Especially for those of us like me who are in the midst of the long, hard slog of debt pay-down, staying motivated can be tough. How do you keep your excitement up and your determination high when financial independence is barely visible on the horizon? Here are some methods for staying the course when your goals will take months or years (heck, even decades) to achieve.
1. Keep your goal visible.
This is one you tip with which you may be familiar. Let's say your goal is to move someplace tropical when you “retire” (sarcastic quote marks because there are so many definitions of retirement). However, even early retirement is years or decades away. How can you keep your goal at the forefront of your mind? Turns out there are plenty of ways!
You could make your computer's screen saver a picture of a hammock on the beach. You could pick a personalized design for your credit card that reminds you of what you really want when you're tempted to spend. I read a blog recently that suggested making passwords incorporating phrases that remind you of your goals, like RetireInBelize2045. Finding a way to make the far-off a part of your everyday life may help you keep your eyes on the prize.
2. Make yourself accountable.
Declaring your goals publicly can be a great strategy to help you stay focused. This is in no small part because when you let others know your goals, they will often speak up when you are in danger of going off course. True story: When I was in sixth grade, I decided that I needed to lose weight (sigh). My solution was to tell all my friends that I was allergic to chocolate. Anytime I went near a candy bar, their chorus of concern would stop me in my tracks.
Now, to be clear, I don't recommend lying to your loved ones. What was I thinking?! Oh, well, at 11 years old, your brain's barely developed. You're bound to make some silly decisions (at least that's what mid-thirties me would have you believe). My point is that if you have supportive friends and family, sharing your goals with others may lead to a timely reminder of what's really important in a moment of weakness. I share my goals here on GRS. You can, too, via a reader story or in the forums.
3. Switch your strategy.
There is only one path to wealth: Spend less than you earn. But there are two main approaches to achieving that goal: You can cut your costs, or you can increase your income. Many people align themselves more closely with one path over the other; however, it would probably be wise to spend some time thinking about both sides of the equation.
One way to avoid losing interest (and thus, momentum) is by periodically shifting your focus between the two approaches. Maybe this month you spend some serious time with a spreadsheet, analyzing your grocery store purchases and identifying ways to cut back on food costs while still eating well. Then next month you go through your closets and garage to find items to sell on Craigslist or eBay (or IDoNowIDont.com on the off chance you're trying to sell an engagement ring that was a poor investment). The following month you comparison shop for car insurance, and the next month you pick up some overtime at work. You get the idea!
4. Celebrate your successes.
Turning your long-term goals into short-term goals can give you a sense of urgency that may help you keep motivation alive. For example, “pay off $90,000 in student loan debt” seems like it is too hard/massive/impossible to get excited about. Even if I make an extra payment of a few hundred bucks, I don't feel any closer to success. On the other hand, let's say I set a monthly goal along the lines of “make at least one extra payment of at least $500.” Suddenly, I feel like I've actually accomplished something when I make the exact same payment. Same money, different perspective, more motivation.
Once you've achieved your short-term goal for the month, you can think about a reward. However, it's important that you don't break the bank with rewards. Is there something free or nearly free that you can use as a motivating goal? For example, if retiring to that tropical island is your dream, you can spend some time online looking at real estate in that country or geeking out with a cost-of-living calculator. Or maybe you reward yourself with something really nice after six months of extra payments instead of rewarding yourself every single month.
5. Take a break!
Every minute of every day doesn't need to be spent obsessing about goals and finances. It's true! Sometimes giving yourself a break can be a reward in and of itself. Let's say you make six months of on-time extra payments. Go ahead and give yourself a month off. Maybe you use the money you would have spent to buy yourself something (see #4 above), or maybe you just stick it into savings. Maybe taking a month off from those payments means that you can can cut back on your side gig and spend some time reading a good book poolside. (It is summer, after all.)
Sometimes taking a break can give you the space to re-evaluate whether this is really a goal you want to keep pursuing in the first place. Perhaps another goal will rise to the forefront and you'll find yourself re-prioritizing to incorporate it. Alternatively, you may chafe at the lack of progress you're making and find yourself attacking your original goal with renewed zeal when your break is over. Sounds like a win-win to me. Taking a break can also help you switch strategies (see #3 above) by giving yourself time to think. If I hadn't taken a break from auto-pay so I could prioritize closing on my house, I never would have realized there was a different way to tackle my student loan payments.
Self-knowledge is an important component to motivation. That may mean outsmarting yourself by understanding your weaknesses or spurring yourself to action by playing to your strengths. Once you know what works for you, you can create a plan for reaching your goals that is tailored to your situation and personality.
What long-term goals have you set for yourself? What strategies do you use to stay motivated and make progress?
Honey Smith has been reading GRS since at least 2008, right when she got her first â€œrealâ€ job and started getting serious about finances. She and her husband Jake are in their mid-30s and recently bought a home together. Currently, she manages graduate programs at a large state institution, and he is an attorney at a mid-sized firm.
Between them, they have paid off approximately $30,000 in consumer debt since she started writing for GRS in 2012. However, they still have nearly $200,000 of student loan debt, so she will continue to chronicle their debt-paydown journey. In addition to personal finance, Honey is interested in vegetarianism and cooking, gardening (despite living in the desert and having a black thumb), issues in higher education (including the student loan bubble and the slow death of tenure), and animal rights; however, her heart lies with fantasy novels, trashy TV and Skyrim.