Staying Motivated during Debt Reduction

by Sandy L on March 11, 2013

In my previous post on life lessons learned from debt freedom, rented life asked:

When you went all in, (relating to cutting expenses) how did you sustain that? We could cut a few things–our bi-weekly date night (a movie, or a dinner, never both), eating less meat (though that doesn’t appeal to me, as eating more paleo/gluten free has been expensive, but kinder to my joints), our netflix account…but then I feel like geez, those are the few things we enjoy, literally everything else goes to living expenses, student loans and credit card debt. How do you stay positive in cutting out those few things?

I decided this needed a post of it’s own and after some introspection, here are some of my thoughts around that question.  The first thing that came to mind after rolling this question in my head a few times is this.

We are our own worst enemy

Negative self talk is brutal.  If you’re convincing yourself that you are cutting out those last few things that you enjoy and you’re laying on the sword for the sake of debt reduction, then you will easily talk yourself out of doing it.  Depending on how dire your financial situation is, you need assess how much really makes sense to cut. If you have a decent buffer between income and expenses, then cutting a $16/month on netflix  may not move the needle enough to be worth the sacrifice.   If you’re digging yourself into a bigger hole for every month that goes by, then all bets are off and no expense should be found sacred.  I have personally found that cutting big expenses like housing or car to be more effective than nickle and diming my way to my target savings goal.

I am a big fan of volunteering as a way to get free entertainment.  We live in a ski town and many parents will work at the mountain one or two 4 hour shifts a week in order to get free ski passes for their family.   The same is true for the music and theater venues in town in the summer.  If you’re an usher at a play, you get to see the play right then and there while you’re volunteering.

So, bit of advice #1:  There are loads of free ways to entertain yourself that are super fun and life enriching. If you’re not convinced of this fact, then you’ve already lost the battle.

The other thing I find really fun is house parties.  Movie night can be way more fun if you’ve got a crowd at your house. I remember when we rented Run Lola Run and had about a dozen people at our house watching.  It was an order of magnitude more entertaining hearing the reaction of the crowd while we were watching that flick. Then, someone else hosts the next movie night (insider tip: you can watch Hallmark movies online for an option that won’t break the bank), and you instantly cut down your overall movie expenses because you share the cost.  Dinner night can be held in much the same way. Yes, it’s more expensive to cook for a larger group, but then you get free meals in return when it’s someone else’s turn to host.

Create a meaningful Goal

Cistern Hole

Discovered a Cistern

Staying motivated can be tough, but the thing that always kept me going is that I had a goal I really and truly believed in.  My goal gave me hope. It excited me. It was the answer to all the struggles in my life.   Debt was the reason for all my worries and stresses. I blamed debt for everything.  I blamed debt for my bad days at work. I blamed debt for the extra 10 pounds around my backside. I blamed debt for getting older and not having anything to show for it. Debt made me less interesting at parties. Debt sucked and I wanted to have a knock down, drag out fight with it until I rose victorious over it’s sad, deflated carcass. To me, debt elimination was the key to more life choices.  Debt Freedom gave me the license to walk away from things if they got too annoying to deal with.  Debt elimination let me forget about the state of the economy.  It really had a lot to offer and I wanted in.  Now I may have been a bit delusional to think it was both source and answer to all my woes, but it sure was motivating.

In order to stay motivated, you have to truly believe that the actions you are taking will make you happier in the long run. You have to answer the question “I want to get out of debt because…”  Also, that sentence can’t end with “it’s the right thing to do.”  Ptewey. Who ever was motivated by that?  Then, you have to pick a goal that is achievable and measurable and celebrate each milestone you’ve achieved. It can be $1000 reduction in some balance or one less bill to have to pay. I was also motivated by understanding the increase in my cash flow and the quantity of  money NOT going to interest anymore.

Treat Yourself

I did reward myself when I hit certain debt milestones. I bought myself a surround sound stereo system when I paid off my student loans.    I also never cut things to the bone in every category of life.  Vacations never got cut.   They may have been cheaper, but they still happened.  Even when I was in student loan payoff mode, I still took vacations. I preferred cutting an extra $400-$500/month on living expenses by having a roommate vs ditching the vacation.  I wanted to see the world before I was too old and decrepit to enjoy it so I cut expenses elsewhere.  I managed to be able to live and travel on next to nothing at the time, so it was pretty easy to add that in.   After all, the whole point of busting your butt to get a profession that pays well was to be able to start living the dream, whatever that may be.

So I guess that means to mix in some life goals along with your debt reduction goals so you don’t miss out on life itself. I was always afraid I’d wake up at 50 and wonder…where has the time gone and what have I done with my life? It is so easy to go through the motions of life and not achieve anything special.  Sometimes survival is all you can muster but it should be about more than just “getting by.”  What do you want to be remembered for and are you doing that today? If not, why not?

In house renovation news, we’ve discovered a cistern.  It’s super cool but also about 10 feet deep and right in the porch/walking path area, so too dangerous to keep when we have 2  young children and a self described “round like barrel” grandma walking in the area. Sadly it had to be filled in.  The craftsmanship was pretty amazing and it was still fairly solid given the age of the structure.   We think it was so close to the house because it was designed to catch the rainwater from the roof runoff.  It was also conveniently located in between the main house and back cow barn (before it was turned into an apartment).  I suppose proximity to the cows/home was important back in the day before running water.  Babci said that on her farm, she used to drink the well water, but wash her hair with the cistern rainwater. She said the well water was tasty and filling but had too many minerals in it and made her hair tangle.  Back then she had long braids that ran down her back. I’m liking the old house. Babci is telling all kinds of new stories that I’ve never heard before. This old way of living has taken her back to the days of her youth. If it weren’t for the cistern, I would have never heard the tangled braid story. What a gift.

Cistern Interior

Cistern Interior

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Mutant Supermodel March 11, 2013 at 12:17 PM

I think milestone rewards are seriously a great idea.

And I think it’s awesome that you found a cistern and that the new/old house is triggering all sorts of memories (fond ones I hope) for Babci.


Sandy L March 13, 2013 at 3:51 AM

Mutant – I know, just when I thought I knew every story she had to tell, she surprises me.


nicoleandmaggie March 14, 2013 at 6:41 PM

Hm, “it’s the right thing to do,” is the reason for almost most of my actions, especially the ones I really don’t want to do but do anyway. I think that’s my midwestern upbringing. (Seriously, if I’m ever on the fence about something, I can hear my mother say, “You’re doing it because it is the right thing to do.”)

But that’s not the why with debt reduction– the why with debt reduction was realizing if we didn’t pay of DH’s student loans back in the day that each year they would add compounded almost $900/year to themselves, close to doubling by the time we finished grad school (a big number compared with the size of our stipends). That was sickening. I don’t feel as motivated for smaller interest rates! As long as the loans are being paid on time, I don’t really see a right or wrong– the owner of the debts is getting interest for lending out his or her money. It’s the debtor who is getting screwed with a high interest loan, not the creditor. (But not defaulting is, of course, the right thing to do, so long as the loan was entered in good faith.)

Awesome with the braids story! My son interviewed my mom for a women’s history project assignment and she mentioned that my grandma had always wanted her to be a doctor (instead she’s a humanities prof). I hadn’t known that. (What happened, I asked. Didn’t like blood (or other bodily fluids), she said. Me either, I said.)


Sandy L March 24, 2013 at 5:58 AM

Oops. Just realized I never replied to this. Paying interest was definitely a big negative motivator for me because once it’s paid, the money is gone forever, unlike with stuff. When you buy stuff with money, it still has some residual value at least for a little while and can be re-sold if you get desperate. The “right thing to do” comment is interesting. I still think it’s gotta be more than just following social norms. I think it has to be tied to your core values to be truly motivating (at least in my case it is). For example, for me, the need to be financially responsible stems back to not wanting to be a burden on society or my family.


retireby40 March 15, 2013 at 12:00 PM

Wow, the cistern is so cool. Can’t you find a way to save it? It can serve as emergency supply storage or something like that.


Sandy L March 16, 2013 at 5:02 AM

RB40. I have the photo to remember it by. I was thinking of framing it and putting it up in the house. Unfortunately we could not save it for safety reasons and because of where it was located. It actually was right under where a supporting beam needed to go up for the porch roof. There was one there just sitting over the hole. (the hole was covered by a piece of sheetmetal. The previous owners just put the support on top of the sheet metal which was unsound and not a long term solution.)


Mark Miller March 17, 2013 at 12:22 PM

Thanks for a great post. Your points about staying motivated and not feeling totally deprived are right on! We’ve been cutting way back lately as our business is growing. At first it seemed like a big sacrifice to give up fancy dinners out, etc. The surprise was the silver linings that we found. We rediscovered happy hours, which turned out to be a lot of fun and very inexpensive. We also started going to the beach with picnic food purchased at our local grocery store and watching the sunset. Our conversations were amazing and we grew even closer as a couple! Yes, cutting back is never easy, but with the right can-do attitude and some creativity, the results can be surprising and positive.


Sandy L March 24, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Mark – thank you for the great examples. Thank goodness it’s so fun to be out in nature.


Jeff March 20, 2013 at 5:45 PM

Hi Sandy. Great blog and great article.

I second the notion of “reward”. Too often people get caught up in saving/putting off for tomorrow and lose sight of living life as fully as possible today.

Spend a little.. save a little.. balance life and be sure to enjoy the ride.



Sandy L March 24, 2013 at 6:01 AM

Jeff – agree on the reward thing. Living for tomorrow or feeling like you’re living in limbo is no way to spend years of your life.


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