How Has Paying Off Debt Changed You?

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Debt Payoff

Mrs. Frugal Rules and I have a reoccurring conversation over many of our larger purchases that goes a little something like this:

Mrs. Frugal Rules – “But, we can ‘afford’ it. We’ve saved for it, have the money and either want or need X item”

Me – “I know we have the money for it, but I’m just not comfortable spending that kind of money.”

Taking a step back, we’re basically on the same page financially speaking and really never fight about money. However, my lovely wife pointed out something to me years ago that we still see today and that’s how paying off debt has changed me. Even though I’ve been debt free for over a decade the emotions and attitudes that rose to the surface during my debt payoff journey still linger with me today.

Attitude is Everything is Paying Off Debt

As I’ve shared in the past, paying off debt requires a certain attitude. Not a puppies and lollipops type of attitude, but I’m going to kill this thing come hell or high water kind of attitude.

It is said that it takes 21 consecutive days to form a new habit and if you’ve got a considerable amount of debt then you’ll certainly be at it for much longer. My personal journey to debt freedom took nearly five years and what happened along the way was that attitude became a lifestyle.

Gone were the days of going out to eat or even simple pleasures like having my favorite beer in the apartment and certainly not any honest to goodness expensive luxuries.

As I entered credit counseling and started paying off debt, a switch flipped in my mind. Everything had changed and I was afraid to go back out of fear that I would backslide into the same foolish habits.

Looking back at it now, I see that I swung to the other end of the spectrum – from a “Sure, why not” kind of spender to not spending anything and throwing everything I had at the debt. This is understandable at one level and expected, but it helped establish the attitude I needed to be successful at paying off debt.

I don’t know that it’s the same case with everyone moving towards debt freedom, but I do know that many would agree that a certain attitude is needed during your debt payoff journey.

As With Anything Important, Balance is Key


Now that I’m a little older, I’ve learned that balance is incredibly vital to enjoying life. Mrs. Frugal Rules and I try to find balance in many areas of life:

  • Work (difficult when you’re self-employed)
  • Saving for retirement
  • Diet
  • Family

Left unwatched, it can be quite easy for these, or any other areas, to become unbalanced. For me it’s likely the first one that I’m most guilty of as it can be difficult to balance working from home and taking time to spend with the family.

Another area of life I can tend to become unbalanced in is spending (thanks to my experience in paying off debt). When I started my debt management plan I basically went cold turkey on many things and didn’t look back.

Fast-forward 15 years and my wife is right, some of those same habits still pop up like second nature, even when I’m not thinking about it. Sometimes I can be too frugal (gasp! I know, I said it). Thankfully, Mrs. Frugal Rules helps me balance this out by reminding me that it’s okay to spend the money I’ve received for birthdays and Christmas from relatives on things that I enjoy.

Taking a step back, I’m not saying you should spend willy-nilly, but I believe there can be a balance with spending and living life – you just have to work at it. It’s that working through things that has caused me to see that you need to be mindful of what you’re doing.

Mindful of the decisions you’re making with spending, saving, investing etc. as it largely reveals what our motives are and what we truly value. This, of course, needs to be taken in light of living life and enjoying it responsibly.

I wish this was always easy for me to do, but I see now how I have to fight against being a scrooge and not wanting to spend money on myself for anything. If I don’t watch it, it’s incredibly easy to get in to that rut of being miserly and throwing off that balance that’s needed in life.

Be Thankful for the Lessons


I’ve shared in the past that while debt sucks, I’m thankful for what the debt payoff journey taught me. Even though I tend to struggle at times with spending money on myself, or on larger purchases in general, I’m incredibly thankful for lessons I’ve learned through paying off debt and how those lessons changed me.

I realize that if you’re in the middle of paying off debt now it can be difficult to be thankful for the lessons, but I encourage you to soak up this time for what it’s worth. Reaching debt freedom does change you and I encourage you to catalogue in your mind the ways you’re maturing and how you can use that for your benefit now and in your debt free future.

In fact, I encourage you to start looking at ways you can slowly implement the longer term changes now so once you are done paying off debt you don’t encounter shock but are naturally able to switch gears.

In my situation, I began to see the need to grow in various areas of financial literacy so I could make true changes that would allow me to grow over time. Of course, I do still struggle with that felt need to be miserly, but it also means that I’m much more purposeful about my spending so it benefits us as a family and gets us one step closer to our goals – which is really what it should be about.


How has paying off debt changed you? What lessons are you thankful for? Do you struggle with being miserly because of it?


Photo courtesy of: Wonderlane

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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.


  • MMD says:

    Though we’ve never really had a huge amount of debt, my wife and I have been known to make huge, early pay-off’s of cars, credit cards, and things like that in the past. Paying off your debt gives you a sense of control; it gives you the confidence that you can overcome obstacles that get in your way. Even if that never does anything further for your finances, it certainly can improve other aspects of your career and life in general.

  • I hope to have more experience with this soon! We are still on our debt payoff journey. I have already noticed that I seen to have a different mentality on debt and spending than many of my friends. People often look at me/us funny when we talk about accelerating our debt repayment, paying things off early, etc.

  • LOL, I’m eager to know how paying off debt will change us. πŸ™‚ But I do totally agree with what you’re saying. Sometimes so much fear gets in there, I think; fear of going back to that frivolous lifestyle. Rick had given me some money for Christmas, and I didn’t even spend it until last week. Then I spent it on some things I really wanted for our kitchen (like a muffin pan – no luxuries here). I brought the stuff home to Rick, and mentioned that I probably should really take it all back. “NO”, he said. “You’re keeping it. It was a gift for you to spend on something you wanted to.” For my ridiculously frugal husband to say that, you know I’ve gone too far the other way in frugalness. πŸ™‚

  • The more debt we paid off the more freedom we gained. Now that it’s all gone, we feel such a sense of peace. I look around and realize I owe nothing to anyone. It’s a great feeling…one that opens many new possibilities.

  • One thing I’ve learned: it’s much easier not having debt! With that being said, the debt I’m in is from student loans and while it sucks to have that money going out the door each month, I’m still glad I was able to use debt financing to get a college degree. I haven’t paid more than the minimum and I agree that if you were making large payments it would require a certain mindset.

    • John says:

      Lol, it generally is. πŸ™‚ That is a good point – you likely wouldn’t have the degree otherwise, plus it has likely opened up doors for you that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

  • Pauline says:

    I still have that no spend syndrom, it is like a fat syndrom, even though you’re fit after a diet you still think you’re fat. I just spent the last holiday spending on anything without thinking, but honestly my happiness level didn’t improve much so I think it is more a lifestyle thing..

  • Liz says:

    I would say that debt taught me to really look at my spending and personal finance habits under a microscope. Debt has taught me how strong I am and how planning and strategy are really worth the time and effort. That being said, we are going to do everything possible to send our children to school debt free, or with as little as possible. I don’t want them to struggle the way we have.

  • I’ve never been in debt, but I definitely have a similar issue simply when it comes to saving. I’ve created this saving habit that serves me really well, but there are times when I have trouble spending money and I have to be reminded that the only reason to save is to one day spend it on something important. It’s not always easy to flip that switch.

    • John says:

      I agree, it’s not always easy to flip that switch and can relate to how saving can make it difficult to spend. I find that I struggle with that and have to be reminded of that very same thing many times.

  • I would say it changed us because it made us fearful of having to do it all over again. Been there, done that! =)

  • I can totally relate to this John! Once you start down a financially healthy lifestyle you almost have this fear of falling off the wagon. It’s like someone coming off a diet and being afraid to eat a donut for fear that it will be a slippery slope of calories. I have not become miserly, but I was a hermit for a while. Now I plan everything and if an event is part of the plan, then I feel comfortable engaging in it.

    • John says:

      “It’s like someone coming off a diet and being afraid to eat a donut for fear that it will be a slippery slope of calories.” I could not agree more Shannon! I think that it’s natural to deal with that fear, on some level, and can be difficult not to listen to at times – even far removed from the situation.

  • My short stint in my teens with credit card debt made me see what a waste of money interest is. It made me fearful to ever carry a balance on my credit card, so I never, ever do.

  • Oh wow you’ve hit the nail right on the head for me. I had to budget pretty darn hard to get my debt paid off, and I have definitely maintained the “frugal” outlook on my spending since then.

    I suppose the thing is that I can see how I coped just fine reducing my spending – and it actually had very little impact on my happiness – certainly far less than I expected.

    Now I *can* spend money if I want to, I actually would rather save as much as possible for a rainy day. In a way I’m pleased that I forced myself to “detach” from the consumer world as I very rarely now find myself longing to buy some new fancy gadget or must-have new sneakers.

  • Kathy says:

    Being debt free is…..freeing. But I notice also that I am very reluctant to spend money on things I don’t absolutely have to have. In fact, my hubby is desperate to take a trip this year and I’m very reluctant. If we spend that money, what happens if we have a house repair we need to do, or a vehicle maintenance that needs to be done. The answer is, of course, we take it out of that budget category and make the necessary repair. But I’m really dragging my feet in doing any trip planning because I’d rather save the money. It became difficult to enjoy the money because of the fear it will not be replenished.

    • John says:

      I can definitely relate Kathy. My wife and I have had numerous discussions over that very issue. Of course the money is saved for X need, but I still would rather not spend the money anyway. πŸ™‚

    • kathryn says:

      Take the trip, but do lots of research first. How can do it cheaper? We live in Canada.
      We travel 7 1/2 months a year, for the past 4 years, in Australia. (my husband is Australian, I’m Canadian) .
      We house sit for people, and look after their pets.We don’t get paid. The first year,all the home owners provided us with a vehicle to drive. We have since purchased a used van and sleep in it between house sits. It gives us a home base to which to return to each day, after sightseeing.
      There are plenty of places to get discounts for tourist attractions. Prepare picnic lunches as much as possible. Camp. Try not to fit too many activities into each day.
      You can always return another time. Many things are free.

  • Sometimes I need to remind myself that I can cut loose, not often, but definitely on occasion.

  • It has made us more conscious of where our hard earned money is going. It has taught us to think twice before making a purchase. I’m thankful for that. Getting out of debt and staying out of debt is all about changing your mentality.

  • What a question my friend. It has easily changed the way I think of every purchase. Before, I would just say that I have more credit to spare and charge it. Now, I take a step back and think about it. Having debt and then paying off debt has changed my life for the better!

    • John says:

      Thanks sir! I feel the same exact way. It has changed my life and now if I want something I just save/hustle for it, although I do still struggle with the spending of that money from time to time.

  • I’m in the same boat. There are many times that even though I have saved up money for a purchase, I still question if it is needed. I look at it as a good thing, limiting impulse buying completely. I really think about my purchases and make certain that I really need them. Sure there is the downside of questioning certain items that really are needed, but I’d rather be this way than just spending money irrationally.

  • The biggest thing that has changed for me through our debt repayment journey a growing appreciation for the relationships with the people in our lives. Stuff fades, breaks and gets thrown away. Friends and relationships can be fostered and enjoyed without a cent.

    • John says:

      That’s an awesome point Travis! I could not agree more. I’d much rather “spend” my time fostering those friendships as opposed to wasting my money on stupid stuff.

  • Paying off debt taught me that long-term effort really does pay off – and that one little thing can derail you. Before, I would always see results very quickly with everything that I did, but paying off debt usually takes a while. Also, it taught me to be organized. usually, this saves money!

  • i am having some of the same struggles. We have so many projects that need to be done around the house, but I’m having a hard time hiring anything out and some of it we can’t do ourselves. I wonder if there will ever be a time when I just know when it’s OK to spend and when it’s not without thinking about it forever.

    • John says:

      That’s the balance I want to get to. I believe that some day I will get to it, but it can definitely be a struggle to get there. That said, I’d much rather be here than a few years back and in debt. πŸ™‚

  • I see being debt free similar to eating a truly healthful diet. In both cases, for me, I like the results so much, I have no temptation to abandon the habits that got me there. That said, one can go too far with anything, and I agree balance is important too. We all do though have to be self-aware when it comes to our weaknesses and tendencies. If you’re the sort for whom one indulgence–financial or culinary–tends to open the door to an avalanche of indulgences, might be best to avoid even that first one!

    • John says:

      That’s a great correlation Kurt! I like seeing those results as well and is a great way to encourage ourselves to continue to seek out that balance.

  • Lauren May says:

    Since paying off my student loans and becoming debt-free last year, I am totally against taking on any kind of debt or loans again. I know that there will come a time that we will probably have some type of loan, but I hate even thinking about it!

    • John says:

      I remember feeling the same way Lauren. I was disgusted that we ended up financing a car and have fallen to where we never want to do that again. A mortgage is one thing in my opinion, but that’s it.

  • Joe @ FFA says:

    Debt changed me a ton. First, I don’t trust anyone who’s offering me debt products. The underbelly of that industry is an ugly, snarling beast that I never want to experience again.

  • I agree wholeheartedly, John. It is about balance. It seems like, for whatever reason, we tend to swing from extremes. It can be hard after working for years to get out of debt to feel okay about spending money. To trust yourself to spend wisely. Honestly, I think it’s okay to take it slow. I’ve seen people go right back into debt as soon as soon as they get out.

    • John says:

      I agree Shannon, it can be so easy for some reason to swing to one extreme or another. Makes me thankful I’m far removed from the doldrums of debt.

  • I realized I’m like a totally different person now. And you’re right, it is about balance. Since paying off all that debt, I’m hesitant to spend any money at all sometimes, and that isn’t the right way to live an enjoyable life, since some things will inevitably cost money. But once you find that balance, between being smart about debt and retirement and savings, you’ve hit the sweet spot. One thing I do know is that I’m never going to have any consumer debt again!

  • It’s easy for me to forget about being in a tough financial pickle which is why I try to remember why I spent so frugally in the past. Plus, being frugal has made me realize how much I don’t like junk in the house and now when I’m at a touristy place, I’m no longer tempted to waste money on that junk because all I think about is cleaning it and I definitely don’t want to waste my time doing that!

  • I noticed that I have a really crazy relationship with money now – post debt. For instance, I kind of need a couch. Arguably, you know, does anyone really need a couch? But realistically, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting a couch. I’m sitting in camp chairs in my apartment and a single arm chair sort of thing that’s a hand me down from my mother.

    I keep thinking about buying a couch. I found one I really like that’s a little expensive, so I’m side hustling money for it… but I still wonder if it even makes sense to spend more than I HAVE to on a couch just because I like how one looks more than the other. I feel like I’m probably going to side hustle all that money and then go to Walmart and get an inexpensive futon.

    Pre-debt Mel never would’ve stuggled with buying a couch. There’s already be one in my living room. With a rug and a coffee table.

    • John says:

      That’s exactly what I’m thinking of Mel! I deal with the same thing all the time and it’s crazy the thought I put into it.

      We’re going through the same exact thing with couches actually. πŸ™‚ The ones in our family room are literally 30+ years old – they were hand me downs from my in-laws and we’ve saved money to replace them this summer and I still don’t want to spend the money…even though we have it allocated.

  • Debt BLAG says:

    A good reminder that money always has to have a job — whether paying off debt, ensuring a comfy retirement, paying for a dream trip… Money saved that goes to nowhere never feels as good.

    • John says:

      That’s a good point sir! Though I still feel good about having a bigger account balance. πŸ™‚ Seriously though, I get your point and it does feel good to have your money accomplish something for you.

  • E.M. says:

    I am very much like you, John, though I am still in debt with my student loans. My boyfriend constantly tells me I can “afford” something, which is true as I have the money saved up, but I’m often not comfortable spending a large amount on things that I want/need. In my case, though, I always argue that it could go toward my loans. I’m sure I’ll feel the same once I’m out of debt, though. I’ve just never liked parting with lots of money, which is why I keep a bigger emergency fund on hand than I probably need.

    • John says:

      Yea, that’s exactly how I tend to feel most times. It’s almost as if the “afford”-ability is almost irrelevant most times as I hate parting with big chunks of cash.

  • I don’t know if I’m referring to just debt payoff in general, because that wasn’t my main problem, but my financial rock bottom when I realized my spending to saving/income ration was completely out of whack, really got me to really wake up financially and take responsibility. Thankfully I think I caught things before they got too out of hand.

  • The debt payoff journey has really taught me that it’s okay to spend money and live life. That the journey isn’t going to take a week or a month, but years of perseverance. And if I don’t enjoy life in the moment I won’t be able to enjoy it ever, because nothing is perfect.

    • John says:

      That’s definitely a valid point Amanda – it’s one that I learned as well through my debt payoff journey. My challenge is balancing that with not wanting to part with my money. πŸ˜‰

  • Paying off 1/2 of our student loans was HUGE for us! And to be honest, we can’t wait to be 100% out of our debt. It’s such a shame that so many people end up having a tremendous amount of debt after graduation. Paying it off almost feels like a right of passage of some sorts – then once you’re done, you can build for your life in the future.

    My husband and I have the exact same conversation about purchases as you guys do! He’s great at balancing my wants/needs and rationalizing it. It reminds me that budgets and marriages go hand and hand. As long as you balance each other out and all the big things align, it’s a wonderful partnership πŸ™‚
    Say yes to your wife sometimes (sometimes we make sense too! LoL)

    • John says:

      That’s a great point, I do think many view it as a rite of passage.

      I agree, budgeting and marriage do go hand in hand, otherwise you’re likely to run in to some sort of financial problem which is no good in a marriage. And, yes, I’ve been married long enough to know that it does a marriage good to say yes to a wife. πŸ™‚

  • Michael@Save-Invest-Grow says:

    After all the hard work to pay off debt, it has definitely changed how I look at purchases, of all sizes. Even on small items, I’ll think about if I save that money and invest it, it could become significant over time. As I’ve learned to become more frugal with debt and spending, it seems to works its way into all aspects of life, and has improved things very much! Great topic John.

  • Belle says:

    We’ve been debt free for 10+ years & my husband retired 3 yrs ago @ 55. I’m hanging in there another year or two. We’ve both got defined pension plans & maxed out 401K & 403b ( I work as a home health nurse @ a nonprofit hospital) Peace is what being debt free gives us. Knowing I’m working because I choose too, not because I have to. ( we’d really be on a budge then)

    • John says:

      That’s awesome Belle! I love your outlook on it as I feel the same way – work because you want to and not because you have to. Being debt free does definitely provide peace – one that you never want to give up. Thanks for stopping by! πŸ™‚

  • Dear Debt says:

    I can’t wait to figure out how paying off debt will change me! For now, I keep chugging away and try not to get to obsessed with it. It is a priority, but I still have a life and am still a person outside of debt.

  • Cat says:

    This is a great post. Sometimes I wish I could just buy something without obsessing about it, but it’s really, really hard. Although we’re out of CC debt, there’s so much student loan debt to go.

  • I don’t think I’d have my finances even half as together as they are if I hadn’t gone into debt. I agree with you – it took a total kill it attitude to get it done – so I researched everything I could find on how to save money and how to make extra money. And now all that information is stored in the back of my mind, or even just a well ingrained habit, which is really useful.

    I also know what it feels like to be owned by something or someone and that is just the worst feeling. That is not happening again.

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