10 Mental Barriers to Paying Off Debt: Not Making Debt Payoff the Top Priority

rfz_mental_barriersAt the start of The Debt Movement, we introduced the topic of mental barriers that prevent us from paying off debt. Why? Because even the best-laid plans can fail and, when that happens, we’re left to wonder what to do about it. The fact is, good intentions and solid planning are important but they won’t move us forward without self-awareness. So for the rest of The Debt Movement, we’re going to talk about each mental barrier that prevents us from paying off debt so they can be conquered once and for all. Remember, there’s a lot more to securing a solid financial future than simply crunching numbers in an Excel spreadsheet!

Mental Barrier Number Two: Not Making Debt Payoff the Top Priority

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Sure, I want to get out of debt, but there are more important things to worry about right now”? If the answer is yes, then this is a mental barrier that is preventing you from paying off debt. Let’s explore a few reasons why many of us don’t make debt payoff our first priority:

  • The belief that debt isn’t really a problem
  • The belief that debt is just a fact of life
  • The feeling that other things are more important
  • The feeling that you can’t have a life while paying off debt
  • Denial

Do any of these sound familiar? You may have even encountered one or more of these thoughts before – I know I have! So let’s talk about what you can do about it.

The Belief that Debt Isn’t Really a Problem

If you don’t think debt is a problem then it will certainly be difficult to move debt payoff to the top of your priority list. For a detailed explanation of what to do about this, see our post on thinking debt is not a problem. For a brief rundown, consider this. How much money are you putting towards debt payments each month? How much money do you earn each month? Divide those numbers and multiply by 100 – this is the percentage of debt that you have in relation to your monthly pay. How do you feel about that number?

Now look at how much you’re paying in interest each month. Remember that interest payments aren’t applied to your principal balance. Money paid to interest doesn’t go anywhere but to your lenders – it won’t shorten the life of your loan. You’re paying that as a convenience fee to the lender for letting you borrow money. In fact, the higher the interest rate, the longer it may take you to pay off your debt. Take a look at our credit card calculator to see the long term impact interest can have.

When you see how much you’ll pay on top of your debt because of interest, how do you feel? What else could you be doing with that money? Saving for retirement? Taking a trip? The list goes on and on. At the end of the day, that’s money that could be sitting in your pocket instead of going to your lenders. Do you still think debt is not a problem?

The Belief that Debt Is Just a Fact of Life

For years, it has seemed that debt is just a way of life. There are so many things that are often out of our reach without debt: education, a home, a car, etc. If you need a car to get to work and you don’t have the money to pay for it in cash, then what other choice do you have but to take out a car loan? I myself had to take a car loan to get to work and student loans to go to college. Without the car and student loans, I wouldn’t have earned money or an education.

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Yes, debt is sometimes unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean it should be a fact of life. Just because you took out debt in the past doesn’t mean you can’t eliminate it now. And once you do, the payments you no longer have to pay can go into your savings account, thus preparing you for future needs – and for the ability to purchase those needs in cash in the future. Debt doesn’t have to be an endless cycle. Forget about the past and about what the rest of your peers seem to be doing. Focus on making sure debt is no longer a fact of your life so you can have the freedom to make the choices you want to make with your money.

The Feeling that Other Things Are More Important

If you’re very busy, then your desire to pay off debt may not override your ability to prioritize it. So many of us deal with longer work hours, more obligations, stress over finances, and more, that it can be hard to focus in on any one goal. And oftentimes the goal to get out of debt may actually seem to stand in the way of your goals – such as the goal to purchase a new home. However, the thing to remember is that carrying debt may be too detrimental to your finances and too stressful to not make it a higher priority.

Think about it this way. How much stress does debt give you? Do you lose sleep at night? Have less concentration at work? Snap at your loved ones more? What about those goals you have besides debt. Do they involve things like buying a home, spending more time with your family, improving your career, or just feeling more at peace?

Imagine now that you are debt-free. You would be more capable of a large financial purchase. You may be able to work less and have more time for your loved ones. You could make career decisions based on what fulfills you rather than what will pay more – and your mind will be freer to focus on sharpening your skills every day. You will have peace of mind knowing that there are no creditors knocking at your door. Do you see how making debt payoff your first priority can actually be the gateway to achieving all of the other things that are important in your life?

The Feeling that You Can’t Have a Life While Paying Off Debt

So what if you do want to make debt payoff your first priority, but you’re afraid you’ll have to stop having a life until you pay it off? Believe it or not, you can do the things you want and become debt-free – you just can’t do everything you want. It’s all about priorities and perspective. Stop saying the word budget and start thinking spending plan. Setting a plan of what you earn and where that should go isn’t meant to hold you back, but rather to empower you. How often do you look at your bank account at the end of the month and think, “where did that money go?” or “what could I possibly have spent that much on”? Between coffees, lunches out, dinners ordered in, and other incidental expenses, it’s easy to spend hundreds of dollars without even realizing it. Am I saying you can’t have these things? Absolutely not! But pick what’s important to you and make room for that, while saving on the rest.

You can do this by assigning a job for your money. Some of it may be for savings, some for debt payoff, some for needs like groceries and shelter. But then look at your incidentals. Do you think the money spent each month on each of these is worth it? For example, I developed a habit of eating out to lunch that cost me hundreds of dollars a month (I live in an expensive city). But I thought it was worth it because I needed that break. I’ve now discovered that I can pack a lunch that’s just as good, save a ton of money (which is now assigned to my student loan debt) and get home a little earlier at night since I work through lunch. For me, it ended up being a win all around! So look at your money, where it’s going, and where you really want it to go, and make that spending plan. You just might find that you’re happier doing it this way than you were before – and you’ll be able to pay your debt off faster.


Finally, the kicker: denial. If you don’t know how much debt you have or how much money you have saved, then it’s easy to go through life not thinking about your debt – until the day comes when you no longer have a choice. Why would that day come? Because debt grows. Interest rates can take debt to double what it started at after just a few years. Or because life happens. Suddenly you might have a real need for extra money or even for room to borrow on credit, but your current debt situation prevents that. Then you’ll be wondering how you could have been in denial for so long and left to feel hopeless. Don’t let it get to this point!

So what you can do? Take concrete steps to eliminate denial. Look at your bank statements. Look at your credit card and loan statements. How much do you have and how much do you owe? Go on sites like ours to see  how long it might take you to pay it back. Then, make a plan! Start that spending plan, explore debt payoff strategies that work best for you (such as the debt avalanche or the debt snowball), and write it all down. Find a buddy who can help hold you accountable. Take these concrete steps each and every month and your denial will turn to happiness as you find yourself taking control of debt and finding your way to financial freedom!

Stay tuned next week as we move on to mental barrier number three. And don’t forget to join The Debt Movement and help us reach the movement’s goal of paying off $10 million of debt in the next 90 days!

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  • John S @ Frugal Rules

    I could not agree more! For me personally, it was not until I realized that my debt was an issue and that it was holding me back that I was finally able to attack it seriously.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      I had the same problem John! I knew it was there but just “accepted” it as a fact of life, until one day it hit me and it was all I could think about. Now I’ve struck a balance between sticking to a solid plan to get rid of it without obsessing over it.

  • I would have to agree on all of these points, I was living paycheck to paycheck and I decided that I didn’t like living like that anymore worrying about next months bills. So I changed my habits such as paying myself first, cutting wasteful spending, and increasing income.

    I’m not saying things are perfect yet but they are far better than what I was dealing with four years ago.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      These are all really great new habits Chris! I personally love the idea of paying yourself first – if I don’t do that I’ll never put money into a savings account.

  • This one hits home. I was like this and just did my normal day to day things until my wife slapped me around a little bit (ok she didn’t actually hit me, but just had to stare at me). I was complaining about having to pay the cc company and she said, why don’t just pay them off. Then I realized that I was much deeper and needed to get serious.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      I’m sure that wasn’t an easy moment for the two of you, but good for you for communicating together on a tough issue and taking care of it!

  • Ted Jenkin

    I like the post— how about not facing your addtiction to instant gratification. Most people want things today so bad that they don’t see how bad the debt will make them feel later.

    • Shannon_ReadyForZero

      Very good point, Ted! That’s definitely a big issue and one I have to battle frequently in my own life. Thanks for sharing!

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