One of the basic precepts that Dave Ramsey pushes is “gazelle intensity” to get the debt paid off.  This is a great idea to get people motivated to start, and may even keep some people going for a small amount of time.  We have at this point been working on paying off debts (first the credit cards, then one of the spouse’s student loans, then the car) for about two years now.  And we still have another 11 years to go.  Motivation alone is not going to get us there.

Motivation in people tends to fade after the first initial push.  If there is nothing left to carry through for the rest of the process, you’ll find yourself having to start over and over.  If you only have a “small” amount of debt, and can get rid of it in two to five years, maybe motivation alone is enough.  It’s hard to maintain it for the entire marathon of a mortgage or the type of loan debt we’re carrying.

The answer, then, is developing habits rather than relying on motivation.  The spouse and I were talking about this in the context of exercise/losing weight, which has always been harder for me than finances.  I do best when I have a routine that I don’t have to think about and don’t have to make a decision about on a regular basis.  For example, I stop by the gym every day (or almost every day) on the way home from work.  It’s simply part of my commute, and I don’t even have to think about it.  Looking at it that way has allowed me to get exercising back into my routine for three weeks now.  The longest stint was six months without ever making a decision about whether I was going to go or not.

The same principle applies when trying to save money or pay down debt.  The more you have to think about it, the more likely you are to fail since you have to make so many decisions.  The way to deal with it is to put systems in place so that you don’t have to decide or think about how in debt you are or what you need to save.  For example, we deal with the issue by setting aside money first for rent, then for loans, so that we’re only living off what’s left.  It makes decision-making much easier, since we don’t have to think about how much to apply to debt unless we have extra.

The downside is that in months where something odd comes up (hi medical system) we do have to decide how to make it work, but most months we don’t have to think about.  That way, we don’t necessarily need to maintain the gazelle intensity and the associated stress for 11 years.  Hopefully that will allow debt repayment to become just background noise that we just follow through on until the debt is done.