How to Avoid Failure and Get Debt Payoff Right

“Most people overestimate what they can do in a year, and they massively underestimate what they can accomplish in a decade or two.” – Tony Robbins

I think it’s this mindset that keeps people in debt. They feel out of control about their money situation and want to get debt payoff right, so they set unattainable goals like “I’m going to live under a rock for a year and not eat or drink anything until I’ve paid off all my debt.”

Then the expected happens. They give up within a month and go back to living under the strain of mounds of debt and paycheck-to-paycheck living, feeling as if they’ve failed because they weren’t able to live up to an unrealistic goal.

Think of the journey of the automobile. The first cars were a miracle by early 1900’s standards, but by today’s standards they are simple at best.The reason the car has continued to improve is because of commitment on the part of car companies to never stop working on improving their methods.

If they would’ve simply stopped learning and trying after the first go-around, we’d probably be back to using horses as our main method of transportation.

A journey out of debt runs the same risk of giving up too early. I know it’s happened to us dozens of times. We’ve started on paying off debt, set goals that were too lofty (or goals without knowing what we were doing and why) and then failed, only to resign ourselves to having a rotten financial life.

We fell prey to Tony Robbins’ quote, setting too big of goals at the offset and giving up altogether, certain that no number of years could undo the financial damage we’d done. Here’s how we changed it up and started making real progress toward debt freedom.

How We Worked Get Debt Payoff Right

We Figured Out the Whys

Before we started our successful journey to debt freedom (after many, many failed attempts) we asked ourselves two questions:

  • Why do we want to be debt free? What are the reasons that will motivate us to get and keep going?
  • Why did we get into debt in the first place? What was causing us to be okay with spending above our means for so many years?

The answer to the first question was relatively easy. You can see the whole list here, but basically our motivation was geared toward the protection of our family. We put down things like:

  1. Because we don’t want to freak out about money anymore; we don’t want it to be our master for even one more day.
  2. Because we want peace of mind for our family.  I personally want it for my hubby, who wants so desperately to be a good provider for this family.  He deserves peace because he works so hard.
  3. Because we want more for our kids.  We’ve got the greatest kids ever (next to yours, of course), and we don’t want to ever again have to say “no” because we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to pay the bills.
  4. Because we don’t ever want to have to say to our kids “We have to move because we’re losing the house”.

Figuring out why we got into debt in the first place was a much longer process, mostly because it took us awhile to figure out that getting out of debt wasn’t just about making a plan and sticking with it, but about figuring out the subconscious reasons why we were spending so much.

You can figure out your answer to question two much quicker by reading this article and working from there to uncover your own reasons why spending above your means is a constant in your life.

We Made a Doable Plan

In order to avoid setting short-term goals that were doomed to fail, we made one-at-a-time easier goals. Our first goal was to set and live by a budget. Our second goal was to track all spending.

That was it for a long time. By doing those two things we found that the debt did go down with very little effort, even if it went down slower than we would have liked.

The “goal” behind setting easier goals was to ease ourselves into a lifestyle change instead of shocking our systems with one.

We Set Short-Term Power Goals

After we got used to living on a budget and tracking spending we started setting occasional short-term power goals. Like going a month without spending anything on entertainment. Or making it through one month only spending $200 on groceries for our family of six. The goal was to push ourselves to an extra level of discipline, but to do it for short periods of time so that we didn’t start to feel overwhelmed and bust out with a massive spending spree.

We Keep An Eye on the Long Term Picture

Along with tracking our monthly expenses, we keep a running total of all debt balances at the end of each month. One of the reasons we do this is to motivate us when we start to feel like we’re not accomplishing anything. When we can look back and see that we’ve paid off “X” amount of debt within the last year, it helps us to remember that we are making forward progress and to not focus on how much we have to go, but instead on how far we’ve come.

Focusing on how much you have to go can leave you feeling like you’ll never reach the finish line, but the truth is that time is on your side, and if you keep going you’ll cross that finish line eventually – probably quicker than you think you will.

In other words, don’t underestimate what you can accomplish in a decade or two; just get to work.

As with any new “invention” your own personalized route to debt freedom might take a few tries before you start to get it right. Just keep working on your plan and commit for the long-term. The “in-between” details will fall into place if you don’t give up.

Have you ever fallen prey to setting short-term goals that were too lofty? Or underestimated what you could accomplish in the long term?  

12 comments on “How to Avoid Failure and Get Debt Payoff Right

  1. I definitely tend to underestimate what can be accomplished in the long-term. That is a great quote. I love your point about defining why you want to see change. I think a solid answer to those questions will get you further than any practical tips and tricks. “Why” is your motivation and its importance is hard to overstate.

  2. Identifying and focusing on the “why” is an important first step. I believe it is easily overlooked and ignored. Writing it down is sooo helpful.

    You’re right, Laurie, making a doable plan is essential. Breaking those larger goals down into small, actionable steps is the key to long-term success. I still get caught up in setting lofty goals and failing to reach them – it’s a work in progress, but breaking them down into doable steps (and allowing myself a bit more time to do them) helps tremendously.

  3. When you first try and accomplish something, it often takes considerable effort, but later on it becomes ‘easy’ and people will move on to other things that are more complex. But, as you kind of note, it’s a step by step process. We’ll never stop learning!

    1. So true!!! I have those same thoughts/struggles with weight at times. I want to lose ten pounds in five minutes because there’s a party on Saturday or whatever, but it’s just not realistic. It takes weeks of daily choices to undo financial and other mistakes.

  4. I love this post! When we started our journey out of debt, I had a 5-year plan in mind. We began in 2012 – almost 5 years ago. And guess what? It’s going to take longer. I realized that fact about a year and a half into it, but by then I was OK with it. A fundamental shift had taken place in me, and I had confidence that it would all work out. The time-line didn’t matter quite so much anymore. We were headed in the right direction, so there was already a victory : )

  5. We are encountering this dilemma with deciding whether to use our extra income to payoff our mortgage sooner or put more in the markets than our regular amount.

    Right now we have decided to spend it on the house. We think being debt-free is the better option as you do not need to be concerned about a monthly payment if a financial emergency does occur.

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