Why I’m Breaking Down When it Comes to Debt

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Don’t let my title fool you. I haven’t given up on paying off my debt. 🙂 Quite the contrary, in the last four weeks, we’ve put more extra money toward one particular debt than we put extra toward debt in all of 2014! Focusing on achieving goals, debt or otherwise, by breaking them down into manageable steps is helping us see amazing results. I’m confident if this tactic works for me, it can work for you and whatever goal you’re trying to achieve too.

Many of us set goals for the new year and are busy (or so we think) going about achieving them. The funny thing about goals is that no matter how good they are, they’re worthless until we actually start working on them. Many goals go unrealized, and there are many reasons for the failure of achieving set goals. We’ve heard the advice about setting S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time bound) goals, and we know that writing our goals down also carries us a long way in achieving those goals.

Studies show that those who write down their goals are far more likely to achieve those goals than those who simply make a mental commitment to their goals. If you’ve made goals and haven’t started working to achieve them yet, writing them down is a good first step. Another practical way to make sure your goals turn into accomplishments is to break them down into more bite-sized pieces.

The Best way to take down debt is one bite at a time


Have you heard the saying that the best way to eat an elephant is by taking one bite at a time? It’s a funny little way of helping us see how we can accomplish goals that seem impossible to achieve. It’s hard work to eat an elephant, and simply the thought alone of having to complete an elephant-sized goal can make a person turn around and walk away from that goal.

So how does one go about achieving the bigger goals in life? By breaking them down into bite-sized pieces. When it comes to eating elephants setting goals, grows only comes after breakdown.

For instance, if you have a goal to run a marathon, but have no experience as a runner, first set a goal to run a mile. If you focus too much on the fact that you have to learn to run 26.2 miles, there’s a good chance you’ll get overwhelmed with that goal. Running one mile, however, is more doable to the psyche, and if you can keep your focus on completing your one mile run, you’ve got a far better chance of achieving that goal.

An added benefit: reaching that goal will bring you the confidence you need to set your goal to run two miles, and then three, and next, five miles.

Debt and the Smaller Goals


This is why the infamous debt snowball method of debt pay down works for so many people. Honestly, I didn’t used to be a fan on the debt snowball. There are reasons why, from a financial standpoint, the debt snowball may not the best choice, and there are ways that the more economical method of debt payoff, the debt avalanche, can be achieved while managing the emotional part of not paying off the smallest debts first.

However, I’ve learned on our own journey to becoming debt free that looking at a large goal (in our case, a large amount of debt to pay off) can be discouraging and can often lead to dumping the goal altogether. Many times during the first and second years of our debt payoff journey I would look at the large debt total and simply want to give up altogether on being debt-free.

Recently, though, we’ve switched gears and are using the debt snowball method, focusing on only one debt at a time, starting with the smallest. The rest of the debt, we’re ignoring, save for the minimum payments we’re making.

The result: in the last four weeks, we’ve put more extra money toward this one debt than we put extra toward debt in all of 2014!

I honestly think this is happening because we’ve changed the way we look at our goal to be debt free.  We’re not thinking so much about being debt free, instead we’re thinking about our goal to pay off this one card. Once that card is gone, we’ll focus on the next one. Working at achieving goals in smaller sections instead of focusing on the end goal as a whole has given us the confidence we need to really put the extra effort into making our goals happen. It has helped us to take goal achievement to the next level, because eating a piece of an elephant is a whole lot easier than eating the whole elephant. 🙂


Have you ever tried breaking a big goal down into smaller pieces to make achievement easier? What big goal have you set recently? What works best for you to track progress and have accountability wth your goals? How do you celebrate your achievements? 



Photo courtesy of: Tambako the Jaguar

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Laurie is a wife, mother to 4, and homesteader who blogs about personal finance, self-sufficiency and life in general over at The Frugal Farmer. Part witty, part introspective and part silly, her goal in blogging is to help others find their way to financial freedom, and to a simpler, more peaceful life.


  • Brooke says:

    I am so glad things are working for you! It seems everything has finally “clicked” for you. If all goes well we should be able to pay off our entire first account this month. We paid off the first loan in the account in August, but this is the first payment that will be eliminated because of our extra debt payments. So excited!

  • That is *really* good. Congrats on the payments this month! I agree that looking at smaller goals helps them seem much more achievable and “present” than the big long term ones.

  • How do you eat an elephant was my mantra when both training for and running the marathon. Gotta break those big goals down.

  • Rebecca says:

    We only have two big debts left. Mortgage and student loan. Since there is no way to pay off either of these in the short term. We have a smaller goal of having 20% equity in our house so we can drop the PMI. We can then use the PMI and funnel it toward the Student Loan. Then the PMI and Student loan payment can be funneled toward the mortgage. When we put it like that the two big debts we have left don’t seem so big!

  • Kara @ The Daily Whisk says:

    I use the marathon analogy whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed by any of my goals.
    Congrats on a strong start to 2015!!!!

  • Running is a great metaphor because it can be overwhelming running long distances. When I was training, I used to play a mental game when I would get tired or cranky, “Ok, just make it to that street…that’s all you have to do…” or “OK just sprint for 60 seconds…anyone can sprint for 60 seconds.” It made things more tolerable and manageable.

  • Congrats on your debt repayment Laurie!!! I think it honestly doesn’t matter how you do it or what you need to do mentally to accomplish a debt repayment goal as long as you find the right solution for you. Debt repayment is definitely not a one size fits all approach.

  • Good to hear you’re on the right track Laurie. We found when we try and do to many things at once, we often failed. Better to focus on single item at a time and knock it out of the park. Good luck. We’re rooting for you!

  • Mrs. Maroon says:

    Intermediate milestones are so very important for achieving a large goal. We like to talk about delayed gratification when it comes to consumer spending. However, no-gratification when working towards your goal isn’t going to get you very far either. In fact, we should try to celebrate all progress, no matter how large or small, in order to stay focused and diligent. That said, congrats on much success thus far in 2015!!

  • Kristin says:

    Last year I finally paid off my credit card debt and did so by focusing on 1 card at a time instead of all 3 of my cards. It really changed my mindset and made it more of a game! Good luck paying off your cards!

  • Money Beagle says:

    Great work. For many, paying down debt is a slow process, but the keys to success are to measure progress over time as well as avoid taking on new debt if at all humanely possible. We have not taken on any new debt since we moved into our house in 2007, and while it often seems a never-ending process, when I look at our debt number now versus then, it’s a marked difference that keeps motivation for continuing to move forward.

  • Eric says:

    Awesome job with the debt paydown–and fully agree on the writing down of goals. It’s amazing how much more real something becomes when it’s tangible, rather than just conceptual.

    Thanks for the article.


  • Kathy says:

    So much about finances is mental, whether it involves spending or saving. Sometimes a decision that you make works out best, even if the mathematics don’t agree. You are doing this in a way that is best for your individual goal, and it is working for you. Congratulations on paying the big amount this month.

    • Laurie says:

      Kathy, my dear Internet friend. I have to smile whenever I see your name on a comment as I know it’ll bring a smile to my face and a boatload of encouragement. Thank you. 🙂

  • Fig says:

    Great idea! I found it was a lot easier to break down the bigger goal and set smaller milestones for paying off debt.

  • Ben Luthi says:

    It’s been only recently that we’ve actually started putting extra payments toward our debt. As much as it drives me crazy to feel like we’re just taking small bites, it feels good to know we’re tackling it instead of just doing the minimums.

    • Laurie says:

      Those small bites really add up, Ben. Every dollar, it adds up. It’s a great feeling, knowing we’re reducing the time we’ll be paying on these debts.

  • Way to go Laurie! That is so awesome that you guys have found a way that really works well for you. We are focusing on one debt at a time right now as well. We just paid off one debt last week and we plan to have another paid off by the end of March. Yay!!

  • dojo says:

    People employ various strategies and sometimes just Math is not the solution. As long as your strategy it works (and from what I can read it has outstanding results), it’s a great way to deal with the debt. Keep us posted, loved your story 🙂

  • Michelle says:

    We work with small goals. I have a hard time focusing on the big picture when it seems so far away.

  • I really tried to break down my budget for this whole next year. I think it will really help to be able to see how I’m tracking.

  • JMK says:

    We knowing what funds we have to work with, have 6yrs left on our plan to get us to early retirement. Our only debt is our mortgage but we’ve always paid every two weeks and set up our payments to more than the required amount. Then we make regular lump sum pmts in addition through the year. It’s knocked many years of the repayment and now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
    Our annual spending plan is laid out a year at a time with milestone targets for each year end. For YE2015 and 2016 there are targets for the remaining mortgage with payoff by mid 2017 if we may no further lump sum payments. Our next mini target is that every calendar year we aim to contribute $X in lump sum payments over and above the required biweekly payments. Then we have annual targets for retirement contributions. Once the mortgage is done sometime in 2017 all the funds that have been going to regular and extra payments will be diverted to a separate account we’ll set up just for travel in retirement. We plan to save 3yrs of mortgage payments to fund our travel plans. Retirement savings are for the day to day living expenses in retirement, but we plan to travel extensively so we’ll save for that separately. Notice that when the mortgage payments are done the money immediately goes to the next “bill” which is travel savings. It’s still going to be a mandatory bill paid every two weeks, it’s just paid to ourselves instead of the bank. In 2017 when the mortgage is done our daily lives won’t change one bit, we’ll just change the description for that line item in the spending plan from mortgage to travel fund. Once you are in the mode of laying out your spending plan and sticking to the plan it doesn’t really matter if it’d debt being paid off or savings being piled up. While I love watching the mortgage balance dropping like a stone (it’s almost all principal being paid at this point) I’m sure it will be even nicer watching the travel account pile up at the same speed.

  • Laurie, this year is different because I am gonna have smaller and smart goals to reach my debt-free status. I know this will be a bit tasky. But it’s worth trying.

  • I love this post Laurie! I’m so glad I can help and be a part of your successes this year. I love having you as an accountability partner to inspire and bounce ideas off of. 🙂 We are both doing great things this year!!

    • Laurie says:

      Thanks, Kayla!! I am really enjoying our partnership too. It’s amazing what having an accountability person can do for one’s psyche when it comes to paying off debt!

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