If you’re anything like me then you have been mad at yourself at one time or twelve for acquiring so much debt. You have thoughts of regret mixed with a bunch of “if only’s.”

“If only I didn’t have so much debt, then I would be able to afford a nice vacation.”

It could be something like “If only my monthly payments weren’t so high I wouldn’t have to work at this unfulfilling job.”

Or it might be “If only my credit cards weren’t so maxed out I would have been able to give to that charitable organization struggling this month.”

Whatever your reasons are, try not to feel discouraged.

I repeat, do not feel discouraged.

Personal Finance is Hard

Let’s be honest. Almost every aspect of personal finance is difficult. Spending money is fun, but planning what to spend money on, how much to save, how much you need to retire, if you should take a new job or not, and how to keep your head from spinning from all the numbers is all pretty tedious.

As part of human nature, we look at the end results of success and label it as success. Success is not the end result! The end product is the result of a lot of little successes in a person’s life. Just simply continuing—always moving forward, always learning—is success in and of itself.

Most if not all “successful” people had a lot to overcome before landing where they are with a company doing well, a lifestyle they wanted to lead, and a budget that works for them. All of their successes are from not giving up—the writer who woke up every morning to write no matter what; the CEO of a software company who spent a lot of late nights learning and perfecting his craft; the musician who tirelessly played to crowds of single digits so his talent would continue to develop. These are the stories we want to pay attention to and label as success. 

With debt, the same concept applies. If you look at only the end result of where you want to be, you will continue to be discouraged. But a goal is not complete without a path to get there. A destination is not complete without a journey.

Celebrate Small Wins

One of the best ways to stay motivated to pay off your debt is to celebrate each milestone. I’ve written about milestones before as a way to help you stay motivated to reach a goal. Using each milestone as a step is key. It’s like the landing in a staircase—a small break to gather where you are and redirect if necessary.

If you set your overall goal to be getting out of debt completely, your small milestones will be like steps or mini-goals for you to accomplish. Research shows that breaking down goals into smaller, more attainable chunks helps in achieving them.

This is why the debt snowball method is so effective. You start with the lowest bill, pay it off quickly, and it gives you a little shot of dopamine to keep going because you’ve already paid something off.

How to Break Up Your Goals

Just like with creating a budget that works for you, this should align with who you are and what you know about yourself.

To start, list all of your debts with three columns. The first column will be the name of the debt—something like “Chase Credit Card” or “Husband’s Credit Card.” How you want to label it is up to you. In the second column, label the total balance left on the debt. The third column is for your monthly payment.

It’ll look something like this:

Depending on your total balances, I recommend you start by setting each milestone or mini-goal to coincide with when you pay off each piece of debt. If you think you might get discouraged in that time or can’t put much toward your debt. You can make each milestone smaller.

For example, if you are making $150 payments on your lowest debt, you can set a milestone of $500 or $1,000. Once you make $500 or $1,000 worth of payments, you can reward yourself.

You can add a column to record your milestone in your table if you’d like.

How to Reward Yourself

When rewarding yourself, it’s important to limit yourself to smaller things that you really enjoy. You’re not going to want to pay off a $1,000 credit card and then take a $3,000 vacation to reward yourself.

What I like to do is use a portion of my debt snowball to reward myself. For example, if you are putting $200 extra a month toward your debt and you reach your milestone of $1,000, you would use a portion of that to do something for yourself. Perhaps, you would reward yourself with a $100 massage. You may really want to go out to a nice dinner, have an evening out with friends, or treat yourself to a $100 shopping spree.

Something as simple and cheap as treating yourself to a gourmet coffee may also work for you. Align your rewards to who you are and what you truly value to make it the most impactful. The important thing is to reward yourself for reaching these mini-goals. It’s a great way to keep yourself going.

Take a Step Back

If you take a step back and look at the big picture, you are able to examine not only the end result but also exactly where you have come as well. You get the entire journey. By taking a step back myself, I’m able to look at the fact that, yeah, instead of having $43,000 in debt like I did 5 years ago, now I have under $10,000.

That is a HUGE difference and should definitely be labeled as successful.

For every little success that you have when paying off your debt, try having a little internal celebration. Reward yourself with something—your favorite dessert, a new clothing item, something you value.

Remember, success is not the end result but is part of the journey that you are taking. It is in the milestones you reach. It is in keeping going when you don’t feel motivated to keep going.

This means that success is personal to every person. It could be that you have trouble paying your bill on time because of your money situation. When you are able to consistently make payments for three months, that is cause for celebration!

Your success could be each time you pay off a credit card. It could be that instead of putting more money on a credit card you decided to save a little bit this month. It could be that you’ve learned to stay out of debt and can now use your credit card for rewards by paying off the balance every month.

Every small thing deserves a celebration. So don’t be discouraged. Every destination has a journey, and quite frankly, without it doesn’t mean nearly as much.

What are some things that you would consider small successes? Join the conversation in the comments below.

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