Despite having an education and career in personal finance, I’ve made some regrettable financial decisions. On more than one occasion, I’ve blown my emergency fund, exceeded my debt-to-income ratio, and even reduced my 401(k) contributions so that I could have more “spending money.”
Yes, my previous financial behavior contradicts the very advice that I tell my clients each day:
- Build 3-6 months of savings
- Keep your debt payments under 30%
- Always contribute up to your 401(k) company match (get that free money!)
Why is it, despite knowing what we should do to improve our finances (i.e. spend less, save more, pay off debt), that we don’t do what we know we should do?
Six months before my 30th birthday, I pondered this question as I took a personal inventory of my finances. With $10,000 left on my student loans, a $1,300 rent bill, and a $200 car payment, I realized that my debts were costing me over 50% of my take-home pay. I had less than $1,000 in emergency savings, and I was only contributing 4% to my 401(k). It appears that my hypocrisy knows no bounds. (Tombstone fans, anyone?)
To realize that I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching was an honest and powerful moment. I had created multiple “financial plans” for myself throughout my twenties, but I was only loosely following them. What was going on? I needed to get my money right. Instead of reverting to my trusty excel sheet to draft up another plan. I decided instead to focus on the behaviors that I needed to change to help me reach my goals. These are the 3 mental hacks I employed to help me pay off $10,000 of debt in 6 months.
1. I chose to focus on ONE goal
Like most folks, I was juggling too many financial goals at once. Pay down debt, increase 401(k) savings, build liquid savings, etc. No one goal took precedence over the other - they were scattered, unfocused and unclear, which hindered me from making meaningful progress.
So I chose one - pay off my student loans before I turned 30. Well, tunnel vision is exactly what I needed to make small wins and build momentum because, in the first two months, I’d paid an extra $2,100 on my loans.
2. I moved and cut my rent by 70%
I bounced from one luxury apartment to another in my twenties. But the granite countertops and sparkling pools always lost their appeal after a few months. I was over the amenity allure and my largest bill (rent) was sucking up all my FUEL. I needed to live somewhere much cheaper so that I could throw more cash toward my loans.
One of my friends was in the same debt-payoff boat as I was. She mentioned that her HOA fees had risen drastically since she bought her condo two years ago, and that was preventing her from paying more on her student loans.
Hmmm. My wheels started turning. “What if I paid your HOA fees and split utilities? Would you let me rent your second bedroom for a few months?
”She agreed! This Win-Win arrangement cut my rent by 70% and created $1,000/mo of FUEL that I could now put toward my loans. The rental income helped my friend pay off one of her loans as well! Nice. You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.
3. I created positive peer pressure
I told everyone about my financial goal to hold me accountable and create external positive peer pressure (see, even financial coaches need it too!). When people asked me why I was moving (again), I candidly told them, “I’m paying off the rest of my student loans.”
Notice that I didn’t say “I’m saving money” or “I’m TRYING to pay off debt.” I made a point to be as specific as possible. Sharing my goal with others repeatedly reinforced my intention and held me accountable because once I put it out there, it became REAL!
Each time I made a loan payment, I shared a screenshot with my world on Instagram and Facebook, and with every “clap” and “thumbs up” emoji, my motivation grew stronger to stay the course. Not only did it feel good to make progress, it felt good to celebrate with others.
On January 16th of this year, I made my final student loan payment. I stared at my $0 balance for weeks and celebrated the choices I had made that led me to this personal victory. What did I learn over those six months? Math is easy; changing behavior is hard. But if you focus on doing versus focusing on planning what you should do - you will succeed.