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How to Stay Motivated When Paying off Debt

Guest post from Kacie of Sense To Save

When you’re in the process of getting out of debt, sometimes it can be a challenge to stay motivated until it’s all paid off.

If you are feeling a lack of motivation, here are a few tricks to help:

Tally your debt totals.

List all credit card balances, car loans, student loans, mortgages, and personal loans. Get a complete picture of your debt balance, interest rate for each, and minimum payment.

Break your debt into smaller chunks.

If you have a large, overwhelming balance on a student loan, don’t focus on the full amount. Instead, break it into smaller amounts.

For example, if you owe $50,000 in student loans, break that amount into the number of semesters you took. Want to break it down further? Try breaking it down into classes. Viewing $50k as eight $6,250 semesters, or 40 classes at $1,250/pop might be easier to tackle.

If your debt is a mortgage, you can calculate how much house you have paid off and translate that into square footage in your home. For example, we’ve paid off about 20% of our house — roughly enough to own our garage and a bathroom.

Create a visual representation of your debt.

Post it somewhere in your home where you and your family will see it often. Try a graph that you color in as you make progress.

Write the debt total on a post-it note and wrap it around your debit card in your wallet.

Use play money to represent your debt. Tape it to a poster board and remove the bills as you make progress.

Pick a debt pay-off date and put it on your calendar.

Calculate how long it will take you to get out of debt if you only made minimum payments. Next, figure out how much in interest you’d pay if you never made an extra payment.

Using Dave Ramsey’s debt-snowball principle of listing your debts from the smallest to largest balance, apply as much as you can to the principal of the smallest debt and pay only the minimum on the other debts. Eliminate that first debt, and then repeat while building momentum. You might also want to call your credit card companies and ask for a lower interest rate to help make even more traction.

Here’s a handy calculator to track your progress with your debt snowball. It will tell you when you’ll be debt-free. For each individual debt, note the projected pay-off month and see if you can beat it by selling extra things and reducing your expenses for awhile.

Tell a friend when you hope to have each debt paid.

Accountability is important! If a friend knows you should have your Visa paid off by July, she can follow up with you. If you’re feeling bold, post your debt numbers or target payoff date on your Twitter or Facebook account for even more accountability.

Stick to your plan and see it through. The short-term sacrifice will be worth it!

Kacie blogs at Sense To Save. She and her husband have paid off roughly $20k in debt, built a 6-month emergency fund, and have a mortgage. She’s working on a retirement guide to help herself and others get on track for investing for the future.

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  1. Natasha says

    We are motivated to pay off debt knowing that once we pay everything off, we will have an extra$500/month to play with! We recently received notice that we can move into a HOME( 3 bedroom, 3 bath, 2 car garage) for only $300/month FAR better than the $800/month for the 2 bedroom 1 bath we are renting right now! It pays to know the right people :)

        • Natasha says

          and I mean that’s what we rent right now and what we will pay for rent when we move in July. Right now, we live in Morton, IL which is apparently where “rich” people live and we live an an expensive, but not very nice apartments.
          Where we will be moving to is a ranch style brick home about 30 minutes north of Peoria, IL . My FIL farms this old lady’s home, so that is how we are getting it so cheap.
          Paying only that amount will help us out in the long run, as when the fall semester comes, I can only work e/o weekend due to classes M and f, and then clinicas FT Tues-Thr….. I’m so excited, I couldn’t sleep last night!

          • Sarah says

            That’s awesome for you! I’m so glad! It’s such a shock sometimes seeing housing prices or rental prices from other places in the country. I’m in SoCal and we’re paying $1225 in rent right now for a 2br/1ba house with a decent sized backyard – and we’ve actually got a pretty smoking deal for our area!

          • Breanna says

            Wow, we pay $1600/month in a suburb of San Francisco for a 1bed/1bath old apartment. Amazing the differences when you live in different parts of the country. What we have to save for a 20% downpayment (~$120K) is the cost of most homes in the midwest. Oh well, such is life!!!

          • Sarah says

            Yeah, my oldest brother is an actor and next month he’s moving to LA from NY (I live in a suburb of SD). In NY they were about to raise his rent up to $2900 for a 1br/1ba! It’s inSANE, I tell you.

          • Natasha says

            I once lived in the west coast (Puyallup, WA) so I definitely know how expensive it is! I don’t even know how people can afford over $1000 for rent- just crazy!

  2. says

    I have kept our budgets in an Excel spreadsheet for years. When we were paying off our debts, it motivated us to flip through each sheet and see the list of the people we are having to pay slowly getting shorter and shorter. One month when my husband was getting really frustrated by our tight budgets despite the fact that he had just gotten a major pay bump, it was really encouraging for him to see how much more quickly that list had been getting shorter.

    We also celebrated each victory- so each time we paid off a certain debt, we would celebrate. Sometimes that celebration consisted of a just a high five, but it was still nice to delete that line off our budget!

  3. Diane says

    I think it’s motivating that the less debt you have the more you have in your budget. So if you’re completely debt free you don’t even have a mortgage payment and it’s just that much more wiggle room you have. I know that’s not like a celebration and my husband and I have never celebrated any of our debt payment milestones but it’s just internal and we don’t want to owe anyone anything.

  4. Nicole says

    I love all the tips and stories you post about paying off debt! It really helps me to stay focused!!!! I have an extremely high student loan balance, and will not really be able to start chipping away at it until I am employed full time again. Right now we are a single family income with two little ones at home. It’s easy to get discouraged, and everytime I read one of yout money post I remind myself; the debit wasn ‘t created overnight and I can’t pay it off overnight!!

  5. Erin says

    The way we stayed motivated to get out of debt was to come to the realization that all of the debt we owe is money we do not have. When you have debt, someone else is paying for your lifestyle and your choices, and every paycheck you collect is going out to pay for that lifestyle and choices that happened months, or even years, ago.
    Debt is to be avoided. Money is to be respected and collected.
    Trust me, one day, you’ll look around your house, and say to yourself, every single thing I am looking at, we paid for, and is ours.
    It’s an awesome feeling.
    Just stop spending money. Why is this so difficult for some people?

    • Emily says

      Some debt that people have is money that was well spent on a quality college education. I wholeheartedly believe that student loan debt is not bad. While I do think that people should think long and hard about what type of college to go to (a very expensive, private liberal arts college verses a less expensive state school that could provide a very quality education), I think that when someone is furthering their education, that is a good thing, even if it means they are accumulating student loan debt to do so. College loans are the only way many people are able to get a college degree, and I am so thankful that there is help in the form of student loans available to those who need it.

      • Stephanie says

        I hear you and agree but it is very scary to graduate with debt and only find several part time jobs that all put together don’t even add up to the student loan bill every month. This is not me(thank god) but has happened to several very hard working graduates that I know.

      • Andrea says

        Student loans may have made sense in the past, but with 50 percent of new college grads unable to find work, they might not be the best choice for new high school graduates (and people wanting to return to school) trying to make decisions about their future. I’ve read several articles recently that really questioned the value of a college degree and put the emphasis on specialized skills and experience.

        • Momof5 says

          True – but many of those specialized skills and experiences require a college degree to get.

          I think one of the most important things we can do for college students in our circles of influence is to encourage them to think beyond college when they’re choosing majors, etc. I know kids with terrific skills and capabilities in areas where they could get real jobs who choose a major or a school because of how much they like a particular professor.

          We’ve set limits of $10K in loans for each of our kids. But by the time they’re off to school they’re legal adults, and we know our eldest has hit that already, after just two years. Sometimes the school of hard knocks is the best teacher, as much as we wish otherwise. . . .

        • Emily says

          I have to say I totally disagree. I simply can not put the value of a college education into words, and frankly question any article that questions the value of a degree. Now, I don’t think a college education is for everyone……we do need those with specialized skills and experience to fill many jobs that do not require a college education. However, I believe that if a person wants to pursue a higher education, they should not let the inability to pay for it without debt stop them.

          • Andrea says

            It’s not just one article, Emily. People (and publications) everywhere, are questioning the value of a degree. For many, it’s not what it used to be.

    • says

      For some people, it’s more than “just stop spending money.” There can be some powerful psychology behind spending.

      Kind of like “eat less, exercise more” is easy to say, but hard for some to do with regard to weight loss, ya know?

  6. J says

    I love the ideas…and am going to work on concocting some sort of graph. I think the visual thing would really be a great incentive. I have limited computer skills so may need to just do it on paper or something. Wink!

  7. Meredith says

    I would write us notes on post-its and stick them around the house….something little, but it was motivating! I still do it with our financial goals…. right on the refrigerator.

  8. says

    Have a Party! I totally agree with create a visual representation of your debt. When we were paying off our house I had a chart on the fridge (that I took down when people came over) that had some celebration points. When we got to that point, my husband and I had a party! I’d blow up balloons, get out the rarely-used china, and one time I even got a lobster at Wal-Mart (I think it was $10). I made a cheesy poster showing the number we were at and how much had been paid off and put a verse on there giving God all the glory! It really helped to see the progress we had made and motivated us to get to the next Celebration Point!

  9. Amy says

    Wow Natasha that’s a great deal. I live in Washington, Il and was stunned to see a comment from this area! I had to chuckle about Morton because they are known to be “rich”. This article came a great time for me. We were discussing our debt this weekend and while we have made terrific strides I still felt discouraged in our progress. Just reading the article & comments has energized me again. Thanks!

    • Natasha says

      I’m not originally from here, I’m from a town of 3600 about 20 miles south of Bloomington. We moved here to be closer to ICC for my schooling and for work. Good to see someone else near by on here as well!

  10. says

    My wife and I have been working our way out of debt for nearly 5 (or 6…I’ve lost count) years now. We started with $110,000 and now we’re down to $54k.

    There is little doubt that it’s been a struggle to keep going and maintain our intensity. I’ve learned it isn’t feasible to only focus on your debt for that long of period…I believe it’s important to live a little and reward yourself for your successes/progress. Furthermore, you need to slowdown your debt-payoff intensity to prepare for life as well (saving for new cars, house repairs, etc).

    With that said, we still use the visual representations. We have graphs and charts printed on our refrigerator. Also, updating our progress on our blog has been fun too and a good motivator.

    However, the thing that has kept us going the most is simply by taking time and reflecting on how things were 5 years ago and remembering why we started our journey in the first place. Remembering that fear and time of uncertainty always gets me refocused.

    • says

      That is AMAZING. You’ve done a great job, and I can also see why you’re a little burned out. Glad you are finding ways to stay motivated.

      I’m actually working on a post for later this week about how to take a break from it all for a short time to avoid burnout.

  11. Amy says

    I love how this was posted on the last day of the month! Perfect timing for encouragement to keep going!! We are getting ready to review this past month’s budget, reset for next month, and check our debt pay off progress! We are new budgeters and although we’ve been trying to pay off debt for a long time, we have recently started the debt snowball and intentionally striving to get rid of our debt! It’s a very long and difficult process with our current income and finances, BUT we’ve found being intentional has changed our motivation and encouraged us in even the ‘small’ victories! Thank you for this post!!

  12. Melissa C says

    Great timing for a bit of encouragement to keep up the process. My husband and I were just stressing this morning over extra expenses that have come up (broken AC in the truck, dental bills, etc.), causing us to back-track a bit on our debt payoff plan. I appreciate the post!

  13. Kelsey says

    Great post (and your blog is very nice also….I’ll admit I was checking it out!). My husband and I have more recently (January) gotten on the debt-payoff wagon and have made some progress. In 4 months we have paid off over $7000 of debt but have around $60,000 left (student loans…ugh!). Even in that small amount of time it is easy to get frustrated and lose our momentum. We have graphs and goals and budgets and everything :)
    My bigger problem is not getting discouraged when I look at everyone around me. I KNOW we are doing great and getting ourselves to a better place, but it is so hard to see others flaunt their new cars, big houses and trendy clothes. I constantly tell myself “they’re in debt over that ___” or “I bet they didn’t pay cash for that” to remind myself why I drive the old car I drive or wear the not-so-fashionable clothes. I know that doesn’t sound very good to say….but it’s the truth (and I know there is someone else out there that has probably had the same feelings!). Thanks for the great post….I will probably be checking out your blog more in-depth later tonight when I put my kiddos to bed :)

    • says

      Thanks for coming by, Kelsey.

      It really can be discouraging to see other people’s spending habits and fall into the comparison game. Maybe someone is being super-frugal — and we’re bummed because we’re not measuring up.

      Or, maybe people are living the high life, and we get a little jealous.

      We’re not responsible for other people’s budgets, but we are responsible for our family’s and we’ve just gotta do the best we can do.

      Paying off $7k in 4 months is fantastic and I hope you keep with it!

    • Patti says

      My son had a girlfriend in the 8th grade who wore $300 blue jeans, her parents were “family money” wealthy, they drove BMWs, and had 4 houses. I kept telling him that it was all wonderful but we lived within our means. Well, now with the economic downturn they have lost their family money, gone bankrupt, divorced, lost their homes and cars, and the mom and kids are living in a duplex while she goes to work for the first time in her life. Guess those $300 blue jeans are out of style now … but being frugal isn’t!! Keep on plugging away – it will all be worth it one day.

    • April M. says

      Kelsey-that’s an amazing amount to pay off in just 4 months. I think it’s normal to think those thoughts during frustrating times.
      Just try to think how wonderful it will feel and how proud of yourself you will be when you are debt-free AND can afford the things you want then.

  14. Amanda says

    This may seem like a totally dumb question…but how do you calculate what percentage your home is paid off? I know how to calculate what 25% off of a $30 purchase would be for example. But how do you calculate the percentage paid already. Any suggestions…maybe I’m thinking too much into it or something.

    • says

      Not dumb! I should have been more clear.

      Take your purchase price, and look up the amount you owe on your mortgage still. Should be on your monthly statement or you can probably call.

      Take the amount owed divided by the purchase price, and there ya go.

      For example, the purchase price of my house was $165k. We now owe $131k (I think…need to double-check). $131k / $165k = 79.3% still owed.

      Take 100 – 79.3% = 20.7% of my house that I have paid off. Hope that helps!

      • Sam says

        And take that percentage times the square feet of your house to see the square footage you “own”. I hadn’t ever thought of it that way–makes it kinds fun, although about all we “own” right now is a bathroom!

        • says

          Thanks for finishing off that equation! So yep, I just calculated the rough amount of square footage we “owned” and picked some living areas that were approximately that size.

        • Andrea says

          It is fun to think about. I made my equation a bit more complicated, because I wanted to see how much of our acreage we own :)

    • says

      I just kept it super simple for my chart– I did it on the remaining balance on the mortgage. Because figuring percentages (just like taxes) sort of makes my brain hurt and then I want to go eat chocolate. We had a Celebration Point when we hit $75K , $50K, $25K, and then $0. Woohoo!

  15. Lisa says

    I only have debt from a mortgage, but we live on a super tight budget (not by choice) and I am going to put a post it on my debit card of my savings goal. It is easy to regret purchases when you are home a reminder before check out would be great!


  16. Laurie says

    Congrats to everyone who is doing so well!!!! It is so refreshing to know that there are still many day to day families getting their finances in order. When we have a society as we today it seems like every restaurant,store and malls are full of people every day. We know that CC bills are pit of control as is their spending. We live in Nebraska and everything is very reasonable. My mortgage is $825.00 mos and will be paid off when I am 55. There currently is no room in the budget to pay it off early,but I am at peace with that. I have about $2500 of CC debt to pay off,but I chip away at it every month.

  17. says

    I can totally understand staying motivated! We just paid off my student loan and our Best Buy credit card. (My washer went out in August and I needed a new one stat!). I should feel victorious for conquering that debt, but now all of our friends and family are headed off on vacations and we’re stuck at home! Albeit, we’re not racking up debt like the majority of them…

  18. kathy says

    I love these tips as well! One thing that struck me as I read comments was that a common point every poster has is that they are facing their problem head on and doing something about it. That shows good judgment and strength of character. Congratulations everyone! My husband and I have the situation where we have considerably less debt than some but we have chronic health problems and very limited income to put toward payoff. We are making a concerted effort to become and stay debt free. We give God the glory for our progress.

  19. Not where I want to be yet says

    We are not yet making much progress, it seems, but I wanted to post to remind myself how we are making small progress–and encourage myself to keep it up.
    1. We have put away our credit cards. That is a huge step for my hubby and me. I know you all probably think that is rudimentary and dumb, but for us, it was so incredibly difficult.
    2. We have called our various service providers–phone, internet, tv–and gotten all of those bills reduced significantly.
    3. We have put over $800 in a savings account over the last few months to prepare for emergencies.
    4. We are putting away $300 in our savings account every month–and trying desperately not to let ANYTHING interfere with that amount.
    5. We are working at having enough money to get through 3 months of maternity leave (without my paycheck–which is the larger of our incomes) without having to use any borrowed money or credit.
    6. We are continuing to look for ways to cut our budget to prepare for my husband starting his own business at the end of the year.

    We don’t live as frugally as we could, but my husband has always spent anything he wanted on whatever he wanted even if he had to use credit–and I wasn’t much better. I am now fully on the Dave Ramsey train, but hubby not so much BUT where hubby is now is so much better than where he was. I pray that the Lord will continue to work in both our hearts to make our budget–and our marriage–better all the time.

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