Even though it’s been nine years since I paid off my $40,000 student loan debt, I still vividly remember that time. I lived as frugally as possible and went to extreme lengths to put as much of my paycheck toward my debt, and there were so many times during that period when the grind of it felt almost too much to bear.
My wife and I were living with her parents with virtually no privacy, my car was an old beater, my clothes were old and out of style, and I was watching my friends go out and spend money on awesome adventures. I would make a student loan payment and then find myself looking at the screen, thinking, “Ugh, this sucks. I freaking hate this.”
It felt like everyone was passing me up while my life stood miserably still. I drove to work, ate a breakfast sandwich in the car, had basically the same lunch every day, and then rinsed and repeated every day.
Honestly, I felt like I was living for the sole purpose of lowering some numbers on a screen.
Sure, there was definitely some satisfaction when I clicked the “submit payment” button on the Sallie Mae website, but there were so many times when I wondered if all of the trouble was worth it.
I was playing an extremely stressful game of delayed satisfaction. It felt like everyone around me was enjoying their life while I pinched and hustled to pay off my student loans in 18 months.
Looking back, I’m not sure I’d go to such great lengths if I had to do it again. If I knew then what I know now, I’d focus more on making money rather than frugality alone.
The point of the story is this: it’s hard to go against the grain of society and do it for an extended period of time, whether it’s investing, side hustling, or paying off debt. You will feel incredible when you reach your goal, but in the meantime, I want to share some strategies I used to keep myself motivated on the path to destroying my debt.
1. Surround Yourself With the Right People
Okay, I know I said I used all of these strategies, but this first one is one I wish I had done. There were so many people who questioned my judgment for trying to reach debt freedom, and I think it was because I didn’t have the right group of people around me.
That’s hard to say because many of those people were my closest friends and family, and I legitimately believed that I was bettering myself and laying the foundation for a financially successful life. I wanted support, but I just kept hearing people say that I was crazy.
If I could go back, I would have tried to find people who were on the same path as I was. The internet has made this easier than ever, and since I started running M$M, I’ve seen how powerful it is when you find your corner of the internet with people who are on the same financial journey as you.
For example, this is the kind of incredible stuff I see in my M$M Facebook group:
That’s huge. That’s how surrounding yourself with people who share your goals can help you. They motivate you, support you, and celebrate your wins. Social media isn’t always the best for your mental health, but there are corners of it that feel like you’re being wrapped in support.
2. Change Up Your Routine
We all get stuck in routines, and I definitely was when I was working on my loans. Maybe it’s just my personality or something, but I would find myself eating the same food and doing things the same way for days at a time. That, mixed with grinding to make the same student loan payment every two weeks, just felt like my life was passing with no real joy or excitement.
Monotony is boring, so do something different every once in a while. Go somewhere you’ve never gone before, strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never talked to (which is terrifying for me because I’m introverted), make plans on a whim, take a class, wear something you wouldn’t normally wear, and so on.
Even though it doesn’t directly relate to your financial goal, I believe changing your routine can put you in a better mental state. In turn, it makes it far easier to stomach the hard parts of what you’re pursuing.
3. Celebrate Your Wins
I was ultra, ultra frugal when I was paying off my loans, and my wife and I very rarely did anything to celebrate the progress I was making.
The problem I had (and what I see a lot of people in similar situations doing) is that when you’re working on a big financial goal, you’re afraid to spend any money. You are constantly doing calculations like, “I could go out to dinner to celebrate, or I could be debt free one day sooner.”
That’s not a fun place to live, and the reality is that you can celebrate your financial milestones in a way that doesn’t compromise your timeline.
You can make a payoff chart, cook a nice dinner at home, take your kids to the park to fly a kite, buy an inexpensive bottle of wine, have friends over, etc. Just do something to mark your achievements and break up the monotony. I promise that you won’t regret it.
4. Put Your Life in Perspective
You woke up today.
I mean, take a second to think about that. You’re alive. You’re reading this. How incredible is that?
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your life is hard or beat yourself up because you don’t have enough money invested or the student loans feel like they are suffocating you.
The truth is that there are people in this world who have far less to work with than many of us do. There are still people who don’t have internet access at home or reliable transportation — two things that can help you find a solid side hustle.
I get it; there must have been a lot of pain to put you on the path that you’re on right now. My $40,000 student loan balance lit a fire under me.
But you woke up today.
Be grateful for that simple fact.
5. Visualize Your Future Success
I was constantly thinking about what it would be like when I made my last student loan payment. I’d imagine what I’d feel like. I would picture myself clicking the “submit payment” button for the last time and how my life would change. I saw it over and over again in my mind.
This visualization practice is honestly one of the biggest reasons that I kept going when things got hard. For me, it was seeing myself have that future success because it felt like nobody else was picturing it for me. And the reality is that most people aren’t thinking about your financial goal, and some are actively rooting for you to fail so they feel better about their own situation.
It might be hard to visualize it, but just try it because I can tell you that making the last payment was every bit as cool as it was in my mind’s eye.
6. Document the Journey
I’ve seen this in a lot of different mediums, whether it’s a journal, blog, or social media — documenting the ups and downs makes it easier to keep going.
That’s ultimately why I started my blog. I had already paid off my debt, but I started blogging to share my journey after I quit teaching to pursue entrepreneurship. I wanted to track my struggles and successes. Hopefully, someone learns from documenting my journey, but it also kept me on track and motivated in those early days.
If you haven’t tried it before, just start writing things down or making videos about your process. You don’t have to publish for the entire world to see, but at least do it for yourself.
7. Find Peace With Less (At Least Temporarily)
This is the one point I’d almost go back to and revise. Rather than being okay with less, I wish I had started side-hustling sooner. With an extra $1,000 to $2,000 extra each month, I still would have been able to pay off my student loans in 18 months, but I also could have enjoyed my life.
Back then, I believed I just had to be okay with not having the same stuff or experiencing the same things as my friends (mostly vacations and new cars). I’d see social media posts of all the cool stuff they were doing and start to feel bad about what I was doing.
It felt like everyone was passing me up, and I just learned to be cool with it because I knew that I was just at the beginning of my journey. They had no idea how far I was about to go.
When people see you doing “weird” stuff like turning down dinner invites or driving a car that’s old enough to be your teenage child, they don’t realize that you’re just biding your time before you reach greatness.
The bottom line is that you have to focus on yourself and your own journey. Be sure to treat yourself occasionally, and surround yourself with people who support the life you’re building for yourself.