A Singular Focus Leads to Peace

A Singular Focus of Paying Off Debt Leads to Peace

A Singular Focus Leads to Peace
A Singular Focus Leads to Peace

Hey, Frugal Farmer friends!!  I want to welcome my blogger friend, Brian, from Luke 1428 today.  He’s got an awesome post on debt payoff today that I think you’ll really find helpful. 

Earlier this summer, my family and I took a weekend excursion to the Bahamas aboard Royal Caribbean cruise lines. We were fortunate enough to walk into an incredible offer Royal Caribbean was pushing where the third and fourth occupants of a cabin sail free. For a family of six already looking for a short getaway, that’s an offer not to be passed up.

For those who have never been on a cruise I would highly recommend it. And when you go, consider upgrading to a balcony room. Lounging with the calm ocean breezes in your own private zone is one of the most relaxing experiences around.

Balconies are about peace. They produce it because there are no distractions, unless your kids are screaming on the balcony next to you. Perhaps some playful dolphins catch your eye for a moment and there is the occasional enemy cruise ship passing in the distance. Mostly though, there is nothing there to distract you. It’s only water and sky for as far as the eye can see.

I’ve felt this same type of peace in other life situations…hiking through a forest…staring at a campfire…exploring a cave…reading a good book. There is something about attaching a singular focus to one thing that calms our minds and brings clarity of thought.

Those with debt issues – and I’m talking non-mortgage here – need to apply this lesson. Distractions are the death knell to paying off debt quickly.

Debt Payoff Distractions

What could draw your attention away from staying focused on paying off debt quickly? Just about anything…

…your satellite TV bill,

…new clothes,

…taking a vacation,

…going out with friends,

…shiny electronics,

…insert your weakness, passion or hobby here.

Generally speaking, these are not bad in and of themselves. But don’t tell me you are focused on paying off debt with intensity when you continue to eat out three times a week, subscribe to the highest cable TV package and take multiple vacations during the summer. You have other priorities at this point and paying off debt quickly isn’t one of them.

Here Is Where It Gets Tricky

What about your financial plan? Can the destination of the money you receive each paycheck distract you from paying off your debt? Is it possible to become confused about where the money should go and in what quantities?

For example, should someone with massive debt be putting money aside for their kid’s college at the same time?

What about saving for retirement or investing in the stock market? (Noooo! We can never stop that, right?)

Or something with even more short-term practicality – saving for a 3-6 month emergency fund?

Again, fully funded emergency funds, college tuition and retirement are all vital elements to focus on in a financial plan. The question is, when I have massive amounts of debt to pay off, should I stop funding those temporarily in order to focus solely on paying off the debt? While perhaps unpopular, I believe the answer should be “Yes.”

I’m big on step-by-step processes that help me accomplish goals. They really help me stay focused. Peg A goes into slot B before it can be connected with piece C. One step at a time so no details are missed and the project is successfully completed.

Perhaps that’s why I was so attracted years ago to plans like Dave Ramsey’s Seven Baby Steps. It gave me clarity of thought and peace of mind knowing what to accomplish in the successive stages of a financial plan. Otherwise I would have been all over the map trying to figure out how much money to put here, there and everywhere. My focus would have been on investing or college or retirement instead of getting out of debt.

That wouldn’t have resulted in peace for me.

The Pushback and the Benefits

The big controversy with this of course is that it feels as though a person is missing out on time when they could be saving and investing. Once time is gone, it can never be made up. And the more time we delay in investing, the further behind we could actually get in growing our wealth.

I’d argue that a short-term departure (1-3 years) from allocating money to those activities is worth it to rid oneself from the stranglehold of debt. It’s OK to lay those aside for the moment to singularly focus on the debt payoff. Once that payload of debt is gone, there will be excess money to save, invest or put towards whatever you want.

We recently experienced this in our house earlier this year as we paid off our mortgage early. The excess money that is now coming into our monthly budget can be moved in greater quantities towards investments. And it’s given us freedom to make life choices not available to us before, like my decision to become a stay at home dad.

The psychological benefits of being debt free are enormous. It’s really something you have to experience for yourself to truly understand. My advice would be to get intense and focus on the debt solely until it’s gone. There will be time to save, invest, deal with college, retirement and the mortgage later. You’ll feel more at peace and be better equipped to handle those steps of your financial plan with no debt to shackle you.

Would you stop funding savings and investments to pay off your non-mortgage debt? What helped/is helping you pay down your debt quickly?

About the author: Brian Fourman is a former private school personal finance and Bible teacher now turned stay at home dad and blogger. His hobbies include rental real estate, running, cooking and sports. In his down time, he loves hanging out with his four kids and hearing his wife talk about all the cool things CPAs do at work. You can check him out providing encouragement and inspiration on his blog at Luke1428.com or by connecting with him on Facebook,  and Twitter.

55 comments

  1. For us focus is crucial. We do have an emergency fund and some retirement savings that have been sitting for a while, but other than that everything is going toward paying off law school student loans. We figure that the faster we pay off our loans, the less we will have to pay and the sooner we can move onto spending on other things (like buying a house!). Our style might be too extreme for others, but it works well for us.

    • I’m not sure there is a “too extreme” when it comes to paying off debt. It’s a monster that has to go asap. Awesome that you are kicking it to the curb Stephanie!

  2. I always say that the basics of financial health are easy – making money and saving money, just like the basics of physical health are easy – eating right and working out. Yet you do not see a bunch of millionaire/fit people walking around all the time because there is so much that gets in the way of us achieving these goals. It is so easy to get distracted and lose focus, especially when your goal seems so far away. You really have to practice a lot of mental exercises to keep focused and work toward the end goal.

    • It is a mind game. Distractions really take us off course and derail us from our plan. One big thing I’ve done is keep the TV financial news media out of my life. They can really play with your head with their short term views.

  3. Even Steven says:

    I am with you on the step by step process, however maybe it’s the nerd in me, but I cannot stop investing to get my 401K match, the common sense factor wins over the laser focus factor for me.

    • “…I cannot stop investing to get my 401K match…” Agreed…That’s one instance where you shouldn’t. Getting the match (free money) from your employer is a big deal. Can’t pass that up unless times are REALLY desperate.

  4. Given the recent financial chaos in my life, I have to disagree with one part of your post. I think you need to have an emergency fund set up and funded before you focus just on paying off debt. You never know whn you are going to be blindsided by life and having that extra cash on hand could be a real god send!

    • From my perspective, which really wasn’t clear in this post, there are two stages of emergency funding – the pre-debt payoff stage (1-2k saved) and the post-debt payoff stage (3-6 months expenses saved). I was attempting to point out that individuals might get distracted in saving the 3-6 months instead of paying off their debt aggressively. That being said, I can see how this could be a matter of perspective based on your individual situation.

  5. I actually do think it’s a good idea to have some money in an emergency fund before debt payment, but aside from that, I do see a lot of people with a lot of debt taking vacation (sometimes multiple) shopping, etc. and it kind of does drive me a bit crazy, but at the same time it’s really none of my business. The only thing I’d say is you can’t complain about debt AND do those things too. You have to at least own up to it.

    • The question on the emergency fund is simply a matter of how much. I agree there should be some but only several thousand before a person should begin to pay off debt. The 3-6 months of expenses will take much longer to accumulate and can come later. That’s a personal decision though based in one’s level of comfort/situation. And I give a hearty AMEN to this statement also…”you can’t complain about debt AND do those things too.”

  6. I’m not the most focused of people when it comes to paying off debt. Yes, I do want to get it paid off, but I haven’t completely given up everything I could in order to do so. I guess I have a bit more of a balanced approach than a gazelle intense approach.

      • I guess mostly a preference. I understand the desire to pay it off quickly, I certainly don’t want to be in debt forever, but I still want to have somewhat of a “normal” life along the way. I’m still projected to be debt free in mid-2017 (except for my mortgage) and I’m still trying to speed that date up to December 2016! 🙂

  7. debt debs says:

    As pointed out in the comments you need to get any free money with a company retirement match and have an emergency fund, then focus on debt. I would argue that the 1 – 2K for emergency may be a little small, but it really depends on your job situation. If it is risky, chance of layoff, or variable income, I would say you need more. It also depends on the size of your debt and how long it will take to pay it off!

    • The 1-2k number is only the beginning to provide some cushion/relief. A 3-6 month fund might be anywhere from 12-30k depending on the size of the family and lifestyle. It’s going to be very difficult to save that much quickly while still paying off debt. I think that is where the distraction lies. People don’t need that much, at least not initially. Getting rid of the debt is the bigger deal imo, especially if there is a risky job situation like you pointed out. While still tough, debt free with no job is a much nicer place to be than having debt with no job.

  8. Syed says:

    Great post. I struggle with this myself when it comes to paying my student loan debt off. While I have been tempted to just take all of my savings and throw it at my student debt, I also realize that I do have a good amount of low interest student loan debt (I’m talking 0.1%) and I think that with the effect of compound interest I would be losing out if I didn’t invest at least something for retirement.

    I look forward to the day that my debt is gone so I can re direct that money into actual investments, but in the case of low interest debt anyway, one should definitely consider investing a portion of their savings.

    • I wouldn’t take all your savings to pay it off but I might stop investing for a short time to do it, unless as I’ve already said you are getting a company match. If you could throw every extra dollar at the debt and have it paid off in 3-5 years I’d do it. Of course, I’m debt averse so that’s clearly playing into my decision. I’d contend that with the debt gone you will have more money freed up to adequately make up for any time you may have missed investing.

  9. Chris says:

    Great article Brian. I’ve never done the cruise thing but I’ve always wanted to. I’ve talked to others and they all say get a balcony you will not regret it.

    I’m also someone who loves a good hike and it’s amazing the clarity it gives you after a short trip like that. It’s almost like it recharges your battery and gives you a renewed focus.

    • ”It seems like anything and everything distracts me!” If you feel that way then I’d encourage you to find something that helps you get laser focused on it. Some sort of motivation or reward that entices you to kick it into gear. That’s going to be different for everyone.

  10. brandi says:

    We are in the middle of paying off our debt. You are so right – my husband and I were talking about how much better we are starting to feel and will feel when we are out of this hole. We are on target to be debt-free by June 2015. We rent, so we won’t “owe” anyone! Then we get intense and start saving for our dream: a house! Great post.

  11. I can attest to what you say. Even though we’re not in your (HIGHLY desirable) position of being completely debt-free, we’re on the path to debt-freedom. We are in our 50s, so it seems counter-intuitive not to be investing in retirement – apart from no-choice pension contributions (for which I am, frankly, grateful). But after a two year intensive focus on reducing our non-mortgage debt, it’s gone down from $102,000 to less than $40,000. We’re getting there! And we DO have that sense of peace on the journey.

  12. We went crazy paying off car loans and student loans a few years ago, and we cut out most of the “extras” in our life during that time. I definitely think the sacrifice was worth it. It was like pulling a Band-Aid off.

    • Sometimes when you are in the middle of the journey it can be tough to deal with the sacrifices. Like you, as I see where I have now come, the sacrifice was definitely worth it.

  13. Great article, Brian! I think it’s totally worth delaying the gratification to rid yourself of debt. I speak from experience, being debt free now. There is not a more free feeling in the world, when it comes to money.

  14. Kipp says:

    Focus.. that is a hard one for me. I feel that I need to be attacking all sides as a balanced strategy. I am putting extra towards debt, while trying to save in 401(k) and ROTH accounts. And when I looked to see how long a solid debt payoff will take to clear out everything including the mortgage I was still looking at 7ish years. That is a long time. By stretching it out to be just before I turn 40 (about 12 years), I am able to invest more into ROTH’s while still getting the debt killed at a decent rate.

    Granted the ROTH savings will come after I kill this one single student loan with a 5.35% interest rate. A bit over $2,200 to go on that one!

    • “…7ish years.” You know Kipp, that time frame is actually not that bad. I know from leading Dave Ramsey’s FPU class, that their statistics show those following the Seven Baby Steps plan end up paying off the mortgage in about seven years (on average). It may seem like a long time, I think you are right on target. And even being totally debt free at 40 is not a bad place to be. FYI..that’s when it happened for me. You’ll have 25+ years before retirement to really kick it with investing.

      • Kipp says:

        Well to be honest the 7 year payoff still has my wife and I contributing 10% of gross to our pre-tax retirement.
        Now the slightly-slower 12 year plan (age 40) gives us time to build up ROTH balances as well.

        “You’ll have 25+ years before retirement”
        I would certainly hope less! Maybe a fourth or a third of that time.

  15. I really like the concept of singularity of focus. We don’t have non-mortgage debt, but we are aggressive savers and we talk about this focus and purpose all the time. And I’d add that having your whole family on board (as you do) helps to reinforce and strengthen that focus. Thank you for this post!

    • “…having your whole family on board (as you do) helps to reinforce and strengthen that focus.” Absolutely…I couldn’t do it without help. I’m just like everyone else, with weak moments that need a strengthening hand.

  16. Iforonwy says:

    Thank you for this article. I must admit that as I sat down to read it I fully expected folk out there to be telling you that it was wrong to be enjoying yourself on cruises whilst at the same time advising folk on paying down debts and saving.

    Well good for you! About 14 years ago we were in the position where ill health might have meant that we would be living on just one income so we anticipated it and cut our cloth accordingly living well within the one income. Fast forward and we were, 4 years later living in a smaller home, in a different part of the country and for a time just on one income made up of my partners pension income. I was not elegible for my pension at that time but we were still managing very well. Then my pensions became due and then – and the point of the story is this – we too enjoy cruise vacations!

    We had always defered things – our version of a jam tomorrow mentality and my does that jam taste good from the balcony of an ocean going liner!

    I had wanted to take such a voyage from the age of 5years old when a steward on a Cunard Liner gave me a saucer telling me to keep hold of it and one year I would be holding it and the cup of tea to go with it!

    • It’s always a balance, even for those out of debt, to know when to splurge and when to defer spending. I believe going to far in either direction causes problems.

  17. Great post mate,
    We also paid our mortgage off in May and have zero debt. I always like to take the balanced approach so I’m not putting all of our eggs in one basket. Many people do get distracted and in some cases continue to build more distraction that they forget the overall goal they set out to achieve from the beginning. Like you now we will be investing more into our retirement savings and the rest will go towards maybe a holiday back to the UK, Spain, Paris… wherever is not here! lol.

    • Distractions can definitely derail you from remembering the bigger picture. That’s why it’s a good thing to write those goals/desires down so that you can always go back to them and remind yourself of why you started the journey in the first place.

  18. Amy says:

    While I certainly don’t like everything about Dave Ramsey or his approach, I do like having a step-by-step plan. Not only is focus important when paying off debt, but it also enables one to have some “wins”, (I’m thinking especially about the snowball method there), which provides confidence and motivation to keep plugging away.

    • I love those wins that come in the snowball method. Each one helps to propel you forward just a little bit more. And you are 100% right Amy…it does breed confidence and the motivation to keep pushing forward. I think that’s the psychological beauty of the method that many people discount.

  19. Brit says:

    I look at my life before and now and not having credit card bills, car loans I have to say I am one content girl. I do love Dave Ramsey’s baby step approach. I used them to keep me focus and I also had a saving account of $3000 at a time. Once I reached that amount I paid off all the CC and other debt. Having that amount saved while attacking my debt helped me not get in more debt if that makes any sense.
    During that time we didn’t go on vacation and last year we did as a family. We enjoyed our mini vacation because we worked hard to save for it. Seems like we enjoy things more after paying off our debt (not mortgage).
    Great post.

    • “Having that amount saved while attacking my debt helped me not get in more debt if that makes any sense.” Yes, that makes complete sense Brit. That’s the beauty of having some savings around for emergencies.

  20. Alexis says:

    For myself personally, I would decide to pay off my debt first instead of putting money into savings. I like the feeling of having no money owed and the less money I owe, the sooner I can establish a large savings.

  21. Paying off debt is definitely a priority in our household. We’ve put everything on hold and cut down where possible. We do have a small emergency fund but I think when it comes to the crunch and we’re down to the final couple thousands of pounds worth of debt, I think we’ll throw it at the debts to be rid of them once and for all. It won’t take long to build up an emergency fund after the debts are gone.

  22. Great post Brian. I think you’re absolutely right, a focus on the debt is the best way to rid yourself of it. And I agree with you- I think most people would be better served by delaying investing for 1-3 years in order to get out of debt than to try to multitask and split their money in several different directions. Well put.

  23. I followed my own (modified) version of Dave’s plan when I was paying of my student loan debt. Since I was single at the time I didn’t feel comfortable with a $1000 emergency fund, so I saved more before I got started. I also paid off my highest interest rate loans first because that’s what made sense to me and I knew once I started I’d finish. Great post.

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