Goal Setting: Getting Out of Debt Once and For All
It is easy enough to say that you have a goal of being debt free in “x” months or years. You have crunched the numbers, and your plan is realistic and achievable. But why is it so hard to actually put into practice?
Isn’t it interesting how impatient and short-sighted we generally are? A friend of mine has gads and gads of consumer debt – the worst kind, with high interest rates and very little to show for it at the end of the day. And yet she is also the first person to whip out her credit card and dig an even deeper hole of debt in the name of “treating” herself. She is tired, she works hard, and she has been good. Time for an expensive dinner. Sadly, the expensive dinner (along with a host of other similar “treats”) will haunt her for years to come as she continues to try to get out from under this increasing pile of debt. Every time she is faced with the reality and magnitude of her arrears, it seems she makes yet another purchase to drive the stake in even further, seemingly having lost hope that she’ll ever get out of debt and figuring that at least she’ll have a good time going down in flames.
At first blush, I would say she is not motivated enough. Given enough motivation, you can truly do anything, and I believe that. (Look at the people who are maimed in car accidents, told they will never walk again, and in the face of such predictions they are walking inside of six months. Those are motivated individuals).
As a financial planner, I watched a couple with a modest income purchase and pay off a large house in five years. In the name of preaching balance in life, I constantly questioned their actions and suggested they at least diversify their savings and have the house paid off just a little bit later. But they only had eyes for a mortgage-free house, and despite logic or any other argument, they had to have it. They didn’t mind all the corner-cutting and super frugal living they had to do in order to have that house paid off, because every time they were faced with a potentially distractive “want”, they simply envisioned a mortgage-free house, and were able to keep their goals in perspective.
But I believe there is more to my friend’s debt quandary than basic motivation and goal setting. I believe the types of goals she is setting is the catalyst for her failures. What did the couple above get at the end of the day for their five years of sacrifice and effort? A mortgage-free home. That is a pretty big goal, and a reward they immediately reap the benefits of by having extra money each month which doesn’t have to go towards a mortgage. It shaped other life goals they had such as travel, retirement savings, having children, and taking career breaks.
What is my friend’s goal, and why is it not giving her that special something our mortgage-free couple had to hang on to? My friend’s goal is not lofty, and not unrealistic; it is simply to be out of debt.
But it is in the basic simplicity of the goal that my friend goes awry. What does it mean to be out of consumer debt? Not much. It is basically a “return to 0” scenario; one which doesn’t hold much excitement or reward at the end of the day. Sure – she won’t have a mass of debt hanging over her head like a dark cloud, and she will have extra money to play with that formerly serviced her debts. But it is obvious that these benefits are not strong enough to give her the proper motivation to make the sacrifices now for the benefits later.
So how do we fix this? Here are a few ways you can set financial goals that create a better sense of motivation and ultimately help you to attain them.
Shoot for the Stars, Hit the Moon
If my friend decided not only to be out of debt, but also to have a down payment saved for a house, she might have a little more pep in her step. With this new goal in mind, she isn’t focusing just on debt, debt, debt, as there is a school of thought that says as long as you focus on the negative (even if it is to eliminate it), the negative is all you will get.
Instead, she is focusing on something she can only dream of having right now: a property. When faced with that expensive dinner out she would like to have, she can focus on living in her comfortable new home, and maybe that vision will be enough to curb her appetite for impulse spending. Or maybe the focus can be having children. She wants children, but would like to be on solid financial ground before getting pregnant. If she focuses on the day she is out of debt as being the day she and her husband will try for children, she may be more successful in her debt-reduction plight. Having a vision to hang on to that is more emotionally charging than simply being out of debt can be very powerful.
Reward Yourself Along the Way
The longer-term your goal is, the harder it will be to achieve it without getting sidetracked. Hence, the bigger your debt load is, the harder it is to see the forest through the trees. So although it may initially sound counter-intuitive, create rewards that you can enjoy when you reach and surpass certain debt-reduction goals. Enjoy that nice dinner out each time you pay off – and cut up (or freeze) – a credit card. Buy that new game you want when you reach the halfway point to being debt free. Yes, this reward may involve a backwards slide initially, but if the milestone and reward you set is alluring enough, it may just be what is required to keep you on track on a course you may otherwise not have had the discipline to maintain.
Getting out of debt is the plight of many people, and the goal in and of itself is the downfall of many more. Instead of focusing on the mistakes you have made or the crappy hand life dealt you to land you in this position, try to look forward, move on, and find the silver lining. By making getting out of debt a simple by-product of a different and more exciting goal, you too can get out of debt once and for all.