! No more money shame! It seemed that I was finally turning a corner.
Everything was on track. I could start to see a dent in my balances. It felt good to know I even managed to put some money aside for emergencies. I was excited! No more money shame! It seemed that I was finally turning a corner. And I was. But there was a really long trail around that bend.
For a good while I steadied my rhythm, kept my head down, and stuck with my plan. I got good at turning down expensive dinner invites and weekend trips with friends. But I’ll tell ya, it can get old resigning your life to a day-in-day-out grind of work and budget dinners. Before long, if you’re not careful, a nasty mindset-malware can begin to infiltrate your determination. Enter: Self-pity.
Feeling sorry for yourself can throw a wrench in your spokes and toss your motivation out the window.
If you dwell in it long enough, it can turn you against yourself because it leads to self-deprecation. You may find yourself blaming and shaming yourself for the past financial mistakes which led you to your current spartan life. And if you’re not careful, you may even feel like blowing off the commitment you made to yourself, splurge on destructive impulse spending, and literally hate yourself for it afterwards. Don’t do this. Just don’t. Trust me, it’s not worth it. Feeling sorry for yourself can throw a wrench in your spokes and toss your motivation out the window.
The fix for self-pity is self-empathy
If your head starts to spiral into dark places, stop. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are all alone on this journey. Remind yourself that consumer debt is a serious national problem. You are not alone in this struggle. In fact, you are in the majority. What may set you apart, however, is that you are actually doing something about it.
So, be kind to yourself. Start a small empathy fund. Give yourself a treat now and then. Just because you can’t do all the things that you want, doesn’t mean you have to hole up in your room and eat Cup Noodles for the rest of your life.
Be kind to yourself. Start a small empathy fund.
Here’s what I did: I put a jar in a kitchen cabinet, and every night when I got home from work, I dumped all of the quarters out of my wallet into that jar. On a good day, especially if I’d resisted some urge to splurge, I might even throw in 5 bucks. That money was for me. It was my reward, and I could do whatever I wanted it with it without any guilt whatsoever. And when the jar was filled, I had fun planning how I was gonna spend it.
After awhile, that jar became a symbol of me saving. Yes, saving. I know that having to throw your hard earned money at debt every month doesn’t feel like saving, but don’t get it twisted. Aggressively paying down consumer debt rather than merely making minimum payments will save you thousands of dollars. It is the best investment you can make. You can’t get a return like that in the stock market. And your investment for this return? Empathy, perseverance, and patience.
Aggressively paying down consumer debt rather than making minimum payments will save you thousands of dollars. You can’t get an ROI like that in the stock market.
What to do when life happens…
You’re gonna hit bumps in the road. It’s inevitable. Sometimes life just doesn’t cooperate, whether we’re doing the right things or not. When I set up my debt pay down strategy, I never expected that I’d have to part ways with my company. That’s right – no full-time job. At first, I thought I’d just find another job in my industry and continue on with my plan. But after a series of disappointing realizations, I discovered that it wasn’t so easy to find employment at my age. (Yes, ageism is a thing.)
Without a full time job, “lifestyle change” took on a much more profound meaning than merely buying the cheaper coffee beans, or passing up dinners out with colleagues.
To be honest, I was getting scared. My focus was no longer on solely getting a handle on my financial future, now I had to figure out how to survive, like, NOW. The stakes had been raised, and it was terrifying. The initial relief I felt from facing my debt, the excitement I discovered in embracing frugality, the self-confidence I had gained by taking control of my finances … gone. For without a full-time job, “lifestyle change” began to take on a much more profound meaning than merely buying the cheaper coffee beans, or passing up dinners out with colleagues. It was then that dangerous mindset-malware #2 reared its ugly head: Defeat.
…and shit gets real
Even though I was finally taking control, was less in debt, had lowered my expenses, and was recovering from a life of blind consumerism, I felt like a loser. Even though I was eating healthier, living more creatively, more at peace with myself, and free of that underlying stress we all have when we are lying to ourselves, I felt like a failure. And I started to ask, “What’s the use?”
But when I took a step back and looked at the big picture, I realized that if I hadn’t started this journey, if I hadn’t gotten a side gig, saved some emergency funds, and refinanced my debt at a lower interest rate, I would have been in a much worse position. I’d already come so far in a year. Was I just gonna to give up now? Was I just gonna walk away from my dream of being debt free? Was I really going to the let the big banks win and rob me of my wages in interest for the rest of my life? Hell, no!
The antidote to setbacks is perseverance
And this is when perseverance kicked in. I decided I’d come too far to just give up. I had to take it to the next level.
- I started applying for jobs outside of my industry. (I even considered positions I would have been overqualified for 20 years ago!)
- I sold everything I could live without on Craigslist.
- I moved from the high-rent city to the low-rent countryside.
- I took public transport everywhere it went. (And picked up a used bicycle to access places it didn’t.)
There will be setbacks. It’s inevitable. And while you may feel that you’ve already made all of the lifestyle changes you could, and have adopted the most frugal mindset possible at the time, sometimes you just need to dig deeper. You may surprise yourself when you learn what you can get used to living without. To ward off any uninvited feelings of panic, I stopped focusing on what it was I thought I was losing, and started focusing on what I still had: a roof over my head, food, and at least a small amount of steady income from my side gig. My health, the sky, the trees, and most of all, my sense of humor. (Definitely hang onto that last one!)
To ward off my feelings of panic, I stopped focusing on what it was I thought I was losing, and started focusing on what I still had.
I continually reminded myself that, although it felt like I was losing, this was just an illusion. For in reality, I was actually in better shape financially than I’d been before I started my aggressive attack on my consumer debt. Today I owed less money than before. This fact alone made me actually closer to being financially stable, with or without my full time job. (And if you really need to be reminded of how lucky we actually are, think about this for a few minutes: 30% of the people on our planet don’t have access to a toilet.)
When it seems like it will take forever…
Remind yourself that it won’t take forever. Don’t believe me? Play this little game with yourself. What were you doing five years ago? Do you remember what you were feeling every single day? No, of course not. The human brain is amazing. We tend to forget the details of our previous, tedious struggles. But we do remember moments of solace and peace; when we are truly present with ourselves. Remember this when the 3rd evil demon we’ll have to mitigate enters the room: Impatience.
Impatience attacks us when we refuse to stay in the present.
Impatience attacks us when we refuse to stay in the present. Whenever you start future tripping and panicking, or ruminating on mistakes in the past, try to realize that neither of those places actually exist. You don’t have to freak out about the future, nor feel regret about the past, if you stay right where you are, right now. What are you doing right now? You’re on the internet, reading a blog post. Look up from your screen and look around you. What do you see? This moment, right now, is all you will ever really have.
…stop future tripping
You are on the right path, doing everything you can to make your future brighter, so let it go. Breathe. You can’t do anything about time, so practice learning to ignore it when it bothers you. Try to change the way you feel about the length of time it will take you to become debt free. Think of it instead as an opportunity to practice being that better version of yourself who will know how to manage your money when it’s finally freed up from paying down your debt.
Focus on the good stuff: Paying down debt feels good
If there’s anything I’ve learned thus far, it’s that I’ve become a different person than when I started this journey one year ago. I’ve learned to forgive myself. I’m stronger and more resilient. I’ve learned that I can’t do jack about when tomorrow comes, but I can do something today to ensure it’s easier. I’m still learning, and totally expect there to be more lessons along the way.
Re-learn to enjoy that which money can’t buy and debt can’t take away.
It’s going to be a long, long road for me, and there isn’t a thing I can do about that, except to keep walking. But I refuse to be miserable while I’m doing it. When I feel sorry for myself, left out, or lonely, I practice empathy. When I feel like I can’t go on any longer, when it seems like I am defeated, I remember the courage it took to begin this journey, and I dig in for perseverance. And when I become impatient, when it feels like this will never end, I draw my attention back to today, back to now. Time will take care of itself. In the meantime, re-learn to enjoy that which money can’t buy and debt can’t take away, that thing you knew as a child before you were ever aware that an inane concept like “consumer debt” even existed: life itself.