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How to Finally Get Out of Debt


David Maxfield

David Maxfield is coauthor of two bestselling books, Change Anything and Influencer.


Change AnythingQ Dear Crucial Skills,

I recently realized we aren’t out of debt because we really don’t want to pay all the money to make it happen! We have been on a debt payoff plan for years but never follow through because it’s so painful to pay our bills when it seems like we are just giving money away. It’s just too hard to catch up when we don’t even know what the balance is for because it has accumulated over several years. As a result, we lose steam after a few months, spend money on a nice night out or an evening entertaining friends, and get off track.

Can you share some tips to help us address our personal motivation and learn to “Love What We Hate”? Do you have any tips for motivating ourselves to get out of debt by turning it into a game we can win and enjoy playing?

Wanting Off the Hamster Wheel

A Dear Hamster,

What a frustrating and sad situation. Not only are you struggling financially, you are beating yourself up for your setbacks and failures. You’re blaming your character when you should blame your plan.

In our book Change Anything we describe your situation as “The Willpower Trap.” It happens when you over-rely on your willpower instead of employing all six sources of influence. Your willpower lets you down, you blame yourself, and you become discouraged and even less successful.

The way out of this trap is to involve all six sources of influence, not just those related to personal motivation. You specifically ask for ways to address your personal motivation—and I’ll get there—but that’s not where I’d like to start. Instead, I’ll begin with structural ability.

Structural Ability. If “a nice night out or an evening entertaining friends” is enough to throw you over the edge, then you’re living too close to the edge. I recommend you take a few steps back by lowering your fixed expenses. I know these are difficult steps to take, but they will do wonders to lower the pressure you’re feeling today.

Find ways to reduce regular monthly payments

  • Reduce your rent or mortgage. Consider renting out a room in your house, moving to a smaller apartment, or moving in with a friend or relative.
  • Reduce your transportation costs. Consider selling a car or trading in your current car for a less expensive car. Downsizing a car will save more than your car payments. It will reduce insurance, gas, and repairs.
  • Cancel non-critical services. Reduce monthly payments by cancelling non-critical services like cable TV, cell phone data plans, and magazine or newspaper subscriptions.
  • Sell unnecessary assets. Sell assets like boats, power toys, vacation homes, etc.

Make impulse buying more difficult

  • Cut up or cancel credit cards.
  • Make tempting locations “out of bounds.” For example, stop going to particular stores or malls, stop visiting eBay and other online retailers.
  • Never shop without an actual shopping list and never buy items that aren’t on the list.

Keep score

  • Keep a visible scorecard or chart that shows your progress—and update it every day or every week.

Add another paycheck

  • Consider taking a second job. An evening or weekend job that brings in an extra $100 a week might give you that extra margin you need.

Personal Motivation. It sounds as if your motivation wanes when you think to the past—especially when you can’t remember where your money went in the first place. Motivation works better when you focus on the future—on where you want to get. Here are a few ideas:

Visit your default and desired futures

  • Select a very specific debt-reduction target. Make it as detailed as possible. For example: pay off my highest-rate credit card, pay off my car, or pay off my student loan. Then dedicate your savings to that goal alone. Loans from institutions like scottish iva may seem quite necessary, as the loans might help you get a stable life, but in the long run, the pressure of repayment and the constant visit of bailiffs will only make life hard to live.
  • Select a very specific purchase that your debt-reduction target will make possible. Don’t make this an “optional expense” like a vacation. Instead, make it mandatory, like dental work, tires, or a replacement car. This target will be your North Star, a motivator and a guide when your mood is dark.
  • Think deeply about what will happen if you don’t make your savings goal—if you can’t get your dental care or new tires, or if you can’t afford medical care for your loved ones.

Create a personal mission statement

  • Write down your saving and spending plan and note why it is important to you. Have every family member sign it, then keep copies you can see and read when you feel tempted to overspend.

Make it a game

I like to build four elements into a savings game: a reasonable challenge, clear rules, social interaction, and immediate feedback. Below is an example:

  • Set a weekly goal. Perhaps you could decide on a set figure to pay toward a credit card.
  • Establish clear rules. Maybe establish different rules each week. For example, “This week our payment has to come from new money one of us has earned. Next week it has to come from saved money, and it has to come from our food budget.”
  • Use cooperation or competition. For example, “This week, we’ll cooperate to jointly achieve our goal. Next week, we’ll compete to see who can reach their part of the goal first.”
  • Give feedback and fabulous prizes. Make a big chart that shows your progress. Create magnificent, but free, prizes like paper crowns and towel capes for the Sultan of Savings. Celebrate your very real achievements by writing notes to each other and putting them into a scrapbook.

These are a few ideas to try. None of them are magic and none are tailored to you and your unique situation. In addition, they only deal with two of the six sources of influence. I encourage you to select, modify, or invent your own tactics. Make sure you include actions within each of the six sources of influence and make them big, high-leverage actions.

Best wishes,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

8 thoughts on “How to Finally Get Out of Debt”

  1. Joyce

    I really enjoyed this article. 23 years ago when I entered into a second marriage, my husband and I had an accumulated debt of $260.000 due to a divorce “shellacking” on his end, and bad money management on my end. Five kids – three in college. We both worked two jobs and began to slowly to pay the bills. Bankruptcy was not an option. When mortgage rates came down, no bank in the city would even talk to us! We found a Savings and Loan that allowed us to write a letter to the Board describing where we were, and what our plans were to get out of the mess. They listened – we re-financed at a lower rate for 15 years. I am pleased to say that by the end of the 15 years we were totally out of debt and well on our way to building our savings. We said NO to many things during that time – the extra coat, eating out, expensive vacations – and found simple pleasures in the one tank car trips and shopping the sales. Our greatest joy was seeing one balance after the other coming to zero. It can be done. It does take both of the partners with the same mindset, but it is well worth it. Looking forward to retirement in two and a half years. And we have a credit rating in the upper 700’s. Not bad!

  2. Richard Szwaja

    Several years ago, faced with financial difficulties, I reluctantly canceled my satelite TV subscription. I was afraid that my teenage daughter would be mad, and that I would struggle to fill the void.

    I could not have been more wrong!

    My daughter’s immediate reaction was “Good. That means we can sit on the couch and read together.”

    And I have enjoyed so many things that I lost to the 1-3 hours of daily TV I used to watch – meaningful conversations, books and poetry, photography, walks, cooking, exercise . . .

    Since then I have been remaried, and though we could arguably afford the financial cost of a satelite or cable subscription, neither my wife nor I are interested in giving up all the other, more meaningful ways we are able to connect with each other and our family. Our 9 and 12 year-olds have never once complained about not having TV.

    Whether your subscritpion costs $30 or $200 per month, your life-balance may benefit even more than your check-book balance when you choose to cancel it.

  3. Rebecca

    Last April, we totalled our credit card debt and kept totals columns and also a line graph. My husband graphed it back several years. We have more than cut it in half! For me, watching that line level off (rather than climb) and then nosedive was the greatest incentive. We are very bad folks–it’s much too easy. We paid off our largest card this month–rewarded ourselves with hugs and kisses! Good luck to all the folks working on this–it is very tough these days.

  4. David Maxfield

    These are wonderful additions. Joyce talks to the creativity and persistence it can take to get started; Richard’s example of the side-benefits is really eye opening; and Rebecca’s example of a line graph that nose-dives or climbs is excellent.

    Can others share the strategies that have worked for them? Of course, not every strategy will work for every person–but the more we can throw against this wall, the more likely we are to help others.


  5. Claire

    Excellent advice! And of course the opposite is true to grow wealth, it grows at the same speed as the debt, just in the opposite direction 🙂

  6. Paige

    Hello Mr. Maxfield, Vital Smarts, and “Wanting Off the Hamster Wheel,”

    First– while I work for a credit union, I am not writing as a representative of my workplace, but as a person who believes that every choice I make with my time and money is a “vote” of my values.

    While much of your advice to “Wanting Off the Hamster Wheel” in Q&A: How to Finally Get Out of Debt! is very good in terms of change and influence, I’d like to add these thoughts about debt:

    • Writing the mission statement (your personal values and goals) should come FIRST. Consider before you buy whether each expenditure is in line with your values and goals. Make a list of all your expenses, including debt payoff. Use the mission statement to help distinguish between a “want” and a “need.”

    • Your value of “time with friends” could include a board game or DVD night, or making a dinner together with potluck ingredients, instead of buying dinner out.

    • One other idea for a free night out: volunteer at a local theater or event.

    • Prevention (i.e.-health & auto care) is less expensive than emergency care.

    • Most people don’t have vacation homes or boats to sell–yard sales might be more appropriate.

    • Consider researching credit union membership. Find out if you can consolidate any credit card bills onto a low rate, no annual fee card.

    • This is a hard road you’re on and you have my admiration. You clearly DO want to pay the debts, or you wouldn’t be able to stick to your goals for months at a time. Try to stay positive–think of ways to have fun without spending money. Think of how much you do have. Be proud of your goals. Think how good it will feel to get a fresh start without debt. It gets better.

    Thank you. I love the newsletter and philosophies you espouse in your books. You give practical advice for better communication and making real change.

  7. David Maxfield

    Thanks Paige! Your wisdom shines throughout your comments. I especially like your suggestions for finding new, less expensive, ways to spend time with friends–and to help others. One of my mother’s sayings is, “If you think you need help, go help someone.” I think that helping others is one of the best ways to get your he’d and your values straight.


  8. Dave

    I really appreciated your article on how to motivate yourself to get out of debt. I’ve been trying to get out of debt for years. Now that I’m finally down to the last couple of years before I’m debt-free, I’ve found it seems to look harder and harder. Maybe it’s my money blue-print, maybe I’m just tired of scrimping. But I did like your suggestions for increasing income and reducing expenses, each suggestion a small tweak.

    I’d also like to share some what I’ve learned from T. Harv Eker in his book, Secrets of the Millionaire Mind. Among 16 other great ideas, he suggests a money-management formula that I’ve found hard to beat. He says to use half your income for necessities, and allocate the other half into five equal accounts (and if you don’t think you can do this right away, start smaller and work up):
    1. Give to whatever inspires you, no strings attached.
    2. Save for long-term, big-ticket items, like a car or down-payment on a house.
    3. Educate yourself, you should never stop learning! Maybe even focus that education on how to invest.
    4. Invest, find one or more vehicles to invest in that give a great return.
    5. Have fun! Just blow this 10% of your income every month on something that makes you feel rich, because if you don’t, your subconscious is going to rebel against all the scrimping and try to sabotage you.

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