How To Stay Motivated To Pay Off Debt OR What’s Your Why?

In personal finance, one of the hard parts of getting out debt is staying motivated to keep at it for months or years on end.  Things like setting up your budget or planning a debt snowball aren't difficult, they just take  a little time.  The hardest trick to pull off is to maintain a focused intensity on your debt payoff journey that keeps you energized through the long haul.  If this sounds like you, and you're having a hard time figuring out how to stay motivated to pay off debt, this post is for you!

Let me ask you a question.  

How many times have you thought about doing something that you knew was good for you, but you didn’t do it?  

Happens all the time, right?  That's because you had no motivation to do it. 

how to stay motivated on the long road to pay off debt

Example: Objective WITHOUT motivation

  • "I’m going payoff my student loans"
  • "I'm going to start exercising and dieting"
  • "I’m going to start saving money"

Almost anybody would look at that list and find something that they agree should be a priority for them.  Still most of us don’t do anything about it.  

By themselves, its hard to get excited about paying off debt or losing weight. Not because we are lazy.  Not because we don’t care.  It's because they are just words without any emotional weight behind them.  There is no “Why”.

What do I mean by that?  Let me add a few more words to each to illustrate what I mean

Example: Objective WITH Motivation

  • "I'm going to start exercising and dieting"  Why?  "So I  have more energy to play with my kids”
  • “I’m going to payoff my student loan”  Why?  "So my family doesn’t struggle financially"
  • “I’m going to start saving money” Why? “So my wife and I can retire happily”  

Though I didn’t change the objective at all, they now carry a lot more oomph to them.  That’s because they are tied to motivating force.   And that little change makes all the difference.

This post will address how to stay motivated to pay off debt, by focusing on two things that can provide you a huge leg up.

  1. Identify Your Motivation
  2. Create Accountability

The importance of motivation

​​​​The psychology behind what motivates folks and why it works is pretty well understood.  

Back in 1943, a professor from Brooklyn College, Abraham Maslow published a research article in the “Psychological Review” where he identified 5 types of human needs, which act as motivators.  

This is commonly referred to as “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”

I’d highly encourage anyone interested in the topic of motivation to check it out, it’s a pretty quick read.

The main point that Maslow was making is that humans are motivated by a sequential, hierarchy of needs beginning with the most basic things like food, safety and shelter, to much more aspirational and internal ones.  

So the more foundational a need is, the higher a motivator it will be.

How to harness motivation

So knowing what we do about motivation, how do you put that to work for you?  

It’s simple. You tie your objectives to the actual reasons for doing them. 

You aren’t working out to lose weight.  You're working out to live a longer, healthier life with your family.

You aren’t getting out of debt because your tired of paying interest.  You're getting out of debt because you want safety for you and your family.

Let's try an example...

When said at the beginning of this post: "I’m going to pay off my student loans”,  there was no motivating need attached to it. 

But when I added the Why…. “So my family is debt free and doesn’t struggle financially”.

Doing that tied the objective to a very basic and powerful need for food, shelter and safety, which would be in jeopardy if you start struggling financially.  

All of a sudden your objective carries some actual weight because it has a powerful reason to see it all of the way through.  

When I was working towards paying off my own debt there was a phrase that I heard Dave Ramsey use which really resonated with me.  He would talk about “changing your family tree” which was one of his way of saying that your “Why” had to be bigger than you.

The reason for transforming my finances became my wife, my daughter, and the legacy we would leave behind to the next generation.  I was doing something for people I may or may not ever meet.

That was some heavy stuff.   And it worked.

Four steps that can help you find your motivation

At this point, you probably are thinking to yourself…so how do I figure out what my motivation is.  The good thing is you probably already know it, you just need some help to articulate it.

Here's a quick exercise that can help.

Preparation

You’ll need a piece of paper, a pencil, a stopwatch (your phone has one), and 10 minutes in a quiet spot.

Step 1:

Once you are in your quiet spot, give yourself permission to ignore everything else in the world for 10 minutes.  I know this is easier said than done.  Do it.  It’ll be worth it.

Step 2:

Next write down your single biggest objective or goal e.g. Get out of debt.  Underline it! It’s probably the first thing that comes to mind.  Don’t fight it if it is.

Step 3:

Now get your stopwatch or phone ready.  For the next two minutes, I want you to start writing what you think your “Why’s” are. Try to use bullet points and short phrases. Don’t overthink it, don’t second guess what you write, and don’t stop until the two minutes is done.

Step 4:

Look at the list you’ve created.  Take your pencil and number them in priority order, with 1 representing the most important reason. That’s it!

Now you have your objective and your motivation clearly stated.  Likely it was always pretty obvious. The power of this exercise is that it forces you to articulate the actual reasons behind your objective.

Tips for staying motivated on your debt free journey

So how do you make sure that it actually sticks with you?   Create accountability. 

This is sometimes easier said than done.  Trent from The Simple Dollar has a great article in which he talks through the importance of accountability as well as identifying different ways of putting it into practice.  

Here are a few of the more popular tips for keeping your motivation.

  1. Tell the people you care about:  There is power in telling your goals to people that you care about. It creates a forcing mechanism to stay focused since they will want to support and help you, and will ask you how it’s going.  When we know someone else is paying attention, we have a tendency to actually follow through on what we say. It’s human nature to not want to let people down. 
  2. Create personal accountability:  Write your goal on a whiteboard, and then create smaller daily/weekly tasks or routines that if done, will support the accomplishment of your goal.  The power in this approach is that you are forced to look at your goal every day, and make a conscious choice to do the smaller tasks needed to achieve it.   The added benefit of this approach is that it reinforces the positive habits you’ll need in the long run.
  3.  Create a vision board: I've talked before about my love for visuals like whiteboards, and this is a similar concept.  The idea here is to take a big piece of paper and either write, draw, or cut and paste images and words that inspire you towards your goals.  This could be things like pictures of a tropical vacation you would like to take, or photos of your family.  You want to put visuals on the board that you can tap into for inspiration when you are feeling less motivated.
  4. Treat yourself: Celebrate your wins whenever you get the chance.  This doesn't mean you go and buy a new car to celebrate paying off your student loans.  Rewards yourself in small but meaningful ways, like taking your family out for dinner to recognize all the sacrifices they have made.

What are some strategies to payoff debt faster?

While there are now magic bullets that payoff your credit card or student loan debts for you, there are a few tried and true methods you can utilize.  The two payoff strategies most commonly thought of in personal finance are the debt snowball method and the debt avalanche method.  

1) The Debt Snowball Method: Rank all your debt from smallest to largest, making minimum payments on all but the smallest.  For the smallest debt you have, focus any additional money you can scrounge up here, and once that's paid off, add that payments to the next smallest.  Keep doing this until all of your debts are paid off, except for your house.  The benefit of this method is that you get  quick wins which can inspire you on.

2) The Debt Avalanche Method: The primary difference between this method and the snowball is that you are ranking your debts from highest APR to lowest APR, and focusing on paying off the highest interest debt first.  Mathematically speaking, this approach can save you more money in the long run, but the downside is that you may not have as many quick wins, so it'll take longer to see results.

Either of these can show you great results, it just depends on what motivates you better.  I used the first method as the quick wins kept me from having debt snowball fatigue.

Conclusion

I hope this post gave you some food for thought on how to stay motivated to pay off debt.  Here are a few key takeaways:

  1. Identify if your motivation:  Give power to your goals by figuring out the “Why” behind them
  2. Create accountability: Once you have your goal and your “Why”, create accountability to do it by sharing it with your friends and family, and creating daily or weekly tasks that reinforce it.
  3. Be patient: Patience is a virtue and a requirement on your journey to financial freedom.  Big things happen over a long period of time, and then suddenly.  Remember that when you are feeling down.  ​
  4. Celebrate your wins:  Make sure you take every opportunity to treat yourself when it's called for.  If you pay off a big debt, take yourself out to lunch or dinner.  It doesn't have to be a big purchase, but just something to celebrate your hard work and what you have accomplished.

Once you have your goal and your “why”, create accountability to stick with it by sharing it with your friends and family, and celebrating your success in ways that will reinforce it. Doing this will make keeping your focus on how to get out of debt is a lot easier!

How are you keeping yourself accountable?  Leave a comment below and let us know!

About the Author

Hello, I'm Ryan Rollins. I've been passionate about personal finance and entrepreneurship for as long as I can remember. After earning my Bachelors of Science in Marketing, I soon found myself at my first software start-up. That experience led to me pursuing an MBA in Entrepreneurship from the University of Louisville, and eventually to a career in product management within the financial services industry, where I've spent the last 8 years focusing on financial education and consumer lending. When I'm not working I enjoy spending as much time as I can with my amazing family, going for long runs around the neighborhood, and develop a portfolio of passive investments and income streams. You can also follow me on twitter @TMPF_Ryan

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