5 Strategies to Give Your Debt Repayment a Psychological Boost

Paying off debt takes a fair amount of discipline and willpower. When your payoff goal is years away, it’s easy to feel like giving up. The goal seems insurmountable, and while you might be energized in the beginning, your motivation and stamina may wear off. In simple terms, you get debt burnout.

If any of this sounds familiar, here are five ways to boost your motivation and make the experience a little more tolerable.

Break Up Your Goal

Walking up stairs
Rather than trying to tackle one giant, overwhelming goal, try breaking up your goal into smaller, more digestible milestones. For example, let’s say you want to pay off $4,000 by the end of the year. Focus on baby steps instead: $330 a month or $83 a week. Or even $11 a day.

When you break down your goals, you make the future more present. It becomes easier to take action. You think in terms of how to save $11 every day–put a few items back at the grocery store, skip the cocktails and just order dinner. These splurges don’t seem to make difference when you think in terms of $4,000. When you’re focused on $11 a day, however, it’s easy to see where you can cut back in order to reach your goal. Also, when you break up your goals into smaller milestones, it allows you to feel a sense of accomplishment sooner, which motivates you to continue.

Practice Gratitude

In her book Dear Debt, writer Melanie Lockert says her therapist asked her to complete a simple gratitude exercise to deal with her debt-induced depression. Melanie had to write down three things she was grateful for every day: a cup of coffee, a nap, a walk. In her book, Melanie explains how this helped her stick to her goal:

“An amazing thing happened when I took five minutes out of my day to write down, with pen and paper, three things that I was grateful for. Doing this exercise made me realize that, even without a lucrative career and having so much debt, I was wealthier than most in the world… Once I felt deep gratitude of what I already had, the pull of buying new things lessened.”

Celebrate Your Wins

Giving high fives
Paying down your debt is definitely worth celebrating. Come up with a rewards system for celebrating your milestones. Did you reduce your credit card balance by $500 this month? Take a moment to celebrate and recognize the accomplishment. It might mean treating yourself to a tasty snack. Or taking a fancy bubble bath.

Your reward doesn’t have to be super expensive (you don’t want to undo all of your hard work, after all); the idea is to simply take some time to acknowledge the feeling of accomplishment. When you recognize the fact that you’re one step closer to financial freedom, you’ll be motivated to continue.

Gamify the Process

It’s easy to get bored with your goal. Paying down your debt often means you have to cut back and give up certain things, and that can be a bummer. Instead of thinking about the process in terms of sacrifice, though, it helps to think about your frugality as empowering. You’re giving yourself the power to get out of debt, and that’s fantastic. It’s a simple mindset shift, but it does wonders for your psyche.

One way to accomplish this mindset shift is through gamification. In simple terms, gamification involves using gaming techniques like visual cues and incentives to reach certain “levels” of your goal. Many budgeting sites incorporate this idea into their software.

Mint, for example, has a “Goals” feature that allows you to see the process of your debt goal over time. When you’re on track, your goal’s status bar will be green. If you’re behind, it will turn red. Tools like SaveUp, SmartyPig, and Payoff all use the method of gamification to make paying off debt a little more engaging and well, fun. SaveUp, for example, allows you to earn points when you pay down your debt.

Visualize Your Goal

Man looking in mirror
If you have a habit of forgetting about and then giving up on your goal, try visual reminders. For example, a sticky note attached to your computer monitor or credit card that reminds you that your debt is a priority. These reminders help keep the goal front and center.

Visual triggers, not just cues, can help, too. A visual trigger is any object that, upon seeing it, inspires you to take action and complete your goal. Over at Get Rich Slowly, one reader explained how she used a paper chain as a trigger for her debt payoff:

“To get the ball rolling, I decided that I needed a visual reminder of my debt, something I could look at every day. So I made myself a literal paper chain of debt. I made each link worth $100 and each color group a thousand. Each time I dipped below an amount on a link, I could reward myself by cutting it off. I was so psyched each month when I could cut off more than one link! But to get myself credit card debt-free in less than two years and not have to pay for my applications with more debt, I had a lot of work to do.”

This is a great idea because, not only does it keep your goal at the front of your mind, it makes the goal more actionable. When you pay off your debt, you can take a physical, tangible action, which makes your accomplishment even more real.

The road to paying off debt can be a long one, and it’s easy to veer off track along the way. As human beings, we only have so much willpower. As fastidious as you may be, at some point, you’re just going to be flat out tired of paying off your debt. It’s important to recognize those moments, consider them, and then push through them. These methods can get you back on track.

Kristin Wong writes and makes videos about all things money. You can find her writing at Lifehacker, NBCNews.com, and on her own personal finance blog, Brokepedia.

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