3 Ways To Motivate Yourself To Pay Down Debt

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Colorful paper chain

You wanted a splash of color in your apartment anyway, right?

There’s nothing fun about paying off debt, but there are a ways to make process smoother.

I’ve faced $10,000 in consumer debt. And I repaid more than $20,000 in student loans over just 22 months. To beat these, I had to come up with strategies that turned my debt into something manageable.

You can do the same thing with these three tips.


1. Make Your Progress Tangible

One of the best ways to beat the sense of disconnect from debt is to make it into something you can see and measure every day.

Why not use your elementary school craft skills and create a paper chain where each link represents $100 of your debt? In addition to serving as conversation-starting home decor, this chain lets you literally see your debt shrink. Each time you make a payment, snip off the corresponding amount. This way, your decreasing debt seems a lot more palpable than numbers on a statement.

If you’re not feeling particularly artsy, do what I did and keep a simple chart to track your progress instead. Seeing the line of my graph dip lower and lower each month was more satisfying than simply watching hundreds of dollars disappear from my checking account toward my student loan bills.

2. Determine Your Debt-Free Date

If you want your debt to stop feeling like a burden you’ll carry forever, the easiest way is to determine your debt-free date. Look at the remaining balance you owe, then divide that by your monthly payment—you’ll end up with the number of months before you’re debt free.

I kept track of my debt-free date throughout my student loan repayment, updating it whenever I made any extra payments that put me ahead of schedule. Watching the date draw nearer and nearer reminded me that my indebtedness was a temporary situation, and the closer I got to it, the more comfortable I felt planning for the fun I would have in my debt-free life.

3. Find A Way To Make It Happen Faster

No matter what tips and tricks you adopt to better manage your student loans, at the end of the day, the only thing that’s going to make them disappear is paying them off in full.

If you calculated your debt-free date and the term is so long you’ll pay the last of your loans just as your future children take out the first of theirs, it’s time to increase your payments. It doesn’t take huge cash windfalls to make a dent. If you can make $40 babysitting or $100 selling stuff on eBay, putting that extra little bit toward your student debt will get you out of the hole that much faster (and let you snip an extra link off of your awesome paper chain).

Once I got going on my debt repayment, I always looked for ways to beat the balance down, sometimes making payments as small as $10. It seemed insignificant at the time, but after nearly 2 years, it’s that little bit extra that let me get to debt free even sooner than I anticipated.

Have a tip for staying motivated while repaying debt? Share it in the comments.

(Photo: Scotto Bear)

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  1. Sasha November 20, 2013 / 11:00 am

    This is encouraging!

  2. 10 Year Old January 22, 2014 / 12:31 pm

    That’s cute… Arts & crafts and paper mâché animals don’t pay a $1,200 minimum monthly bill. I spit out my coffee and I wasn’t even drinking any when she said $10k in debt too… Oh the humanity! You poor thing… Try well over 6 figures sweetheart… How does this girl think she’s qualified to write on this – let alone give advice. Come on SALT, step it up you’re better than this.

    • Bridget January 27, 2014 / 9:06 pm


      It’s not a competition of who has more debt (but for the record it was $10,000 consumer debt PLUS $20,000 student loan, so while nowhere near six-figures, it’s not insubstantial either).

      For the repayment plan, when I had government student loans, the interest was already factored into the monthly payment, hence why I didn’t have to account for it independently.

      I’m qualified to write about student debt repayment because I’ve done it. The process is the same regardless of the amount you owe: pay it off. SALT has nothing but resources to help you do this.

    • mschelley February 25, 2014 / 12:51 pm

      I have to agree – these days $30,000 is not that difficult to pay down. I wish my debt was only $30,000! It would be nice to have someone on this site discuss how to deal with repayment of law school loans well over $150,000 rather than a debt that, in theory, could be paid in 3-4 years if you pay the amount of just 1 of my month loan payments.

      Additionally, I were to make a paper ring chain, I’d get further into debt on the mere fact I’d be too busy crafting and not working. I don’t see how it’s a great conversation starter – who really wants to talk to a visitor about their debt? “Oooh cool paper ring chain.” “Yeah, I made it so I could celebrate snipping a chain off each time I made a $100 payment against my debt!” Awkward silence… “Cool…I guess.”

      Then again, if it’s a college grad that is writing this piece, it all makes more sense. How about we try getting some post-grad people posting so the rest of us can relate, SALT?

  3. Beth January 22, 2014 / 3:41 pm

    It seems like now-a-days with the economy and all, there is mostly negativity out there. Like, the poor millennials, graduate and can’t get a job. I felt like the paper chain idea is a creative way to stay positive…sometimes it all seems overwhelming to me.

    • Ryan Lane January 22, 2014 / 4:41 pm

      Appreciate the comments and the conversation on this.

      Everyone’s debt situation is going to be different, and unfortunately, there is no 100% solution for all of them (despite the magic of arts and crafts). My goal for posts like this is to connect with people. Hopefully, by looking at what Bridget has accomplished, someone finds something (no matter how small or large it may be) to take with them.

  4. Amy January 24, 2014 / 5:49 am

    So much wrong in this article I’m not sure where to begin…
    The writer is Canadian to begin with so she’s not even dealing with the nightmare that is the US loan system.
    A paper chain? Are you KIDDING ME? Why does this site always act like we’re gradeschoolers?
    Divide debt by monthly payment? Have you ever heard of INTEREST?!?
    Monthly payment: $1150
    Debt $100,000
    Divide the two and you come up with a payoff date of 7 years.
    REAL answer? 10 years.
    What crackerjack box did you get your degree from?
    AND that’s assuming a straight 10-year payment plan. If you’re on an IBR plan or ICR plan you may not even be paying the interest on the loan. AND that may be okay, because those plans come with loan forgiveness after a certain number of payments.

    Always keep in mind, this site is run by non-profit supported by student loan guarantor. So it is in their interest to keep you thinking paying back loans will be easy and not to educate you on alternatives involving loan forgiveness.

    • Ryan Lane January 24, 2014 / 9:27 am

      Thanks for writing, Amy. I’m sorry you didn’t find this post more helpful for your situation. If you are looking to learn more about loan forgiveness, though, SALT has some information that you may find useful.

      In this blog post, http://blog.saltmoney.org/loan-forgiveness-work/, Ashley Norwood covered the types of employers that could qualify someone for forgiveness. We also have a comprehensive eBook (https://www.saltmoney.org/content/media/Article/60-ways-to-get-rid-of-your-student-loans-without-paying-them/_/R-101-7723), which we just updated, that outlines all the federal and state-specific options we could find for forgiving or discharging student loan debt.

      • Amy January 24, 2014 / 12:31 pm

        To “my situation”?
        Really? Is it just “my situation” that I pay interest on student loans?

        This is not about “my situation” this inaccurate datum. Your math is WRONG. Fix it.

  5. Ann Marie January 24, 2014 / 12:04 pm

    Great ideas and advice. I’m going to apply some of these myself. Looking forward to reading the next newsletter from Salt!

  6. Lorena January 30, 2014 / 3:19 pm

    Wow, it doesn’t seem like any one read this correctly.

    This is great advise if you read it right.

    The key words here..”putting that extra little bit toward your student debt will get you out of the hole that much faster”

    Hasn’t anyone heard of “principle only payments”
    or just actually making extra payments along the way.

    The math is correct..if your making the minimum, that is what you’ll pay in Principle!
    I left college with over 23k in debt and have paid of 16,000 of it in just 5 years!

    YES, 5 years. because I pay extra.
    Every few months or so I would pay a few hundred or even a thousand dollars towards my loan, including the interest, and what do you know..I’m almost out of debt.

    Mind you, i didn’t exactly get a bump start either. I graduated in 2008, when the job market was at rock bottom in my area and I worked for just 12.50 an hour for the first 3 years after graduating. I’ve only been in my industry for 2 years and am only making entry level pay, even with my degree.
    So how the heck did i manage to pay 16 grand in 5 years…
    Because I don’t spend money on junk and shopping!

    Here’s a clue, cut your waste expenses and focus on your bills, rent/mortgage and student loan debt.
    Sure, it sucks that i keep myself from buying new shoes and clothes every season and don’t eat out every week, but at least i’m down to only 7k in debt after just 5 years.
    I would much rather pay off my debt than have new clothes every few months.
    Not only that..but you should see my credit score…oh yeah!

    I actually received a call from my student loan company, telling me that i am so far paid ahead, that i actually don’t even have to make a payment til 2019!!!
    I still do, why…because I ‘ll get out of debt that much faster!
    and because I ‘m so far paid ahead, I can make as little as a $50 monthly payment
    ..and buy new shoes! woohoo again!

    imagine..if i can pay $16,000 in just 5 years..how quick i can pay the last 7k…

    again, great advice Bridget.

    however..I probably won’t make paper rings out of it..lol.

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