Crush Debt Fast (While Staying Motivated) It is possible to get out of debt fast, but it's a gritty marathon to get to a better place. Here's how to keep up the momentum.
NPR logo

Crush Debt Fast (While Staying Motivated)

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/694669932/714011875" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Crush Debt Fast (While Staying Motivated)

Crush Debt Fast (While Staying Motivated)

Crush Debt Fast (While Staying Motivated)

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/694669932/714011875" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
sorbetto/Getty Images
You can get out of debt fast.
sorbetto/Getty Images

Updated on Aug. 7 at 3:10 p.m. ET

Want to dig out of debt as fast as possible? Welcome to the X Games of escaping debt, in which you shut down almost all spending, take on a side job and endure the most extreme measures you can bear on a gritty marathon to a better place. It's hard, but fun and rewarding too.

Here are six ways to stay motivated:

1. Set a goal, and make it specific.

The couple we spoke with for this episode, Tony and Meredith Gardner, set a goal to be debt free by age 30. That was the right strategy, says Ayelet Fishbach, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.

"What psychologists discovered is that when you set the goal of saving X amount of money, you're more likely to do it than when you say, 'I will just save as much as possible.' "

2. Make a plan to resist temptations.

Anticipating temptations — because there will be temptations — is the best way to meet them head-on, Fishbach says.

"What we find in our research is that one of the best ways to have self-control, to be able to motivate yourself, is by sitting down and thinking about the upcoming temptation — by anticipating in advance what's going to stop me," she says.

Many people, like the Gardners, find that a cash-only system helped. They put a designated amount of cash in envelopes marked with budget categories. When the envelope is empty, there is no way to overspend. This method also helped the Gardners understand their spending on a more visceral level, Tony Gardner says.

"Before, if there was a card, there's no ouch," he says. "You know, we started to use cash because it was painful to separate with the money. It was — you know, it added feeling to it."

3. Find ways to make the challenge fun.

People overestimate how much pain they can suffer through, so it can't be all pain and sacrifice, or quitting will look like a better option.

"If you are going to stick to something for, you know, more than a little while, you have to find joy," Fishbach says.

4. You'll need social support, so enlist your family and community.

This one is hard: To get support from others, you'll have to admit that you're in a bad spot. Tell them — you'll need their support.

"You need to get your community, your family, your spouse to support your goals," Fishbach says. "You need to have the conversation with them."

5. Divide the bigger challenge into smaller goals to keep up momentum.

The start of your debt pay-down project may feel exciting — and the end definitely will. It's the middle that will seem like a long, difficult grind. Set up mini-goals to achieve wins along the way to keep you going.

6. Reward yourself — but not with a big expense that throws you off track.

Small splurges and rewards can be critical for pushing through the long slog. For the Gardners, it was a very small reward — $20 a month. It was enough for them to keep going and not disengage from their long-term goal.

The Gardners didn't make it to debt free by 30 — they had a couple of roadblocks, plus a baby in between — but they worked together, enjoyed small wins along the way and made it there by 31.