When Debt Reduction Fatigue Strikes, Know How to Fight Back
Paying off debt can be exhilarating at first. Small debts get knocked off quickly. Progress snowballs and hope is on the horizon. But what happens when the grind of careful budgeting wears you down? You dream of getting to the other side and can see it getting closer, but that last debt payment is still so far away. How can you fight the urge to give up?
After going hard after debt for 18 months, my partner and I should be thrilled. Our debt has been slashed in half. We targeted everything except the mortgage, which we will ride out since it has very low interest and will take care of itself in five years. So now, six debts are paid off, and only one remains.
Since we used the debt snowball method, we tackled smaller debts first to get us quick wins. We saved our home equity loan for last. Conveniently, it also had the lowest interest rate, and we elected to pay off higher-rate debts first. So all our extra money is going to this one last debt. It feels like it will take forever, even though our target payoff date is only two years away. Mentally, it is wearing on us, and we are tired of working on this one last piece. We want to get on with our lives.
How can you break free of a situation like this? Let’s get to work and reframe our thinking.
1. Celebrate what you have accomplished so far.
If you have been on the debt reduction journey long enough to feel fatigued, you have done some work. That work has produced some results. What are your small accomplishments and big successes? Review your progress and write down all of your wins.
Once you have your list, recognize how important those wins are on the way to wiping out the last dollar of debt. Even if each one is small, those steps are essential and show that you have a track record of getting things done. Then, share your success with an accountability partner or an encouraging friend or family member to amplify the positive vibes.
2. Post a visual reminder of your progress and update it regularly.
Charting your progress is fun and easy, and increases your chance of success. You can use a simple tool, like a bar graph or pie drawn on a piece of paper or whiteboard, and color it in as you move along. You can get fancy if you have some graphic design and computer skills and create a custom image that inspires you. If you are a digital nerd, some apps help you track your progress and give you reminders when you remember to use them, but the best reminder is one that you see often. Choose a method that lets you hang a reminder on your wall or insert a page in your daily planner.
We framed a certificate from a financial course we completed, and I used a dry-erase pen to write on the glass. Every two weeks, when a debt payment is made, the amount gets colored in on a progress bar, and I update the total amount we have paid and have left to pay off. It hangs in our bedroom, and I am motivated to keep moving that progress bar when I get up in the morning.
3. Know your target date and visualize arriving there.
At the rate you are currently paying on your debt, when will it be paid off? First, calculate the month and year. Then, visualize what life will be like when you reach your goal. How will you celebrate then? How will you invest the money you no longer lose to debt payments? If it is less than two years away, focus on the number of months, which tick by quickly.
As the months pass and you make payments, you feel your date getting closer and closer. You will find you don’t want that date to move further into the future. Knowing when you will exit this phase gives you some hope when you are tired of the debt payment process.
Our date is 24 months away. It fluctuates occasionally, but I want to stay close to that date or bring it closer. Even though sticking to our budget and watching our hard-earned money go toward debt is hard, it is better than slacking off and seeing our payoff date move further away.
4. Break the overall debt into smaller milestones.
Our last debt is our biggest one. It is a home equity loan. Sure, we could just treat it like a mortgage and move on but, right or wrong, we incurred this debt for consolidating other unsecured debt along with some home improvements. We just want it gone. It will take another two years to be free. That’s a bummer. No more quick wins by knocking off smaller debts.
With debt like this, it helps to break it into smaller chunks. When will the remaining debt be half gone? How much can you knock off this year? Or in six months? Instead of looking at the long slog to $0, pick a smaller dollar amount or percentage of payoff to reach by a specific date.
5. Create fun rewards for meeting milestones.
Have you ever noticed that much of the fun of a journey is the anticipation you feel leading up to the trip? Our minds love this. Create the same effect by identifying a fun reward for meeting the milestones you set in number five. The reward does not have to be large or expensive, just meaningful to you. Maybe it’s a special dinner out or allowing yourself to buy something extra for your wardrobe or your home.
6. Know that it is okay to take a short break to protect critical assets like your home or vehicle.
Sometimes you need to take a short break during your debt payment plan. For example, if you need tires or a new roof and don’t want to raid your emergency fund, you have to pause debt payments. Your car needs to be safe to drive, and your home needs a roof that doesn’t leak. These situations can be disheartening, as your debt payoff date will be delayed.
The antidote to this is remembering how taking care of your necessities is different now that you are not going into more debt cover expenses. At the end of your pause, you will go right back to making progress. During the break, you are not going backward; you are taking care of your finances responsibly.
7. Budget for things that matter to your mental health.
You still need a life. If your debt repayment is a grind and your patience is wearing thin, you might need to allow yourself a little more fun. While I am very focused on putting as much as possible toward debt, my husband feels much more constrained and restricted by the process. He needs a little bit of spending money to feel empowered and in control. That’s okay, as long as we agree and keep it reasonable.
Budgeting for little things that bring you joy and keep you sane is important. Entertainment subscriptions, a new pair of shoes, books, evenings out, whatever it is you look forward to can still be a part of your plan and make the debt payoff process a little more palatable even if it takes you slightly longer to get to zero debt.
8. Adjust your payment if your income changes, but don’t quit.
Sometimes life happens. A pandemic, for example. Unexpected job loss or changes. Illness. Family or relationship troubles. Suddenly you are forced to slow your progress on that last darn debt. It sucks, but don’t quit. Instead, figure out how much you can still contribute to debt payment and keep going. Any progress is still progress.
Pick up a fun, seasonal job to offset lower income or help the process along if you want to work faster. There are plenty of intelligent adults picking up jobs they don’t intend to keep forever to meet their goals in the short term. I know teachers and other professionals moonlighting with DoorDash or working weekends bartending.
9. Remember what prompted you to start the journey.
As Simon Sink would say, look at your why. What drove you to start the journey? You felt something strong enough to set your feet on a path to getting rid of debt. Are you creating a better life for your family? Are you working toward the freedom to pursue work you love and quit the job that currently pays your bills? Don’t forget your origin story.
Chances are, you have changed and don’t want to go back to your old ways of thinking and money behaviors. You are wiser now. You can inspire others. You will have a great tale to tell when you pay off that last debt.
10. Recognize where you would be if you had not begun the journey.
Do the math. What would that look like if you had continued racking up debt or making minimum payments and ignored the problem? How much further away would your debt-free date be? Would there even be a time you would have a cushion of cash or a healthy investment fund?
Looking back at the amount we have applied to the debt over the past eighteen months, I realize we would have spent much of that without thinking, and we would still be carrying hefty debt balances. It blows my mind and is the most motivating idea of all. We have months to go, and I am tired, but wow, am I glad we are here and hopeful instead of sticking our heads in the sand, hoping debt would go away on its own.
Fight Your Debt Payoff Fatigue by Reframing Your Thoughts
We have looked at ten simple ways to stay motivated to wipe out that last large debt or any debt you have. The bottom line is that it is all how you look at it. Our brains are powerful when appropriately directed. You can consciously lead your thoughts in a positive direction and overcome that one last debt hurdle. You are in charge of your story and your journey. Write it well.