4 Ways to Make Debt Repayment Fun


When my husband and I were first married, we used to race home on the 15th of each month, each one of us hoping to be the first to get the mail out of the mailbox. Our highly anticipated mail was not our favorite magazine, or the cheese of the month club, or even the newest Netflix DVD (remember those?).

No, we were hurrying home to be the first to open up the monthly statement for our home equity loan, which we were in the long process of paying off. Whoever reached the house first got to see the official tally for our previous month's payment, and color in the next chunk of the debt-payoff thermometer we had posted in the kitchen.

We're not the most boring people on the planet, despite what our kids might say. Our anticipation of the home equity loan statement just showed that we had found a way to make the long slog of debt repayment not only tolerable, but actually enjoyable.

Before you decide that "fun debt repayment" is an oxymoron, consider how getting out of debt can be improved by making it more like a game. (See also: 6 Surprisingly Simple Ways to Motivate Yourself)

Gamify your debt payoff

Games offer both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to keep you playing. Intrinsic motivation refers to the internal or personal satisfaction you might feel for completing a task, while extrinsic motivation is the reward something else gives you for completing a task.

For instance, you might spend an afternoon playing Call of Duty both because of the game's extrinsic motivation of rewarding you for completing the missions, and because of your intrinsic motivation to have some fun shooting digital Nazis in the face.

Understanding how games tap into both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can help you figure out how to gamify something as traditionally "unfun" as debt payoff. In particular, arranging for extrinsic motivators to keep you on the straight-and-narrow of debt payoff can help make the "game" of getting your balance down to zero an intrinsic reward.

Here's what you need to do to create your debt payoff game.

1. Choose the levels in your game

A game is not designed as a single huge step to overcome in order to win. It's broken down into achievable levels that allow you to enjoy your progress without feeling like you'll never reach the end. Video games generally make the first level an "easy win" in order to get you hooked on the game. As your competence at the game increases, the levels become more challenging.

You can do the same thing with planning your debt payoff "game." Start by determining exactly how much you need to pay off, and figure out how much extra you can send to your creditors each month.

For instance, let's say you have $25,000 in credit card debt. You're currently sending the minimum payment of $625 each month, and that is already a big bite out of your monthly budget. You might decide that your first "level" will be sending an additional $100 to the credit card this month. An extra Benjamin a month is achievable but feels like an accomplishment if you're already struggling to pay the minimum — and this is why it's a good first level.

From there, you might make the next levels when your balance has gone down by $500, and then $1,000, then $2,000, and so on. Once you've knocked $5,000 off the balance, make your levels a little further apart, so they occur every time $2,500 of balance is wiped out, or every $5,000. (See also: The Fastest Way to Pay Off $10,000 in Credit Card Debt)

2. Decide on your extrinsic motivations per each level

Now that you have chosen levels for your debt payoff game, figure out how you can reward yourself for reaching them. Eventually, just reaching these levels will feel pretty great. But at the start of a debt payoff plan, it's a good idea to also build in the extrinsic motivations that will spur you to think of your debt payoff first when you're tempted to spend money.

This is where you brainstorm ways to celebrate reaching the various levels you've chosen in your game — without spending money. Find rewards that cost nothing but still make you feel great. You might consider the following "level up" rewards:

  • Movie night at home.

  • A nap in the middle of the day.

  • An at-home pedicure.

  • An entire Saturday afternoon playing your favorite video games.

The trick is to think about the things you normally don't allow yourself and pick out the ones that require no (or very minimal) cash outlay. Assign different rewards to different levels. (See also: 20 Free and Fun Ways to Reward Yourself)

3. Create a game visual

It's a lot more fun to play a game with good graphics or good design, and that's no different with your debt payoff game. Once you've determined the levels and rewards of your debt payoff, it's time to find a way to render them visually so that you can both keep track of your progress and enjoy the anticipation of getting closer to each reward level — and your overall goal.

Debt payoff thermometers are a common method of creating a visual for your repayment plan. These are great for a couple of reasons: Anyone can easily draw a thermometer and label various levels on it, it makes for a motivating visual, and it can be a lot of fun to color in the thermometer as you go.

However, that's not the only way to visualize your debt payoff game. Using a spreadsheet or other digital tracker can help you see your progress over time. In addition, if you are motivated by coloring or other artistic endeavors, you could create a beautiful visual of your debt payoff journey that you color in as you make progress. Or, if board games are your jam, consider creating a game board of paying off your debt. You can have fun with figuring out what your board will look like, and how you will represent each level.

Making your game visual means that you can be creative about finding a system that will give you extrinsic motivation to pay off your debt.

4. Watch your extrinsic motivation become intrinsic

As you work through your debt payoff game, you'll find something strange happens: Figuring out ways to save money so that you can send more to your creditors goes from being a drag to being fun. That's because you'll find yourself wanting to color in the next level on your game board or reach the next level of reward, and so you stop thinking of paying off debt as a horrible slog. Instead, each step allows you to do something you enjoy (coloring in your debt thermometer or your game board) and also brings you closer to a reward you want.

Once you get used to thinking of sending more money to your creditor as fun, it will become fun in its own right, without needing the game to make things enjoyable — although there's nothing wrong with continuing to treat it like a game.

A spoonful of sugar

Mary Poppins had it right when she sang, "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun." It might seem impossible that paying your credit cards, student loans, or other debt could be the thing you most look forward to each month — but the spoonful of sugar that you add by gamifying your debt payoff may just make you rush home in joyful anticipation on the day you receive your monthly statement.

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