Why Getting Out of Debt is Like Running a Marathon

By Craig Ford on 12 January 2011 (Updated 4 June 2014) 10 comments
Photo: Martineric

In December 2007, I ran my first marathon. (Interestingly, in December 2007, I also ran my last marathon.) Though I’ve decided not to be an annual marathon runner, the process of training for a marathon taught me a lot about life, money, and motivation.

The Motivation to Run a Marathon

One day I was telling stories with a friend who was on the heavier side of heavy. He was talking about some of his world travels and mentioned that he ran a marathon in Greece. The rest of the evening I couldn’t think about anything else — HE, the big guy — had run a marathon.

Early the next morning I started my watch and took off from my campus apartment. My plan was simply to run as far as I could to get a gauge of my physical fitness. Between three and four minutes later, I stopped a block or two from home and had to start to walk.

This was not good news.

Still, I was hooked. I was convinced that I could run a marathon, and I spent the next 15 months training. In December of 2007, I ran the marathon.

So what does that have to do with finances?

Some people love reading debt-free stories. I’ve never quite understood that. Then I connected that with my own motivation to run a marathon.

The accomplishments of others inspire us.  If you read about a family that just paid off $124,000 in debt, you're going to say to yourself, "if they can do that, why can’t I?" If you’re having difficulty getting motivated to pay off your debt and get a grip on your finances, then you should read some good debt-free stories like "Debt Free in One Year" or Fiscal Geek's "We're Debt Free!" Dave Ramsey’s book Total Money Makeover has some great stories too. Just keep reading until you find your inspiration.

Among many other lessons learned from running the marathon, I learned something important about myself. I had enough grit and determination to do anything that I really committed to doing. I think of the masses of people who have piles of debt: All they need is a little perspective and a lot of grit.

How to Run Your Get-Out-of-Debt Marathon

To compete in a money marathon, you’ll need to agree to a few basic rules:

1. Act financially responsible even when it’s hard.

There will be times when you feel like eating at TGI Friday’s instead of having leftover potatoes and ham. There will be times when you’re sure that a shopping binge at the local mall will heal your emotional wounds. If you have credit card debt problems, there will be times when you just want to forget about the whole idea of getting into financial shape.

If you’re running a marathon, you just keep training even when you don’t want to. The same is true of finances.

2. Ignore friends who say you’re crazy.

Your friends won’t always understand you. Sure, they want to see you get out of debt or improve your finances, but this whole don’t-take-a-vacation thing will seem a little too extreme for them. They won’t always understand why you’re so serious and intense when it comes to debt repayment.

The good news is they don’t have to get it.  They don’t have to understand it.  As long as you’re motivated to do it, that is all that matters.

3. Make a long-term commitment.

You can’t train for a marathon in a few short months, and most people take longer than a few months to get out of debt.

There are lots of false starts when it comes to improving finances.  You might make it for a few weeks, and then it gets too hard. But if you are going to run a money marathon, you’ll need a long-term commitment to see this thing through to the finish.

4. Get support from your social network.

Just like you need to ignore those who don’t understand you, you’ll need to surround yourself with those that do. Find others who have similar goals and interests for their finances, and use them to motivate yourself as you motivate others.

5. Track your progress.

You don’t want to wait for months on end to see your progress. By keeping detailed records and getting organized, you’ll enjoy a lot of small payoffs along the way that help you keep motivated. With this free debt-snowball spreadsheet, you can track your progress as you go along. 

Small victories along the way make a big victory possible.

So, how many of you are ready to run your first get-out-of-debt marathon this year?

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Guest's picture

Good analogy. I think many people think of it as a sprint, where it's over quick, but a marathon takes a long time to prepare, is a lot of work, and takes everything you have. This is often the way getting out of debt goes.

Personally, I'd love to run a real marathon but my knees just aren't up for doing that much running. I have a family history of poor knees, and when I did some fairly intense treadmill and street running a few years back, I could tell the knees were going to be a big problem. I decided to switch to bike riding.

Craig Ford's picture

@Money Beagle
I think your right. People will do it for a day or two and then quit. You gotta keep going.

I totally understand about your knees. I don't run as much now, but when I do my knees feel it.

Guest's picture
Diana

This is the spreadsheet I've been using in my debt-free journey.
http://www.vertex42.com/Calculators/debt-reduction-calculator.html

The hardest part is just that: being responsible when it's the hardest. The sacrifice hurts at the time, however in the long run, I'm going to be much prosperous later on.

Craig Ford's picture

@Diana,
Vertex does have some great tools! Thanks for pointing out that resource.

Guest's picture
Eliz...

We just finished freeing ourselves from debt. It's an AMAZING feeling!

Guest's picture

One other bit of advice I'd add, as sort of addition to the first point, is that some people may surprise you, and that no matter what, people shouldn't be afraid of discussing their goals with others. You never know who will support you.

Good luck to everyone looking to fix their finances!

Guest's picture
kiki

I'm definitely ready to run this metaphorical marathon and a real marathon. This has so inspired me to keep going because all the things you mentioned about road blocks (including my friends saying I'm crazy) has been true for me. I don't know where I can find like minded people in my area but ever since I started reading blogs, I get inspiration and support. Thanks for penning these ideas, I've been touched.

Guest's picture

Let me tell you, getting out of debt is tough work. When my wife and I got married, we knew that we had about $20,000 worth of debt. It seem like that much compared to most of the people we knew. They might have that much debt on their car note alone! But, then we started making an effort to pay it off...

In the beginning, we only had an extra $50 at the end of every month. Do you know how long it takes to pay down the principle with $50 a month!? Finally, we found a way to live more cheaply and to earn more money. We decided to stop "crawling on the ground" and started "jogging rather briskly". In 4 months, we paid off $6,250 worth of debts. We then saved up $8,000 for another car (ours died), and now we are focused on paying of the rest of the debts. We only have $7800 left to go and plan to have it at $0 by the end of March.

Personally, I hate taking debt repayment slowly. I'd rather run a near-sprint and get it over and done with already! Find out how we did it (or almost did it) by clicking my name above. :)

Guest's picture
Guest

Great article! I am a marathon runner and apply alot of the training concepts of marathon running to my everday life especially getting out of debt! Its taking a couple years but my family and I are determined to reach that finish line of being debt-free! We strive to move toward this goal a little bit every day. Both marathon training and getting out of debt take alot of mental and physical strength. Just when you think you can't do it anymore and its too hard, you have to tell yourself you can and push forward...

Craig Ford's picture

@Kiki,
I'm glad you found the article helpful. All the best in 2011!
@lifeandmyfinances
Thanks for sharing your story. Looks like you're on the right track.