Home » How to Pay off Debt: It’s About More Than Budgeting

How to Pay off Debt: It’s About More Than Budgeting


Paying off debt is, for most of us,  much more complex than drawing up a budget and tracking spending.  At least, I know it is for us.  We had committed multiple times to tracking our spending so we could find out where all of our money was going. But in our previous attempts, we wouldn’t last more than two or three days before we’d thrown in the towel.  So why is it that this time we’ve been able to stick with our pay off debt program?  I think I’ve figured it out: along with learning the basics of budgeting and spend-tracking, we’ve conditioned our hearts and our heads for this journey.

How?  Well, boys and girls, it’s your lucky day, because once again I’m going to talk your ear off in hopes that I can help you begin your own journey to pay off debt. 🙂

Here’s how we conditioned our minds to be motivated enough to stay the course.

1.  Get a true perspective of the problem.  One of the reasons it took us so long to begin walking our road to debt free (my husband and I are 43 and 46, respectively) is because we would continually convince ourselves that everything was ok.  We would use tricks like:

compare ourselves to people worse off financially instead of better off financially.  We would look at others’ financial mistakes and tell ourselves “Well, at least we didn’t…….(go to Hawaii on a credit card, buy a $50,000 vehicle, fill the house with new furniture, etc.)  We would appease ourselves regarding our situation by finding people more financially irresponsible than we were, and thus, our debt load got bigger and bigger.

convince ourselves that wants were needs.  Our kids “needed” sports.  And after all, they weren’t in as many sports as most kids, so it’s ok.  Our kids “needed” new clothes, when in fact, they didn’t.  Thrift store and garage sale clothes would’ve suited them just fine.  Or, we “needed” to go out to eat, buy a new this, that or the other thing for the house, or spend way more for birthdays for the kids than we had in the bank.

tell ourselves that things would get better.  We’d say things to ourselves like “After the mortgage is paid off in 25 years”, “After Rick gets his raise”, “After the car payment is gone” things will get better.  We had no plan, and just assumed that when more money was coming in, it would be better.  But it never was.

Denial and convincing yourself that it’s okay when it’s really not okay will get you nowhere fast.  It’s time to really sit down with yourself and face facts such as:

– your total debt load

– your debt-to-income ratio

– the number of years it’ll take you to pay off your debt if you continue making  only the minimum payments.

If you really want to be debt free, you’ve got to choose to face the facts about your spending and your situation and take a good, honest look in the mirror.

2. Prepare for the role.  Once we took a good honest look at how much debt we had, we were shocked.  And terrified.  And that’s not a bad thing.  When looking to pay off debt, it’s good to have that image of just how bad things are etched into your mind for a good, long time.

When a good actor prepares for a role, it’s not just about being able to read the lines with life in them.  A good actor/actress studies the character they’ll be playing for months before-hand.  They convince themselves that they literally are the character so that they can react with the same emotions as if the storyline is truly happening to them. 

If you’re looking to pay off debt, you need to prepare for the role of a driven, determined and often desperate man/woman.  One of the ways we do this is by studying poor people.  We read a ton about people from the Great Depression.  We imagine what it must have been like searching desperately for food for your kids, or coming home after a long day of looking for some work – any work – and finding your belongings and your wife and kids on the sidewalk, crying, and a foreclosure sign in the yard.   We envision our life in those desperate circumstances, imagining literally what it would look like and what we would do if we didn’t have money to feed the kids or a place to live.

We prepare for the role of poor and desperate people, because if we’re truly honest with ourselves, that’s what we are when we have a boat load of debt that needs to be paid off.   

This kind of studying of the poor, role-playing, and “what if?” mindset helps us to stay on track with our plan.

3.  Imagine life better.  Another huge motivational too for us as we pay off debt is that we imagine what our life will be like when we “owe no man”.  (Rom. 13:8).  We make serious goals, such as having everything paid off and having a 6-12 month emergency fund, and then we imagine what it would be like if Rick got laid off, and instead of “Oh no!” we could say “WOOHOO!”  We imagine what it would be like if he didn’t have to trot off to work for someone else everyday, but instead could make his own work schedule.  We imagine what life would be like if we could do things like take month-long globe-hopping vacations (something our super frugal neighbors just did) and buy things without freaking out about the impact on our budget.  Or be able to take the kids to the doc without fearing the pending medical bills.

We put our heads in an “We don’t want to live this way anymore!” mindset, and we remind ourselves that we deserve more than being able to spend as we please.  We deserve to handle our money in a wise manner that will enable us to live in a financial situation that provides our family to be able to do the things we love, yes, but without fear of not being able to pay the electric bill next month.  We deserve to not have money and the earning of it rule our lives anymore.  And so do you, so choose to get your mindset on board and pave your own way to debt free!


  1. I think imagining life better is a HUGE motivator, at least for me. While my life isn’t “bad” per se, there are changes I would like to make but am not in the financial spot to make. Having a larger emergency fund, having multiple income streams, etc. are all things that could contribute to a better life.

  2. Pauline says:

    Thinking “oh, it’s not so bad, Bob is worse off” is bad, having role models on the contrary can help you achieve great things. I know lots of people who are able to fix stuff, grow a garden… they inspire me to be more self sufficient and spend less.

    • Laurie says:

      That’s great, Pauline! And that’s a great point about finding good role models. That really helps us too, and you are one of ours. 🙂

  3. Matt Becker says:

    You really have a way Laurie. I love your point about looking at people you’d like to emulate, not people you can feel superior to. I also love the analogy to acting. Sometimes you just have to act the part, even if you really aren’t there yet, and that alone can take you there. In the end, you just have to truly know what you want and be willing to take the effort to make it happen.

    • Laurie says:

      Thanks, Matt. 🙂 Yeah, fear can be a huge motivator for me, so I try and use it to inspire myself to spend less, etc. It sounds a bit morbid, maybe, but whatever works, right?

  4. Alexa says:

    I like to imagine a better life as well. It keeps me motivated to keep going even on the days I want to quit. Straightening out finances is hard work and takes commitment and motivation.

  5. Mark Ross says:

    Being optimistic on things can really help. And imagining a better life without debt is a great dream for you to think of everyday. It can even serve as a great inspiration for us to do better too.

  6. Great post. I can relate to a lot of this Laurie. My wife and I paid off some pretty serious debt a few years ago and it never would have happened if we didn’t change our mindset and stop making excuses. This post should serve as great inspiration for folks looking to start a frugal lifestyle change.

    • Laurie says:

      Kyle, that’s terrific that you guys kicked your debt to the curb! I bet you’d agree that it was worth all of the sacrifices too. I’ve never met a debt-free person yet who said they weren’t glad they made the journey.

  7. I definitely used to use other people as comparisions “well at least I only have $30K of debt and not $150K like so and so”. It wasn’t motivating and didn’t get me where I needed to be. Once I finally go “sick and tired” of being “sick and tired” as Dave Ramsey often says, I finally got my finances in shape. Thanks for the mention!

    • Laurie says:

      Us too, KK! It’s such a deception, that kind of comparing, isn’t it? Once we realized that the “benefits” of this kind of comparison were false and short-lived, we began to see the debt for the strangle hold that it is, and that helped us to really want to get out of it.

  8. Imagining is fun. Its the action part that people struggle with. Having a bit of optimism is useful too. I sometimes struggle with just thinking negatively and not appreciating what I have.

  9. Keren says:

    I love imagining what my life will be like when we’re debt free! It’s fun as well as an amazing motivator!

  10. I love the two sides of the coin in this post! First the negative realisation of how bad things really are but then on the flip side, the positive vision of what things could be like on the other side. A great mental balance if you ask me.

  11. I did that for years saying other people were lots worse off than myself. It’s funny that I am always telling my daughter to worry about herself and not what everyone else is doing, but I was not following that example at all. You really have to look at your situation and that alone to determine if you are on a good path or not. If you aren’t the time to change is right now because something is always going to come up when you are waiting to pass a specific milestone.

    • Laurie says:

      Oh, we totally get that, Kim! And you’re so right – we really have to judge our own situations solely and objectively. It’s such a huge help in facing reality, and in creating a driving force to change the situation.

  12. We plodded on for years without really understanding our circumstances around debt and we’re now making up for lost time. I think we’re finally in the mindset of “We don’t want to live that way anymore!”

  13. “If you really want to be debt free, you’ve got to choose to face the facts about your spending and your situation and take a good, honest look in the mirror”

    A budget is only a tool and one part of the situations that can be used to work on paying down debt. The start of it all begins with being honest and understanding what put someone in that position in the first place.

    Great post.

  14. There is always a big line drawn between our wants and needs. If we start realizing this we can be well on the right track. Your approach of comparing ourselves with people worse off financially is really good Laurie.

  15. AverageJoe says:

    Comparing yourself to others is so, so, so dangerous. It’s like going to the morgue and comparing yourself with the cadavers. “Well, at least I’m breathing!” Yeah, not so good…..

  16. Iforonwy says:

    I think the best thing you mentioned above is spend-tracking. We started to do this in earnest in 2000 and we still do this on a regular, daily, weekly basis. Folk who know that we do this tell us:- “What a waste of time, get a life”. Sure is that why we are the ones who will be having a lovely lunch out tomorrow on a 2for1 coupon with friends that we are meeting up with because in a couple of weeks we are taking our super-frugal selves off to Europe for 2 weeks?
    Must dash washing needs hanging out in the garden, it has just finished washing in the solar heated water in the solar run machine. Might manage to pick a few berries and tatters whilst I’m out there too. I am sure before long you will be able to become more self-sufficient, especially with the amount of land you have.
    Just hang in there!

    • Laurie says:

      LOVE hearing your story here!!! Yes, we are thoroughly enjoying hang-drying our clothes and picking our own veggies and fruits out of the yard. And your trip to Europe is exactly the kind of stuff that we know we’ll be able to do soon if we keep on this track. Totally worth the “waste of time” to us. 🙂

    • Laurie says:

      Exactly, Andrew! I think it’s important for overspenders to figure out why they’re spending and what they’re spending on.

  17. I think this post illustrates the power of visualization. Simply putting goals to paper is a good approach in its own right. But something powerful happens motivationally when we create an image in our mind’s eye, and really see our goals (or, our fears).

    • Laurie says:

      So true, DB40! We do lots of imagining of the day Rick has the financial capability to say “see ya” to his day job. It’s very powerful!

  18. Thrifty Dad says:

    You’re right, it’s ultimately a mindset. It may be easier now to say things will get better and not do anything about it. But in the end, it’s what you haven’t done that you’ll remember, so it’s much better to set a plan in place today and take action!

  19. MonicaOnMoney says:

    You’re right! It’s more than just about having a budget, it’s really a mindset for being ready to give up debt. That’s the first step.

    • Laurie says:

      SO true, Monica. I think that’s why so many PF people have trouble convincing struggling family and friends to hop on board the “get out of debt” train – they’re just not ready to be debt-free.

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  21. Alexandra @ Real Simple Finances says:

    I *love* that you said: “we’ve conditioned our hearts and our heads for this journey.” You’re 100% right. Getting out of debt is more than budget, it’s more than spreadsheets; it’s a lifestyle change.

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  23. Laurie,

    You’re exactly right. It is about more that budgeting. For me, it was about the “Why”. I needed to envision how crappy my life would be with it in the future and how awesome it could be if I got out. I wouldn’t have had the motivation and drive to get out as quickly as I did if it weren’t for knowing my “Why”.

    Take care,

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