5 Tips to Stay Motivated and Get Out of Debt

by Shawanda Greene

Like losing weight, getting out of debt can be a long and toilsome process.  However, piling on debt is easier than piling on the pounds.  There aren’t any quick and easy fixes, so I’ve listed 5 tips that will help you stay motivated while you climb your way out of debt.

Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals

S.M.A.R.T. goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.  For example, “I want to get out of debt” doesn’t meet the criteria of a S.M.A.R.T. goal.   A cursory acknowledgment of wanting to get out of debt isn’t going to get you very far.  In isolation, a statement like that reveals your lack of conviction.

You want to get somewhere?  Say “I’m going to sacrifice cable, soft drinks, and my overpriced apartment to apply the freed up cash towards paying off $13,843.52 of credit card debt by December 31, 2009.”  You don’t have to tell everybody your business, but you understand where I’m going.

Your income, obligations, and level of discipline  are key factors in determining whether your goals are realistic.  Don’t make too many excuses for yourself.  If anyone facing similar circumstances as you has ever accomplished a goal as lofty or loftier than the one you’ve set, then it’s definitely attainable.

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. – Lewis Carroll

Develop a Plan

BudgetIt’s cool to set S.M.A.R.T goals, but a carefully devised plan is your blueprint for debt freedom.  An essential component of that blueprint is a budget.  Yes – I said budget.  Don’t like the word “budget?”  You can call it a spending plan, a financial forecast, whatever.  You can get real creative.  Anyway you slice it, it’s still income minus expenses over a specified period of time.

After you’ve prepared your budget, I want you to take a close look at your expenses.  Identify ways to eliminate or reduce each line item.  Even those “fixed” expenses aren’t spared from this fat trimming process.  Any money you find will be applied to your debts.

If your situation is really dire, consider picking up additional work freelancing or delivering pizzas.  Before doing so, consider whether the extra effort is worth it.

The thought of fessing up to the wasteful spending you’ve participated in over the years can be disheartening.  Keep it simple.  Use any or a combination of the following tools to prepare a budget:

Personally, I prefer Mint.  Use what works for you.

There are two ways to determine which debts to pay off first.  Some say give priority to liabilities with the  highest interest rate to minimize costs.  Others say pay the smallest balances first to garner a sense of accomplishment.  What do I say?  I say I’ve presented you with two options.  Pick one.

If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. – Who knows?

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Continually Gather Relevant Information

Knowledge is a powerful tool.  Immerse yourself in financial information.  Listen to podcasts.  Read books, blogs, and magazines.  Discuss money saving techniques with the cheapest person you know over tea.  Constantly listening to or reading about personal finance will keep you focused.

I’m a huge proponent of frugality.  In order to save money, you need to know how to get what you need for as little as possible.  But, don’t go overboard spending money to save money.  Do your best to go without what you really don’t need.

Some of my favorite money saving, debt obliterating information comes from the following sources:

At some point, I’ll get around to sharing my tried and true frugal strategies, but for now, know that the list above is nothing less than pure gold.

The first step towards knowledge is to know that we are ignorant. – Richard Cecil

Track Your Progress

At least twice a month, I want you to evaluate your progress.  It’s not enough to devise a plan, you also have to stick to it.  This is why it’s essential you assess whether you’re on track to accomplish your goals.  Seeing your debt decrease and your corresponding net worth increase is encouraging.

If you’re not getting the results you hoped for, then that simply means there is a flaw in your plan or a flaw in your follow through.  It’s likely the latter, so you should probably adjust that first.

If you can actually see the fruits of your sacrifice, then you’re much more likely to press forward.  Perhaps this glimpse of freedom will compel you to spread the gospel to all who’ll hear the importance of simple living.  Hold on to that enthusiasm.

Change does not necessarily assure progress, but progress implacably requires change. – Henry Steele Commager

Surround Yourself with Positive People

Portrait of business colleagues holding each other and laughingYou don’t need people around who’ll beat you up when you veer off course.  Don’t get discouraged if a moment of weakness or an unexpected event causes you to deviate from the plan.  Whenever I have a particularly undisciplined day of spending, I say to myself, “tomorrow is a new day.”  Try it.  Whatever you do, don’t quit.

If all your friends are financial misfits, find people with similar debt-free ambitions on social networking sites like Meetup or MEETin.org.  Don’t get put off by the fact that these websites encourage (*gasp*) actual face to face interaction.

People are like elevators.  They can take you up, or they can take you down. – Zachary Tims

If you’ve paid off a significant amount of debt, what’d you do to stay motivated?  If you’ve been unsuccessful getting out of debt in the past, what are the areas that caused you the most trouble?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

hustler June 16, 2009 at 10:34 PM

I need to be better at setting goals like this. I usually say things like I want to do this or that, but hardly ever go through with them. This will be a good system for me to use as it sets a deadline (which as a procrastinator, I need) and states a specific goal. Thanks!
I haven’t paid off a huge amount of debt, but I have saved a large amount in savings. I did it by putting all my money in savings first (through direct deposit) and then taking out what I need for bills. I’m less likely to take out money once it’s already in savings so I don’t go through a lot of “spending” money. Once the amount starts to add up, it’s fun to watch it grow more and more each payday.


Shawanda Greene June 17, 2009 at 6:51 PM


Thanks for posting a comment.

I still have money direct deposited into my savings account. It’s the most effective way to save money.

Paying off debt is essentially the same as saving money. I used to mail a big check to my car lender when I got paid. You can’t change your mind once the check is on its way. I was obsessed with pinching every penny. I even found $37 through an unclaimed property website and applied that towards my debt. It seemed every month the payment got bigger and bigger.


Moneymonk June 18, 2009 at 1:28 PM

Good analogy!


Shiquita March 17, 2012 at 11:33 AM

Well what about when things come up like birthdays and other events throughout the year that distract you from staying on track, especially when you're trying to throw every extra penny towards the debt at hand? Do you stay on course and then take care of the event at hand and then jump back on course? What do u think?


Shawanda March 18, 2012 at 6:21 PM

I got tired of wasting my money on stuff people didn't use or appreciate. Here's an extreme tactic I use for gift giving when it comes to birthdays and holidays: I rarely buy gifts. If I'm feeling particularly generous, I'll splurge on something the gift recipient will really enjoy. But they shouldn't expect anything from me every year. I will buy gifts for friends' weddings and new babies, but they know I'm not the one to give a gift every year. It's just not going to happen. This attitude hasn't harmed my relationships at all.

You're not going to get out of debt your entire life, so it's okay to not buy gifts every year.

One of my friends is getting married. She knows how I am about spending a whole bunch of money on wedding related expenses. So, if she really wants me to participate in her wedding or attend it, she has to consider that. We're good friends, so she has.

With that said, I saw a blog post a little while ago that had amazing gift ideas if you're on a budget. You should check it out: http://www.the36thavenue.com/2011/11/25-handmade-


Jessica August 21, 2012 at 4:35 PM

My husband and I just took a brutal look at our finances, and made a big, fat plan (after a big, fat night of whining and feeling sorry for ourselves). So far, so good–we’re already $3,000 “richer” than we were two months ago. We have made some big sacrifices. But we only have to make them until the debt is gone–then, we will have piles of extra money :) However, I appreciated Shaquita’s point above–we have 3 kids; therefore, skipping holiday and birthday presents is not an option. Plus, there’s the inevitable school supplies/clothes/pictures, Halloween costumes–all that kid-related stuff that we forget to plan for. Our solution was for my husband to pick up a newpaper-stocking job. It’s only two nights a month, and pays about $10 an hour, so it’s an extra $140 a month. That’s not a ton, but it ALL goes into a savings fund that specifically for those “unexpecteds” listed above. It’s a little like the idea of an “emergency savings fund,” but for “social and mommy emergencies” :) Anyhow, like I said, we’re just starting out. But check in around November of ’13 to see if we made it!


Shawanda Greene August 23, 2012 at 2:28 PM

Awesome! Yeah, when I have children (and they’re at the age they can remember they were the only kids without gifts on their birthdays and Christmas), I’m sure I’ll change my tune. :) But I commend you and your husband for taking action and putting in the work to pay cash for your family’s splurges. Well done.
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Andrew December 3, 2012 at 5:34 PM

Man, the “Create a plan” tip is so powerful and bring great results!

You should always have a plan in order to stay motivated, no matter what your ultimate goal is! You Need to know exactly what you have to do next in order to reach your purposes, because otherwise you’re going to lose your time on useless things that only look important apparently.
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