For most of my life, I’ve been a spender. I loved going to the mall, shopping online, or browsing through stores on my days off. But that all changed when I made the decision to pay off my student loans in three years.
Suddenly my spendthrift ways turned into cheapskate ways. No longer was I willing to go out for lunch. Now I wanted to eat as cheaply as possible, even if that meant bringing Chef Boyardee to the office. I became obsessed with saving every dollar and putting it toward my loans.
It got to the point where I was agonizing for 10 minutes at a Redbox over whether or not to spend $1 on a movie rental.
When I would buy something for myself, I’d feel incredibly guilty over the decision. Often I’d return the item or lament how much it cost. If you’re anything like me, you might be experiencing the symptoms of debt burnout.
Don’t let that diagnosis get you down. Debt burnout is a perfectly normal condition that thousands of borrowers experience. If you’ve ever taken out student loans, a mortgage, or a car payment, you’ve probably experienced this kind of fatigue. It’s an easy hole to fall into, but just as easy to climb out of—and even easier to prevent when you see it coming.
If you’re starting to feel the strain of your debt repayment journey, here are a few ways to sidestep disaster.
Give yourself a break
When I committed to paying off my student loans in three years, I put almost every spare cent to the cause. My heart was in the right place, but I went a little overboard.
It’s okay to weigh small decisions carefully—after all, a few dollars here and there can add up quickly—but you have to let loose eventually. Deviating from the plan every once in awhile won’t delay your debt repayment by much, and it’s the best way to remain motivated over time. Being frugal is great, but not if it leads to a burnout that sets you back to square one.
Find frugal ways to have fun
When paying off debt, lots of people let their hobbies fall to the wayside. It may not seem like an issue at first, but that hole will become apparent soon enough. When you turn away from the activities that help you relieve stress, you’re almost certainly headed for a burnout.
Some hobbies, like skiing and photography, are expensive to maintain. If you’re worried about making debt payments and fulfilling your passions, consider a temporary switch to something cheaper. For example, hiking, geocaching, and biking are low-cost hobbies that won’t threaten your budget.
Volunteering is another great way to get out of the house without breaking the bank. Want to attend the latest film festival or art museum exhibit in your city? Ask to volunteer. Many times you’ll get free admission and/or a comped meal.
During my extreme debt payoff journey, I was desperate to find ways to entertain myself while sticking to my budget. I took low-cost classes and learned everything from French cooking to cake decorating. I found pay-what-you-can yoga classes. A group of coworkers and I had a standing date at a local brewery for their free sample Fridays.
Save for your priorities
When you’re paying off debt, it’s easy to focus solely on reducing the balance as quickly as possible, but sometimes it’s better to allocate part of that money toward your passions. You’ll want to maintain a balance between personal goals and debt payoff; you’ll feel better about where you’re at financially—and where you’re headed.
I travelled to Spain and Israel while I paid off my student loans. I also got a dog with my then-boyfriend. Both decisions cost me several month’s worth of student loan payments, but I’ve never regretted them.
If you’re only spending discretionary money on your debt, over time you’ll start to resent being financially responsible. Pick one or two goals you have and distribute part of your budget to those objectives. It’s okay to slow down your debt payoff if it means you’ll be happier in the long run.
Schedule money dates
If you’re committed to being debt free, you might also be in the habit of checking your bank account every few days or looking at your student loan statements more than once a month. Much like checking the scale every day when you’re trying to lose weight, being over-aware of your debt progress can make the whole process feel slow and frustrating.
Instead of logging onto your accounts whenever you feel like it, schedule a set time every week to go over your finances. Having a money date on your schedule will keep you from spending all of your free time worrying about a self-imposed deadline.
Related: How To Manage Student Loan Debt
When you’re aiming for a huge goal like debt freedom, you might be waiting years to fulfill your dreams. That’s why it’s important to celebrate the small victories along the way. If you’re trying to pay off $50,000 worth of credit card debt, do something every time you pay off $5,000. It can be as small as a trip to the movies or as big as a weekend at a resort.
Melanie Lockert of Dear Debt, paid off $81,000 in nine years and had a celebration for each benchmark she reached.
“During debt repayment, I set milestones and small rewards…So if I paid off $1,000, I’d go to happy hour. If I paid off $5,000, I’d go out to dinner. After $10,000 maybe I’d go get a massage from the local massage school on the cheap. A mini rewards system and focusing on my debt-free life worked for me.”
Having those mini objectives will make you feel more accomplished and keep you motivated. It can also be helpful to track where you are on your journey by using a digital debt tracker or writing down your balance every month.
During my student loan payoff, I started blogging about my attempts to be debt free in three years. When I started to feel depressed about my balance, I’d read through old posts. Reminding myself how far I’d come reinvigorated my spirit and helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Lockert said she often thought about the big things she would do once she paid off her loans, like moving to Los Angeles, going to Italy with her mom and growing her business.
“I focused on what my debt-free life would look like and made a Pinterest board about it. I kept a list of all the things I’d do after getting out of debt.”
If you’ve got a large goal like paying off your student loan debt quickly, and you decide to put all your extra cash towards it, that’s great! But it can get overwhelming quickly. We’re only human after all, we like to spend.
So take it easy—you’ll want to make a plan that incorporates some cheat days and rewards in order to keep your hopes high and yourself on track.