What is the Key to Success When Paying off Debt?

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Paying Off Debt

Many of us have had various levels of experience with paying off debt. Whether it be mortgage debt, student loan debt or credit card debt we seem to be surrounded by it in our society. I’ve been asked numerous times recently about my journey of paying off debt – in the neighborhood of $45,000 if you count both credit cards and student loans and it caused me to look back at what the light bulb moment was and what it was that brought success.

As a disclaimer, I do believe there are many things that can help you succeed at your debt payoff and even possibly lead you to be able to pay off debt quickly. That said, as I look back, it really was one thing that made a difference and allowed me to pay off my debt successfully.

Some Methods Can’t Take You the Distance


What are some of the more popular methods suggested when you’re paying off debt? There are a few that seem to be mentioned nearly every time. Some of those include:

  • Cutting expenses
  • Budgeting
  • Earning more
  • Creating income by selling things

I have nothing against these suggestions. Heck, I think I’ve written about all of them in the past so I obviously support them. I also did each one of them when I was climbing out of credit card debt, so they do work. The problem though, is that they can tend to be limited in how effective they’ll be.

Take cutting expenses for example. If you’re up to your eyeballs in debt then trimming the fat will help. You can look at things like cheap cell phone plans from the likes of Republic Wireless or Straight Talk which can save you some money, but you can only cut so many things before you’re living in a refrigerator box. Yes, having that extra $100 or $200 will help you as you’re paying off debt, but will it really help you pay off debt substantially quicker if you have $50,000 or more in debt? I don’t think so.

You can also try to earn more so you can put more toward paying off the debt but you can work only so many hours in the day. However, if you can combine the two, that’s where the magic can happen and give a boost to your debt payoff strategy.

If these methods at paying off debt are somewhat limited, then what’s needed? I am glad you asked! 😉

Paying off Debt Successfully Requires a Certain Attitude


If the above methods are somewhat limited, then what is it that will take attacking debt to the next level? In a word – attitude! That’s right, attitude, (in my opinion) is the key to success when paying off debt. Why you ask? I believe it’s because you have to want to be out of debt. Not in a ‘I want a puppy for Christmas’ kind of way, but in a ‘I am going to do this come hell or high water’ kind of way. Meaning, you’re going to give all you have at paying off debt and accept nothing less.

As I look back on my debt payoff journey, I went nearly a year knowing it was an issue but I did not want it in my heart. Simply put, I was avoiding it. I thought that by avoiding it that it would somehow magically go away and the debt fairies would wipe the slate clean.

Friends of mine knew this was going on and would bring up the debt and I’d quickly change the subject. My attitude was one of not accepting that I had gotten myself into this situation and thus made no progress. What eventually got me going towards paying off credit card debt was getting an attitude adjustment thanks to a few wise people. I saw that I had to stop seeing myself as a victim, to see that I wanted more in life than always worrying about debt and had to attack it with all I had. Was it easy? Heck no! But what made the difference? It was my attitude and the rest, as they say, is history.

That Attitude is Integral to Your Debt Payoff Plan


Ok, now that you have that attitude that’s geared towards paying off debt where do you go with it? I am a visionary, so I looked at what I wanted. I wanted debt freedom, but I needed to have a plan to attack it with. A goal is great, but it’s the plan that gets you there. That plan will vary based on your personal situation, but for me it meant being vigilant as I was paying off debt throwing all that I had at it. That vigilance was a natural outflowing of my attitude and helped me plan my attack.

I was also preparing myself for my post debt life because when you’re done paying off your debt, you suddenly realize you have a bunch of cash to use however you wish. I wanted to teach myself as I was paying off debt so I could be prepared to work on the next goal after becoming debt free.

My point in all of this is that your attitude can seem like it’s a very small thing, but that small thing directs so many of your actions and so much of your planning that it can be either your staunchest ally or most villainous enemy as you’re paying off debt. The beauty in all of this is that once you realize how powerful your attitude can be, it’ll benefit you in so many other ways in relation to your financial life and life in general.


What do you think is the key to success in paying off debt? How helpful do you think attitude is?

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John is the founder of Frugal Rules, a dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry whose writing has been featured in Forbes, CNBC, Yahoo Finance and more.

Passionate about helping people learn from his mistakes, John shares financial tools and tips to help you enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. One of his favorite tools is Personal Capital , which he used to plan for retirement and keep track of his finances in less than 15 minutes each month.

Another one of John's passions is helping people save $80 per month by axing their expensive cable subscriptions and replacing them with more affordable ones, like Hulu with Live TV.

Latest posts by John Schmoll (see all)


  • Clarisse @ Make Money Your Way says:

    Earning more while spending less for me is just one of the best keys if you’re still paying off debt. Paying your debt before due time will have a major impact for you.

    • John says:

      Agreed Clarisse. You really do need to have the combination of the two, as well as being consistent with it and a good attitude.

    • Jonny says:

      Yes, well said Clarisse, but most of the people can’t follow this path. They earn and spend more due to lavish life..

  • MMD @ My Money Design says:

    There’s nothing more important to attacking your finances than the will to want to! If you don’t have a vested interest in paying off debt or making more money for yourself, then nothing that you do will ever be as effective as it could be.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    John, you are right on the money here, and I for one firmly believe that the right attitude can help you succeed at paying off your debt, no matter the amount. The right attitude, that “hell or high water” attitude you mentioned, is indeed the key to success in paying off debt.

  • Glen @ Monster Piggy Bank says:

    I completely agree – Attitude is a major part of paying off debt as if you aren’t committed to it, then you are setting yourself up for failure.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    I think attitude is very important when paying down debt. We’ve been paying down our student debt for a couple years now as well as mortgage debt for a year and staying positive about the whole experience has definitely helped. It’s easy to stay positive when you are earning extra money, though, because you feel like you are making positive changes in your life to aid that debt pay down.

  • Travis @debtchronicles says:

    Attitude is VERY important…you have to come to grips with the fact that it WILL take time, and have the work ethic to just keep working at it understanding that you will be better off when you’ve accomplished the goal. Thanks for the Monday morning motivation, John!

    • John says:

      You’re spot on there Travis. It does take time and a hard work ethic. It sucks, but that attitude is what helps you make the strides necessary to overcome it.

  • Holly@ClubThrifty says:

    I think you have to be dedicated to pay off all of your debt and stay off track. Depending on how much debt you have, it may take a while. You have to have the dedication to stay on the wagon!

    • John says:

      I definitely agree Holly. I think that’s part of where the need to be consistent comes into play. It will take time and a lot of hard work and that willingness to stay on track will help immensely.

  • Thomas | Your Daily Finance says:

    I think attitude is the key and finding something that works for you and that you can stick with long enough. Just because something works for me doesnt mean it will work as well for you.

  • Simon @ Modest Money says:

    Attitude is certainly important not only in debt repayment but also in many other facets of life. A positive, can do attitude will take you places that a negative dodgy one will.
    Secondly, I’d chance to say consistency is also key on the debt-repayment journey. Its easy to get tired or fatigued and give up but more often than not that will just compound the problem, literally. So no matter what, one should keep ploughing at their debt till its gone.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point on the consistency Simon. I’ve written before about what to do when you deal with that fatigue, so that consistency is vital.

  • dojo says:

    Trying to earn more and living below your means should be a lifestyle, not just something you do to pay off debt. Yes, these 2 combined can secure you some money each month, which can either pay debt faster, get invested or saved. Attitude is indeed vital and so is CONSISTENCY. If you’re doing this for 2 months and then get back to overspending, you’ll clearly not make too much progress anyway

    • John says:

      That’s a good point Dojo, I would definitely agree. That consistency is vitally important. Without it, you’re more likely to go off course.

  • This Life On Purpose says:

    Attitude is so important when it comes to paying off debt. I’ve had a friend pay of his girlfriend’s debt and basically give her a clean slate, but she went right back into debt. Why? Because her attitude towards money hadn’t changed, only her owing balance.

    • John says:

      Wow, what a story. I’ve seen that before and is sad to see. You’d think that many would not want to go back, but that just points back to it be an issue with the attitude.

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar says:

    Attitude is everything. How many people do you know who whine about being in debt but go right on keeping the same habits? I think once you get into the right mindset, you are able to plan and can understand that sacrifices are for the short term so you can have a better debt free future.

    • John says:

      Completely agree Kim. It can be hard to look past the moment, I know I struggled with it, but once you do it’s immensely helpful to the end goal.

  • E.M. says:

    I do agree that attitude plays a huge part in how you’re able to deal with debt. Like you said, if you want to avoid it and pretend like it’s not there, you won’t make any progress toward it. If you’re stubbornly determined to get rid of it, you’ll find ways to do that no matter what.

    • John says:

      “If you’re stubbornly determined to get rid of it, you’ll find ways to do that no matter what.” I could not agree more E.M. I know that was the case for me – I was willing to do pretty much anything to get rid of it and that’s what drove me.

  • My Wealth Desire says:

    For me the key is discipline. Like the self-discipline to commit ourselves to pay off debt. We strive hard and focus in order to accomplish our commitment with our debt. Our discipline to live below our means and to control overspending habits.

  • Budget and the Beach says:

    I’ve seen two schools of thought in the PF community about paying off debt. One is the “I will pay off debt come hell or high water” approach like you said, the other is “I want to pay off debt, but I don’t want to give everything up entirely and want to have fun and travel while I’m paying off debt.” But are valid, because it’s PERSONAL finance, but that’s where attitude comes into play. As long as you take full responsibility for whatever decision you make regarding paying off debt, so be it. The only thing I hate seeing is someone who hates debt more than life itself, AND says they will not give up certain things in life. Something’s gotta give and if you don’t put forth every effort, I don’t want to hear them complaining.

    • John says:

      I’ve seen that as well Tonya and think a lot of it goes back to having balance and realizing that each situation is different – because it is. 🙂 I agree that there are many times that something has to give, otherwise it makes it much more difficult to make it out.

  • Catherine says:

    Great post! I couldn’t agree with you more. There’s likely only so much you can trim. We cut the fat and were still not able to make the payments every month that we wanted to so we increased our income. It was the only option, for most this is the hardest fact to accept and most difficult direction to move. So worth it though!

    • John says:

      Thanks Catherine! I agree, there is only so much you can cut back and it is difficult to see that you need to be working on both ends. However, when done together you’re likely able to achieve greater success.

  • Demaish @ Borrowed Cents says:

    When it comes to paying it debt you have to be the hell or high water against the debt and with that kin of attitude, no debt will be too much to repay. If you do not have that kind of attitude, you might start paying the debt and then give up slowly and finally get back to just making minimum payments.

    • John says:

      I agree that with that attitude no debt will be too much to repay. The numbers won’t change but your fervency will impact how you go at it.

  • Kurt @ Money Counselor says:

    I think you’re spot on, John. The tactics you mention–earning more, cutting expenses, etc. can make repaying debt easier and faster, but they’ll inevitably fail if the ‘hell or high water’ attitude isn’t there. First, you gotta ‘get your mind right.’

    • John says:

      Thanks Kurt! I agree, you d have to get your mind right. otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure in many cases.

  • Connie @ Savvy With Saving says:

    I completely agree that having the right attitude is key. If you’re invested in paying off your debt, you’ll find ways to pay it off. Just wanting to be debt free isn’t enough.

  • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life says:

    I don’t care how “new agey” it sounds, Attitude is critical in reaching ANY goal. I haven’t had the experience of paying off debt, but I know that in every challenge I’ve faced, adopting a positive and determined attitude has been the defining factor of reaching success.

    • John says:

      I agree Stefanie. I think so much of life comes down to that one thing – our attitude. It may not always be easy to change, but once it’s in its right place then you’re much better off.

  • midlifefinance says:

    I agree with you. Having the right attitude makes all the difference. You need to make up your mind and persevere over the long run. It’s not easy and it will take a long time to pay off debt.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more. Something like paying off debt does take a long time and if your attitude isn’t in the right place then you’re only holding yourself back.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup says:

    It is all about the mindset. That is where most people fail when they are trying to pay off their debt. Most people just think that if they work hard to pay off the debt, then it will happen, but if you don’t change your mindset, you won’t get very far.

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    LOVE this, John! Attitude truly is the key to success when it comes to handling money – period. Every day I see how money hang-ups affect people (as I’m sure you did in your previous life too) and how they think about money is a strong indicator on how well they handle it. Like you said, cutting back, earning more, etc. are all important to eliminating debt, but your attitude will determine your commitment to actually becoming debt-free and how you live afterwards.

    • John says:

      Thanks Shannon! Yes, I saw that every day and it often was frustrating to see. That attitude is so vital to have, otherwise your efforts are all for naught.

  • Mackenzie says:

    Completely agree John; attitude is everything. If you don’t want the debt gone, really want it, it’s just not going to happen!

  • Girl Meets Debt says:

    You nailed it again John. Attitude is everything. I may not come across as a “Do whatever it takes to pay off debt” blogger because as much as I want my debt gone ASAP, I also want to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. But I do firmly believe that I have the right attitude to pay off my debt. 🙂

    • John says:

      Thanks GMD! Well, I think you come across that way. Life is too short to do absolutely nothing. Speaking personally, I know having things to enjoy helped me get it paid off quicker…probably because I know I’d be able to enjoy more things once the debt was gone. 🙂

  • writing2reality says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head John, but perspective is also important. For those trying to hurry up and get out of debt, it is also a waiting game. As you’ve said, clearing out $50,000 is no small task, and often times once you’ve made changes in your life, either from cutting back or making more money, it is still a situation where you “hurry up and wait”. The right attitude will get you started, but perspective will give you the patience needed to finish.

    • John says:

      I agree, perspective is vital as well. I think those, added with consistency are vital to knocking out debt or reaching whatever big goal it is that you have.

  • Rebecca @ Stapler Confessions says:

    I think attitude is important, but if you don’t yet have that attitude, you can “fake it til you make it.” Just going through the actions of paying down the debt first, cutting expenses, and increasing income can push you towards that attitude once you feel the thrill of making a huge lump sum payment!

    • John says:

      I think that’ll work for a certain time period Rebecca, though I hesitate to say that you’ll have measured success with it in the long run. I just see too much risk to fall back into the mindset of not busting your tail and having that attitude to pay it off.

  • Jacob says:

    This is precisely the reason I ask for people’s GOALS and PRIORITIES when putting together a budget for them. If there’s no underlying motivation to reach a goal, then getting out of debt won’t happen. Period. It really is an attitude adjustment. That’s why guys like Dave Ramsey go after the emotions of a person, and want them to GET MAD at their debt and KILL IT DEAD!

    There are tips and tricks and all that good stuff, but when it comes down to it, you need to be EXTREMELY MOTIVATED to get out of debt and achieve something awesome, otherwise you will flutter and fail every time.

    • John says:

      I could not agree more Jacob. That is a point that I would agree with Ramsey on – you have to want it deep down, so much so, that you feel it. It should motivate you to attack it with all you have, otherwise you’ll risk not accomplishing it.

  • Squirrelers says:

    Yep, agreed here. Attitude is the foundation that one can build upon when making financial progress. It allows us to be persistent and keep going, along with giving us direction.

  • Practical Cents says:

    I also agree that attitude is a key component of paying off debt and accomplishing any goal. I am currently paying off debt and keeping the right attitude about it has really helped me stay focused. I also created a plan that would work for me. Attitude and plan go hand in hand.

    • John says:

      That’s awesome! I agree, having that plan can really help put meat on the bones of your attitude. Keep up the good work!

  • Deacon Hayes says:

    I think attitude is huge. I know that when my wife and I paid off $52,000 in debt in 18 months we couldn’t have done it without having a positive attitude. I also think putting a deadline on getting out of debt is key as well.

    • John says:

      I would definitely agree Deacon. Every time I hear your story I am encouraged that it can be done. Great point on the deadline – I’d argue that just helps motivate that attitude even more.

  • anna says:

    I agree attitude is everything! Looking back, it sometimes takes me a few attempts to complete something (like a marathon or even getting a better paying job), but once I got in the mindset and right attitude then the feeling of accomplishment is overwhelming! I still go in ebbs and flows with my debt reduction, but the end is so near that I just have to remind myself to keep going and give it all I got. Great post, John, thanks for the reminder to push forth!

    • John says:

      I was the same way Anna. I’d start then stop or stop and slow down significantly. It wasn’t until I got that mindset that I really started to make progress and rolling that ball downhill! You can see that end in sight my friend, keep it up! 🙂

  • Broke Millennial says:

    This is great, John. Attitude is not often mentioned as one of the most important factors. While adjusting behaviors is obviously important, so is keeping up a good attitude.

    I appreciate the image of cutting expenses until you’re living in a refrigerator box. Talk about minimalist!

    • John says:

      Thanks Erin! I agree, changing behavior is incredibly important, but that attitude is absolutely necessary.

      I know, talk about taking it to an extreme!

  • Prudence Debtfree says:

    I had an experience similar to yours with regards to attitude. Like you, I had my head in the sand, not wanting to face my own responsibility for my debt. Like you, I felt like a victim. My husband had lost his job, so I attributed our debt to that fact. I began to realize that our poor money sense before the job loss was the real reason for the mega-stress after the job loss. My head is out of the sand now, and we’re not feeling victimized any more. We’re a year and 5 month into our debt reduction, and we’re getting there!

    • John says:

      It really is easy to feel like a victim, isn’t it Prudence? The thing is that does us no one in getting out of debt. Congrats on being nearly 18 months in – keep up the good work! 🙂

  • Matt Becker says:

    I’ve found over and over again that there’s really no substitute for desire. I’ve also found that desire alone is rarely enough. Even if you really want something, you have to make it easy for it to happen. Wanting to be debt-free is critical, but if you’re constantly pitting that want against other wants it’s going to be tough. That’s where those automatic extra payments come in so handy. There’s no effort involved past the initial setup. Or as a completely different example, if you want to start a blog then set up a time where you will write every single day. Just make it automatic. Desire is great, and necessary, but willpower will only get you so far. Take that desire and channel it into easy action.

    • John says:

      Agreed Matt, automatic payments can be incredibly helpful as you’re doing something like paying off debt. I handled mine that way and sent in extra whenever I could.

  • Tushar @ Everything Finance says:

    Attitude is the most important thing when it comes to success in anything. Getting ahead in life requires a good attitude, and so does getting ahead in finances. There is a certain attitude that can get you into debt, and a certain attitude that can keep you and get you out of it too.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Tushar! I think we do often see those differences in attitudes. I know I saw it in myself and was amazed at what could happen with a shift in attitude.

  • jefferson @SeeDebtRun says:

    The shift in attitude has to come first.. If you don’t take control, the debt will continue to control you. Once you get going, the momentum might be enough to carry you.. but especially at the beginning. Attitude is everything..

    • John says:

      I agree Jefferson, that attitude is vital. When you add that to growing momentum then you’re doing pretty good for yourself.

  • Untemplater says:

    I totally agree with you. Having the right attitude and actually wanting to get out of debt and improve your financial situation makes a huge difference. It takes sacrifice to change, and without the right attitude it’s really hard to sacrifice.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Sydney! Looking back I can see that it wasn’t until I had that attitude that I was willing to sacrifice. Prior to that it was like living with a foreign language I couldn’t understand.

  • says:

    The key is the right attitude. People get debt fatigue as with anything, but if you know your end goal it is easier to stomach.

  • Financial Samurai says:

    Maybe realizing life is finite, and it’s nice to leave some money to our family and loved ones and enjoy life without so much stress?

  • Chad@thstockmarketandi says:

    I think discipline is the key. It not something that is going to happen overnight. You may find yourself in a situation that you can pay off significant sums at once, but unless you are in for the long term, you will need the mental follow through to make the ordinary payments.

    • John says:

      I think discipline is huge Chad, though I think it flows out of that attitude. If you don’t want it and aren’t committed to it, then it’ll be hard to have that discipline.

  • Marissa@Thirtysixmonths says:

    What more is there to say? And I couldn’t agree more! Great insights!

  • C. the Romanian says:

    I too believe that attitude is important when it comes to paying off debt – it does matter in so many other aspects in life too. Paying off your debt is like your struggle to lose weight: it will get tough at times, you’ll want to get a taste of that delicious cake, but only if you’re determined you will really make it.

  • Kayla says:

    This is so very true. You can read over and over again to cut expenses, try to find more money, sell things — but you won’t do them, or at least you wont do them consistently without a true passion to become debt free! I always had stress worry me, and always was stressed about money and felt short on cash. I always felt like I couldn’t do more. However, it wasn’t till I finally decided enough stress was enough and started attacking my debt full force: I asked for a raise, I did more freelance work, I started living on even less than one of my paychecks, and was able to reign in spending even more — all while budgeting in a way that still doesn’t put my life on hold. Even though I still have a ton of debt left to go — I’m so confident in the progress I’m making month to month!

  • JMK says:

    I’d also have to say that in addition to your attititude, you need to have the attitudes of your family in synch with the plan. Just because you are ready to fully committ to whatever it takes doesn’t mean everyone else in the house is on board. The best plans and efforts can be can be completely derailed by a partner and kids who haven’t yet drunk the frugal koolaid.
    By choice we’ve cut virtually out everything most people think is perfectly normal in order to live on just over half of our take home pay. Certainly we could afford cable, or to eat in restaurants, have our hair cut at fancy salons and so on. All perfectly valid ways to spend your money if you can afford it. The difference for us is that we see each of those an something we don’t care about, but more importantly something that is couterproductive to our plan to retire early. Frankly I wouldn’t enjoy a nice dinner out, I’be be thinking “this is costing me a day of retirement”. Sorry, no meal is worth a lost day of freedom.
    We love to travel so that’s the one nonessential we’ve continued to fund. We do it knowing that the trips mean our early retirement is actually going to happen 3yrs later as a result – but we’re okay with that. We consciously choose to travel the world with our kids now rather than waiting until we’re retired and they’re grown and gone. Other than that, our eyes are clearly focussed on the early retirement prize and that makes it easy to disregard all the other temptations along the way.

  • Ben DeBoer says:

    Great post John! Attitude is vitally important when it comes to overcoming a seemingly impossibly mountain to climb. My wife and I found ourselves buried in over $70,000 of credit card and student loan debt by the time we finished school. We were trying the “cut your expenses” thing but that was only taking us so far. We ended up starting a side-hustle resale business by going to garage sales and thrift stores and flipping the stuff we bought on eBay and Craigslist. Once we saw that we had been given a bigger shovel to dig ourselves out of debt, we adjusted our attitude and mindset. We worked our tails off for 3 years and paid off every last cent. Attitude played an integral role in our results as it was needed to stay the course and overcome the exhaustion that crept in.

  • Cassie says:

    I completely agree – attitude is so important when it comes to paying down debt and it can be really hard. I know that my wife and I often feel like we are buried under a mountain of debt and there is no room to breathe. We have almost $200,000 in debt and don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, but I know we need to keep pushing because someday we want to start a family and buy a house, and neither of those would be fun with $200,000 in debt.

    I just started blogging about how it’s going for us, DIY crafts, and how to live frugally. I’m hoping this helps me to make a little side cash and put it all toward loans. I also hope the writing experience will help me stay positive.

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