How debt-free dreams can motivate repayment

Fantasizing about a better financial future serves as a strong inducement

Erica Sandberg
Personal Finance Writer
Consumer finance expert, author and “Opening Credits” columnist.

How post-debt dreams can motivate your debt repayment pain

People who are paying down their debts would be wise to do a little daydreaming. Knowing something wonderful awaits at the end of the struggle can be the inspiration they need to not give up when times get tough.

It can take many months or years to repay big debts and the task may become dreary and difficult. To stay the course, fantasizing about a better future that includes a specific goal the moment the accounts are all paid off can help. In fact, a 2017 CreditCards.com survey on debt freedom found that most Americans who are whittling down their financial obligations said they would save for retirement, an emergency, a new home or college if they no longer owed anything.

“Dreams are powerful for debt reduction,” says Melinda Opperman, executive vice president of credit.org, a nonprofit credit and housing counseling agency. “It will be your pathway to success. It puts you in control. How will things will look and feel after the debt is gone? What will you have and do? When you know, you can start planning. That’s the fun part. You will make sacrifices, but if you know what’s waiting for you at the end, you can do it.”

Here, five people share their unique post-debt dreams that kept and keeps them clawing their way toward the finish line. 

1. Future benefactor

Nancy Virden

Nancy Virden

Nancy Virden, a mental health and recovery advocate from Cleveland is scrimping her way out of $31,000 in credit card balances, student, home and bank loans. “I haven’t bought new clothes in probably two years,” says Virden, “I live off a budget that at times has kept me at home because my gasoline limits have been met.” She doesn’t have Netflix or cable, shops for groceries at discounted food stores, and goes to her local recreation center for free pottery classes. Her dinner parties are strictly potluck style.

What drives Virden to such lengths? “The goal of helping other people,” she says. “I am able to do a little now, but once I’m out of debt, I will use those payments to bless less fortunate folks who are doing their best and cannot make ends meet. It brings me joy to bring joy to others, so that is a serious motivator!” Ultimately, Virden wants to set up scholarships for people who can’t afford mental health care.

2. Take the trip of a lifetime

Lauren May Malis

Lauren May Malis

A series of personal tragedies struck Lauren May Malis, a Florida resident and founder of The Luxe Group, a media-based strategy company. Her brother passed away due to cardiac arrest, she broke her leg and then her best friend died. Such losses and health problems took a toll on her finances. She found herself unable to work the same hours as before, which reduced her income. Her bills piled up, and she now owes a total $60,000. Malis, though, is committed to aggressively paying it all down by working as hard as possible and sending the most she can to her creditors every month. A very special vacation will be her prize. 

"I drove a '99 Camry for nine years so I could pay off my student loans fast. Sure enough, right after paying off the loans, I got a newer car that I paid for in cash."

“I used to say to my bestie, ‘Deb, as soon as I am in the black we are going somewhere amazing, like Italy.’ Well, she was killed in an accident in August,” says Malis. Keeping that vacation dream alive is helping her remain on the path to financial wellness. 

“I just want to go to an amazing spa for two weeks, like Miraval Resort, so that I can get some of me back,” she says. It will also be in honor of her best friend, with whom she used to travel. “We would leave in the morning, hang by the pool, beach or spa until check in, nap, talk about life and then have drinks and dinner, breakfast on the beach the next day and hang until the afternoon,” says Malis. The trip she will take will be for the both of them. 

3. Ditch a decades-old car

Ogechi Igbokwe

Ogechi Igbokwe

Ogechi Igbokwe, from Long Island, New York, is a financial educator and founder of One Savvy Dollar. She recently finished deleting $26,000 in graduate school loans in three years instead of 10 by living well below her means. To send the maximum to her lenders, Igbokwe eschewed luxuries, which included keeping a vehicle that was nearly 20 years old.

“I didn’t change my student lifestyle at all,” says Igbokwe. “That was key for me. Most people felt entitled to upgrade. They think, ‘Oh, now I have a job, let me get a bigger apartment, a new car!’ No. Deal with the reality you have. If you have debt, pay it off fast. It is a guaranteed return on investment. I didn’t want to be paying loans from my 20s well into my 30s or 40s.” What kept her frugal: the dream of upgrading her car.

“I drove a ‘99 Camry for nine years so I could pay off my student loans fast,” says Igbokwe. “Sure enough, right after paying off the loans, I got a newer car that I paid for in cash.” But did she go wild and splurge on a high-end model? Absolutely not. “I got a 2009 Corolla at an auction,” says Igbokwe. “I love it. I am glad I did it.”

4. Accept a lower paying but more fulfilling job

Kevin Han

Kevin Han

Kevin Han is a Minneapolis -based attorney. He’s also a sharing economy side hustler, travel hacker and Financial Panther blogger, so it’s no surprise he powered down $87,000 in law school loans in an astonishing two-and-a-half years. Like Igbokwe, Han did it by maintaining the classic starving student lifestyle instead of adopting the higher standard of living that other young, hotshot attorneys took on. “What really kept me motivated was knowing that I was buying flexibility by paying off debt,” says Han. The ability to test out different, more fulfilling and interesting career paths was what he most wanted.

"The day I was debt-free I switched to a government job and took a $50,000 pay cut. I like to think about that. It let me take that chance."

“I started off my legal career in big law firm; a career path that is filled with attorneys who are notoriously overworked and unhappy,” says Han. That’s where he would have stayed had he been chained to his liabilities. “Basically, paying off my debt meant buying my freedom,” he says. “The day I was debt-free I switched to a government job and took a $50,000 pay cut. I like to think about that. It let me take that chance. That’s why I did it. Once you no longer have that debt payment, you open up a whole world of opportunities.”

5. Walk down the aisle with no obligations

Zina Kumok

Zina Kumok

Zina Kumok, a financial writer for her site, DebtFreeAfterThree, paid off $28,000 in three years by agonizing over even the smallest of purchases. “I became really vigilant about my shopping, whereas I used to buy anything I wanted,” says Kumok. “I would use the Mint app to track my expenses and check to see if I could afford something. I also used extra windfalls to put toward my debt, like tax refunds, birthday and Christmas checks, etc. I would often check the balance obsessively to make sure I was on track.”

She canceled her Hulu subscription and stopped buying craft beer, then added roommates into the picture to reduce her rent costs. The reason Kumok became so economical? Her wedding was on the horizon and she wanted to tie the knot without owing a cent.

“My post-debt dream was to be able to live life how I wanted without feeling tied down by debt,” says Kumok. “Less than a year after becoming debt free, I got married, quit my job and moved to Denver with my husband. I think having a set deadline made it easier to achieve because I had a date in mind the whole time.”

For people having trouble getting inspired to tackle their debts, Opperman suggests beginning with a vision board. “Literally, paste a picture of the car or house or whatever you want on a piece of paper,” she says. “Post it somewhere obvious so it’s always within sight. Just make sure the dream is realistic, otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

Debt can be paralyzing, but when you start to pay it down and inch toward whatever it is you’ve identified, you will be empowered, says Opperman: “When you’re all paid off and got what you wanted, you’ll feel that you can achieve anything!

See related: Cut your credit card debt by making micropayments, Video: How a side hustle can help you pay down debt


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Updated: 08-21-2018