The Biggest Mental Roadblocks To Paying Debt (And How To Face Them)

The Biggest Mental Roadblocks of Paying Debt (and How to Face Them)

The hardest part of getting out of debt is not the maths. For many of us, it's not even the money. No, for most people the hardest part is the perseverance that is required in order to complete your goal of being debt free. Any long-term goal takes focused effort, fierce prioritisation, and a healthy appetite for making sacrifices -- and paying off debt is no exception.

Image remixed from Stockshoppe and coranado (Shutterstock).

Since paying off debt takes time and perseverance, it goes against human nature. But you can help get your mindset right by learning some coping mechanisms. Here are the greatest mental challenges involved in debt repayment (from my experience) and my tips for how to overcome them:

We Have Short Attention Spans

Human beings naturally gravitate towards short-term thinking. Our lizard brains are wired to react to immediate danger and short-term gains. This means that our attention spans are, well, short. Unfortunately, when it comes to paying off debt, our lizard brains are a liability and not an asset because -- let's face it -- without any short-term benefit it's hard to stay focused on debt repayment. Sometimes it seems like there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

Coping Mechanism: The easiest way to cope with our tendency to be short-term thinkers -- making that long tunnel seem especially dark and difficult to navigate -- is to break up your debt payment goals into manageable and measurable chunks. A "chunk" could be one credit card, one creditor, or a specific amount of debt paid off (such as $2000). After each chunk is paid, you can give yourself a frugal reward. Then rinse and repeat.

We Feel Deprived If We Have Less Than Other People

Did you know that the phrase "keeping up with the Joneses" originated over 100 years ago when it debuted in the comic strip Keep Up With The Joneses? This should tell you that the tendency to compare our lives to others' -- and particularly to those who seem to be doing very well for themselves -- is inherent in humans. The only problem is that we are left feeling deprived when our lives are compared to others', and we are often unable to move forward and better ourselves because of this preoccupation.

Coping Mechanism: Realise that the longer you spend watching other people's lives, the less time you have to live your own. Instead of feeling deprived or jealous, keep a gratitude journal. Each day, write down five things that you are thankful for. This will turn your feelings of deprivation around and leave you feeling an abundance of blessings instead.

Tracking Our Spending And Payments Feels Overwhelming

For so many people, the hardest part of paying off debt is keeping track of spending and making payments on time. I'm sure you realise the importance of tracking your spending and payments. However, it can be tough to keep track, right? This is because it seems to go against our desire for ease and simplicity (and minimising stress).

Coping Mechanism: Your best chance to cope with feeling overwhelmed at debt repayment and tracking your spending is by automating everything. Do it once rather than having to do it over and over each time. Start by setting up a plan and putting a system in place at the beginning, and then automate it so that your financial life runs seamlessly.

In order to decrease the amount of tracking needed with your spending, make an initial budget with specific categories. Add up the amount for discretionary spending for all of the discretionary spending accounts (groceries, petrol, entertainment and so on), and memorise this number.

Instead of tracking every purchase throughout the month, just make sure that all of your spending is under this number -- and you can track that by checking into your accounts once per week for heavy-spending weeks, or once every other week if you haven't spent much. Remembering one number is easier to do than remembering each purchase you've made.

The Goal Of Being Debt-Free is Intangible

Have you pored over others' debt payoff stories -- eager to learn their secrets -- only to convince yourself that you could never actually attain the same thing? Part of the reason why debt is persistent is that the goal of becoming financially free is not tangible. That is, you can't see it in front of you; it is an abstract idea even though it has such a real impact on your life.

Coping Mechanism: There are two ways that you can make your goal of debt freedom more tangible. The first is to visualise yourself in your debt-free life. Create the scenario in your head, see what day-to-day living would be like, and really feel your new circumstances. If you can see it, then you can believe it. To really make this tangible, create a poster board with pictures that symbolise your future debt free life. You'll be so inspired by the pictures you see on the poster board that you'll be super motivated to keep up with your planned payments.

The second way to make debt freedom more tangible is by using a tool with targeted debt information. Plug in your debt, the amount you have committed to pay each month, and then look at where you will be one year from now, two years from now, five years from now. This will help you to see that debt freedom is X amount of years away -- an actual, tangible date. For example, "May 2016" sounds a lot more tangible than "someday," doesn't it? And best of all, you can change the date if you find ways to pay more each month!

Sometimes Our Negative Thoughts Paralyse Us

Thoughts are very powerful. This is because the decisions that we make and the opportunities that we pursue are sourced from the thoughts in our head. Negative thoughts can keep us from attaining any goal, paralyzing us in inaction and depression/guilt over that inaction. And we all know that inaction will get us nowhere.

Coping Mechanism: You need to stop the repetitive negative thoughts leaving you in paralysis. If the thoughts are based around doing something (i.e. you are afraid to move forward), then it's probably better to confront the situation and take action than to sit and stew over it. If the negative thoughts have no true purpose, then try to cut them off. When one pops up, ask yourself, "is that really true?" Finally, spend time around positive people, read uplifting blogs, and write down your good thoughts on a list of paper that you keep near you.

That's it! Those are the five biggest mental challenges to paying off debt, in my experience. Hopefully these tips will help you conquer these challenges and achieve your goal of paying off your debt. What do you think? If you have any other mental challenges you've faced, post them in the comments below.

The Top 5 Mental Challenges of Paying Off Debt and How to Cope with Them [Ready For Zero Blog]

Amanda Grossman is a professional freelance writer who specialises in personal finance topics She also runs


    Some good points here... being in debt sucks.

    I find the best thing for me is to schedule extra auto-payments to come out of my bank account the day after I get paid. Set and forget.

    I have had $3000 of maxed out credit cards for about 6 years, today I paid off $1000 and reduced the limit and although it kinda feels nice, I do feel like I just threw a grand in the gutter..

      Yup.. it does feel like that at first.. but believe me, when you get to the end and you've paid it all out, you will be so pleased. Don't feel you need to pay it all off in a short time.. be realistic and pay it off at the same rate you would save.. maybe 15 to 25 percent of your wage.. just be regular about it.. automate the payments so that it is paid the same day you get paid.. and it will be like you don't even see that money going out really..

      I just want to say to check out this site -
      Someone on here or Gizmodo told me about it and it makes it so much better when you can visualize it.
      I have the same loan from when I was 17 (kept topping it up for things), and only ever paid minimum amount.
      This site show what just an extra $200 a month can do when you snow ball it. I am only 3 months in and have already paid a third of my credit card debt. 6 months from now I will have no credit cards and can start on my personal and motor loans.
      All up it takes it from 6 years to pay them all to completion to just 2.5 years..
      Site looks dodgy but works a treat. I just used the Payment schedule and made about 30 automatic payments in my internet banking. I also cut up my credit cards and my savings card that it linked to all my loans and credit, and just transfer myself $10 a day for spending money to another bank (also have my credit card saved in Woolworths online for shopping).

        Yeah its a great calculator (looks ancient as but works).

        Here is the related post you were talking about

        I got out of a few thousand in credit card debt this year. I was in denial for a good 18 months before I actually wanted to tackle it head on. Firstly I avoided any annual bills or payments (car rego/insurance/rates) by splitting that over a years worth of pay cycles. Got to be committed to getting rid of it. I stopped looking at the amount I had owing and set targets and dates of when I would reach milestones. Is a good feeling having a savings account again and that flexibility to live the life you want.

        Another problem altogether is getting into debt. There is so much temptation with such easy access to personal loans, credit card offer that we pay a premium to gadgets and possesions we probably don't need like the latest iPhone.

        Last edited 18/09/13 4:40 pm

          That's the one, nice to see I am on track looking at the date of that post.
          Most my debt is from car crashes, I had one guy smash my car while drink driving and did $19,000 worth of damage then he skipped the country. I had an accident worth $12,000 and fixed it again for a few years then decided to flog it and use public transport. Moved close to work and that was fine for a while, then I realised that I can get a cheap motorbike and pay less then I did for public transport so did that. Best decision ever, it's so cheap to run and I don't have to wait for buses\trains.

      You've paid more than $3000 in interest in that time!

        I am sure that I have paid way more then that in interest and late fees in that time.
        I don't want to think about it.

    I've always gotten joy from paying bills and debt. That's makes me lucky and weird rather than better than anyone else. If I didn't like doing it I probably wouldn't and would be in deep water quick.

    Last edited 18/09/13 5:11 pm

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