Paying Off Debt While Dealing With Debt Fatigue

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Many of us have dealt with paying off debt in one form or fashion; whether it be credit card debt or student loan debt, few of us are untouched by debt. While I consider a mortgage debt as well, I really am excluding that from this post as the benefits of owning a house can be significant. The kind of debt I am talking about is consumer debt.

This is debt that we have chosen at one level or another to get into, such as credit card debt, student loan debt, or a 97 month car loan that feel endless. This burdensome feeling can help create the nasty beast of debt fatigue and can be ruinous if allowed to run its full course, but as one who has dealt with it in my paying off debt past, I can tell you that it can be overcome.

What is Debt Fatigue?


There are various definitions of debt fatigue floating around out there, but the main point of them is that it occurs when the feeling of paying off debt becomes so burdensome that you’re tempted to give up, break out the Arrival World Mastercard and start spending again with the ultimate result of declaring bankruptcy. For those who have never dealt with paying off debt, the idea of debt fatigue may seem like a silly one. If you got yourself into this debt situation, then can’t getting out of debt be just as easy? I wish it were, I really do, but sadly it is not. This debt, generally speaking, did not happen overnight and thus will not be paid off overnight.

For many this journey to pay off debt can take years and often times may feel like it will never be fully accomplished and thus fatigue and the desire for it to be over can easily set in. Some may give in and return to their spending ways and continue to stay in debt, though it’s the ones who’re resilient and keep that vision of being debt free who are able to keep at it and succeed. As one who has dealt with debt fatigue, I can tell you that it’s very real. I’ve learned the hard way that paying off debt requires a rare level of persistence and endurance.

Paying Off Debt Requires a Certain Mindset


I have shared before about how I racked up nearly $25,000 in credit card debt while in college. While I could blame many things, that ultimately would not be dealing with the source of the issue – myself and my uncontrollable spending. Once I came to grips with the debt I alone had created, I realized (through a very helpful individual or two) that paying off debt required me to take on a certain mentality. I HAD to want it and I needed a plan to become debt free. That plan took just over four years to achieve.

During that time, I constantly looked for ways to pay off  my credit card debt. Whether it be finding ways to make extra money on the side, or cut back even more, there are only so many things you can do at the end of the day. Even ten years later, I can still remember the burdened feeling that comes with paying off debt. It became so much so, that I just wanted to throw my hands up and say “to hell with it” and give up. I am thankful that I never gave into it.

If you’re dealing with that now, my message to you is to not listen to that voice. Keep in front of you what being debt free will feel like and keep pressing on towards your goal. I know that is generally easier said than done, but as one who has been through it before, giving in to debt fatigue will ultimately result in nothing good at all. Instead of giving in to it, revisit your plan, go to someone who can encourage you, or look at the progress you have made and you’ll generally find these will help you continue paying off debt.

Give Yourself an Outlet


When I started my debt payoff journey, there were two things the debt counselor shared with me that I still carry with me today. First, she told me to budget as she viewed it as the beginning to me paying off debt and getting my spending under control. She did not leave it at that, but helped me set it up and kept me accountable as I started. The second, was almost counterintuitive to paying off debt. She told me to give myself fun money that I could use on whatever I wanted. Otherwise, she said, you will encounter debt fatigue and likely give into it.

If you have paid off debt before, or are paying off debt now, you know how monotonous and burdensome it can feel. I thought that I needed every red cent to throw at my debt and spending anything on myself was unwise at best. I am so glad that she told me not to do this, but instead allow myself an outlet, however small, that I could use to enjoy life – albeit simply.

I can’t remember how much it was exactly that I started with on a monthly basis, though it was very small. That was money that I knew was mine. I could spend it however I wanted and if there was something bigger I wanted then I could set a saving goal to obtain it. On top of that fun money, I would also encourage you to find creative outlets such as gardening, reading, hobbies or activities that allow you to not have to constantly focus on paying off debt. As one who has been through debt fatigue, take it from me that giving yourself these outlets will help you keep a balanced life and will ultimately help you to reach the other side of becoming debt free.


Have you ever dealt with debt fatigue, in the past or currently, while paying off debt? What did you do to overcome it?


Photo courtesy of: Images_Of_Money

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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.

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  • Margaret Polino Nicholas says:

    Yes I am in the process right now of paying extra on debt. Without the debt we could live well and pay with saved money. I like your suggestions. Thank you. It’s nice to know one is not alone carrying the load. There are others of you.

    • John says:

      That there is Margaret, which is important to remember while in the middle of it. It may not be easy, but it is possible.

  • Curt says:

    hey John

    I am going through the process now of paying off all the stupid debt I have accumulated. I agree, sometimes you want to take a break and buy yourself something new! What drives me to continue is my memory of how less stressful I was when I had no debt…better than Ambien.

  • Jon @ MoneySmartGuides says:

    I too got into credit card debt in college. Looking back, the things that helped me push through the long journey of paying it off were to make sure that I budgeted some “fun” money. At first everything when towards debt. I began to resent it and wanted to stop paying it off. I had to find a balance. The second this is that I had to create mini-accomplishments or goals. I would celebrate when I got it down to $15K then again when I hit $9,999. I used those at motivation to keep me going.

    • John says:

      Right on Jon! So much of it does come down to balance – which can be difficult to find. Celebrating those milestones is key too as I found it helped me work harder to reach the end goal.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money says:

    Fun money is so key. If you have to shut yourself in your house/apartment for the next three years never going out and having fun doing anything that costs money, you are inevitably going to experience hardcore debt fatigue. If you allow yourself a little money to go out and do fun things or make that “splurge” purchase once in a while it seems much more sustainable.

    • John says:

      Exactly DC! I think those that don’t have that money are only setting themselves up for failure. I know it seems counterintuitive, but it does work.

  • GamingYourFinances says:

    Personally I found it much more bearable once we created a plan to pay off our debt. The plan had a clear end date, so we knew exactly when it would all be paid off. It’s motivational in the fact that any extra money you throw at your debt (salary increase, side income, lower spending) will just move that date closer.

    • John says:

      Yes, having that plan is vital to overall success. I feel that without a plan you’ll just be aimless in your attack and not be as vigilant paying it off.

  • Matt Becker says:

    Love the idea of having some fun money, even if your debt level is really high. We aren’t robots. We all need some balance and it’s much better to recognize that from the start and give yourself a way to achieve it then to totally deprive yourself only to fail.

    • John says:

      I agree Matt, I would say it should be included at all debt levels. Even if it is a small amount that is still your money to do with as you please and makes the debt repayment easier to manage.

  • Michelle says:

    At first I did have debt fatigue when it came to my student loans. However, the last month was crazy and I actually enjoyed seeing how much money I could throw towards my debt.

    • John says:

      I was the same way as I was nearing paying mine off. It felt good to send in those big checks to get it knocked out.

  • Holly@CLubThrifty says:

    We definitely had debt fatigue when we were paying ours off. It just took so long that it got old really quick! Luckily, we managed to keep our momentum and pay everything off!

  • Kurt @ Money Counselor says:

    I agree–sort of like a strict diet, a strict budget will often lead to ‘binges,’ whether in eating or spending. While building ‘fun money’ into a budget is important, part of the key I think in developing a solid debt payoff mindset is separating having fun and spending money. For many, having fun has become one and the same as spending money. If you have to blow a couple grand to feel like you’ve had fun, might be tough to pay down that debt. The simple (i.e., cheap!) things in life can be loads of fun too!

  • Adam @ Money Bulldog says:

    So true John! For most people paying off debt is going to be a long and difficult path. As much as you want to do it as quickly as possible, balance is still needed. I suppose it’s the old tortoise vs the hare parable. Set off in a mad rush with no breathers and you’ll soon run out of steam, keep things nice and steady however and you’ll reach your goal in good time. Hope you have that parable in the US 🙂

  • Keren says:

    Truer words have never been spoken. I equate paying off debt to dieting. Both have a fantastic payoff in the end but man does it suck to start.

    • John says:

      I think you’re right on Keren, which is why allowing yourself a bit of wiggle room is so key so you don’t kill any momentum,

  • Budget and the Beach says:

    I think I remember trying to make it a fun game or challenge of some sort. Changing my perspective on the debt as sort of strengthening my muscles of determination. 🙂 Also focusing on how good it would feel when it was all paid off.

    • John says:

      I did something very similar at times Tonya. I found that changing things up at times would keep it fresh and help me stay committed.

  • anna says:

    I definitely felt a little debt fatigue a couple of months back (though not to the point of excess and bankruptcy), which is why I gave myself a break. I actually felt guilty about it and regretted it, but I think it helped me become more motivated and back on track with debt repayments. I like the creative outlets idea!

    • John says:

      A break can be very helpful, at times, Anna. I had to do that myself once or twice and as long as I kept it to a minimum I could continue on.

  • Girl Meets Debt says:

    John, I think this is one of my favorite posts from you! 🙂 I’m about 8 months in on this long journey (4-5 years) in paying of my consumer and massive student loan debt and at times debt fatigue hits me so hard, I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. Being a part of this PF community and reading posts like this really help me stay motivated. Thank you. 🙂

    • John says:

      Thanks so much GMD, I appreciate it! The good thing is that you have made it much farther, already, than many do. Now it’s maintaining that momentum and before you know it you’ll be eyeing the finish line! 🙂

  • Anthony @ Thrifty Dad says:

    Nice post! It’s always a great idea to have some ‘fun money’ set aside. Even a little reward goes a long way to keeping you motivated, so you don’t feel that all you’re doing is paying off the debt monster.

    • John says:

      Thanks Anthony! I agree, those rewards are needed and really can help keep you going in the race to pay off that debt.

  • E.M. says:

    I think the biggest motivator for me is knowing how great it will feel to be without debt! It definitely feels hopeless sometimes, but then I think of all the things I’d like to accomplish in life, and how debt is slightly holding me back, and I want it gone!! I also agree that we cannot sacrifice *everything* on this journey, otherwise we’d go a little crazy. Fun money, within reason, is a great idea to combat the frustration that all your hard earned money is going toward this monster.

    • John says:

      That was a huge motivator for me as well E.M. I am a big visionary and having that vision before me was huge.

  • Sean @ One Smart Dollar says:

    I think having those little milestones are important. They give you a clearer picture of the success you are having which I think would probably cause a little less debt fatigue.

  • Nick @ says:

    I think it is important to celebrate small victories. When we were paying off debt we would get to splurge a bit after every $5,000 paid off. Most of the time that consisted of going out for a nice dinner.

    • John says:

      I did something very similar Nick, it helped me immensely in regards to continuing the journey to paying off the debt.

  • Shannon @ The Heavy Purse says:

    Oh yes, debt fatigue is very real and not being prepared for it makes it very easy to succumb to that little voice that says you deserve a treat for being so good. 🙂 Your debt counselor was spot-on that you needed to give yourself some fun money, even it’s just a few dollars to start out. It is exciting to see your debt dwindle but it can also get very tedious. You need to be able to break-up the monotony.

    • John says:

      I agree Shannon. It was just a few dollars for me in the beginning (can’t remember the exact amount) and grew slightly over time. It can definitely be tedious, which is part of the reason why it can be so easy to succumb to it.

  • KK @ Student Debt Survivor says:

    Great post. I definitely had debt fatigue when I was paying off my student loans. Some of the keys that kept me going were celebrating small milestones and debt paydown victories, allowing myself a “fun” allowance, and surrounding myself with people who were cheering me on.

  • Sicorra says:

    Great post! I was told to allow for fun money as well. I was told that if you know you are going to spend this much every month on something then make sure to allocate it in your budget. Otherwise you will find ways to buy those things anyways, but you will go over budget and make it even more difficult to manage things. While we pay off debt we still need to live and enjoy our lives. I was even told to take my time in paying off my debt, although I know a number of people would disagree with that thought.

    • John says:

      Thanks Sicorra! I would agree, to a point, with your last point. If you’re doing it to the extent you can’t have a life then you just may ruin your chances.

  • Justin says:

    Debt fatigue is something we all deal with at some point. My wife and I have never had the huge mountains of debt that some people have had, but even smaller amounts of debt can get annoying. This is especially true when it seems to take a long time to make any progress in paying it off. Just stick with the plan. The feeling of debt fatigue tends to come in waves. Hang in there, and it will pass.

  • Jake @ Common Cents Wealth says:

    This is great advice. As someone who just recently got out of debt in a little over 2 years I can attest to how hard it can be to stay on track. I really like the 2 pieces of advice the counselor gave you. I think budgets and “fun money” are both essential to staying motivated and on track.

    • John says:

      Thanks Jake! It can be really challenging to stay on track, thus why having a solid plan and allowing yourself some fun money is so vital.

  • John@MoneyPrinciple says:

    Tell us about it! It’s all to easy to rack up that debt but takes a strong mindset to pay it off.

    • John says:

      That is does! If it was as easy to pay it off as it was to rack it up then it would be paid off in no time at all. 😉

  • The First Million is the Hardest says:

    I only got into a bit of debt with credit cards shortly after college. My verison of “debt fatigue” came from being tired of having the debt constantly hanging over my head and dictating the way I lived. I got fed up and focused all my energy towards getting rid of it. I can imagine trying to dig out of a mountain of debt wearing a person out…but stick to it because that payoff at the end will be better than any splurge along the way.

    • John says:

      That’s great you never got into a huge amount of debt as it really can start to wear on a person. Splurging will get you nowhere in repaying the debt, but having some fun money along the way can do wonders.

  • jim says:

    The single most important thing that helped us get past debt fatigue was being grateful for the ability to write those checks every week. Gratitude goes a long ways.

    • John says:

      That’s a great point Jim! I remember feeling that way very often while was in debt. It was always such a relief to have what I needed to pay at least the minimum and even more thankful if I could throw more at it.

  • My Wealth Desire says:

    Still paying off our debt. I think if we don’t have debt, maybe we reached our financial freedom. As soon as we receive our salary we divide it according to our financial obligation. There is pressure every time I received my salary very late or two to three months delayed. Budgeting and managing your money is the key to get out from debt.

    • John says:

      I agree that both of those are key in getting that paid off. I could not imagine dealing with that and having late paychecks.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    I totally agree here, John, about having to want the debt freedom. That is crucial for a paying off debt plan. Many days we are SO tired of our mountain of debt, but we want it gone more than we want temporary relief, so we keep plugging along. Thanks for a great post, John. I think this is a super common problem.

    • John says:

      I agree Laurie, it is a very common problem and so few realize it. That temporary relief looks so tempting, but so not worth it in the long run.

  • jefferson @SeeDebtRun says:

    we hit the wall hard with debt fatigue, about halfway through our journey. we hadn’t been going out, hadn’t been seeing friends, and were mainly just bored out of our minds.

    but it is all worth it in the end.. the freedom that we now have makes it seem silly that were so frustrated at the time.

    • John says:

      I was there once as well Jefferson and it does suck, thus my suggestion for some fun money. That said, the freedom is well worth it!

  • David S. @PBC says:

    Thanks John. Debt fatigue can have very negative effects on our lives so your tips in paying off debts come at the right time. Many people will agree with you that we need to have the right mindset about these things. This is one good way to manage our financial obligations.

  • Tenille says:

    My husband has a great job but we have accumulated some debt (a monkey on our backs). I took on a part-time job to help pay off some of these bills. I am trying to keep the mentality that it doesn’t have to be a permanent thing. I don’t have to do it forever. We’ve stopped spending and have tried to cut back on our non-fixed spending. Thank you for this article in reminding us about debt fatigue. We give to charity as our “fun money” each month.

  • amy says:

    A four year journey… 600 of 30,000 to go. I can’t believe the fatigue and boredom. Having sat through that boredom I found wonderful new ways to do things. All’s I can say is… IT IS SO WORTH IT… The shame, fear,and lack of control is gone.

  • Jason says:

    I know I’m posting on an old thread but I had to chime in. My goodness is debt fatigue real. My wife ran off with another man 2 years ago and left me with all our debt which was rather burdensome. By the time this year (2016) is over I’ll have paid (on my own) over $21,000 in one year. I will have $13,000 left to go when 2017 rolls around but at least I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Still, I’m exhausted. Sometimes I ask myself if its worth it. So many others would have, and have, just rolled over and declared bankruptcy.

    Hell yes its worth it. That’s what I feel whenever I close my eyes and imaging how it will feel to be debt free. Until that day comes I’ll keep getting back up and plodding forward – one step at a time.

    I make a decent salary but this has left me with little left over. Yes, collection agencies started calling and I’ve worked agreements with all of them. Believe me, it’s SO much better to face them and work with them. Granted, I was the architect of my plan to pay off in a more aggressive fashion than even they would have required. I was also part of the architect of creating this problem which also started with job loss and other issues – like with so many others. I refused to file for bankruptcy even though my wife did so after we split. My credit is smashed but at least I am repaying. That makes me sleep better at night.

    I’ll say this to anyone reading and going through this. Bad things happen to good people. I decided long ago that I will not longer feel guilty for what happened. I would only feel guilty if I did not tend to the matter when I had the ability to do so.

    If you are going through this, you’re not alone. Keep going until the end and never surrender.

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