I've tried making debt visualizations to help me stay on track. I'm going to share two with you today, including one that is fucked up and embarrassing.

Share My Horror: The World’s Worst Debt Visualization

Some days I wake up ready to crush my debts. I am filled with fire and vinegar. (No, the vinegar does not put out the fire.) I double down on everything I do on that day—I spend less, work harder, and plan more.

Other days, I wake up feeling like Idgaf, Queen of the I Don’t Give a Fuck Tribe of Greater New England. On those days, I find myself wasting time with stuff that distracts me rather than enriches me. I play old video games I’ve already beaten three times before, and mewl at my partner to take me to Five Guys. On those days, it can feel like the sacrifices aren’t getting me anywhere.

What can I learn from this? Besides the fact that I suffer from intermittent depression, because I already knew that.

I have a sprinter’s attention span and marathon financial goals. My current financial goal will take at least nine years to achieve. Maintaining momentum and motivation over such a long period of time is really hard.

I have a sprinter’s attention span and marathon financial goals. My current financial goal will take at least nine years to achieve. Maintaining momentum and motivation over such a long period of time is really hard.

I’ve tried making visualizations to help me stay on track, and I’m going to share two with you today. Including an old one that is weirdly fucked up and embarrassing.

Embarrassing!!!

The wrong way to make a debt visualization

Wayyyyy back when I was a freelancer making $12K a year, I remember making a debt visualization for myself.

It was, um…harsh.

Way harsh.

Take a look:

Debt Visualization Then

EAUGHHHH...

Guys, this was my desktop wallpaper. For almost a year.

I was working twelve hour days running my own small company—not because I wanted to, but because it was the recession and no one was hiring. My partner and I had to split a three-bedroom apartment with five other people in order to make ends meet.

I made this wallpaper for myself so that any time I played a game, or browsed Facebook, or made artwork for my own sense of self-fulfillment, I would see it and feel ashamed.

You can really tell that I bought into the common misconception that hard work equals high earnings. Even though I regularly stayed up working until the wee hours of the morning, I felt like I must be slacking somehow. I’d internalized the cultural idea that success was a matter of willpower and determination. Because I didn’t know that blaming the previous generation was an option, I blamed myself.

This kind of visualization is never helpful. Tying the act of thinking about finances to feelings like shame, exhaustion, or despair is utterly counterproductive. I stopped budgeting soon thereafter. It wasn’t that I went wild with spending. I had nothing to spend. I just grew to hate thinking about my financial situation.

This kind of visualization is never helpful. Tying the act of thinking about finances to feelings like shame, exhaustion, or despair is utterly counterproductive.

The right way to make a debt visualization

Debt Visualization Now

There, now isn't that better?

Ah. Isn’t that nicer?

This is the debt visualization I use today. It’s a brick wall representing my post-down payment mortgage debt of $252,500. Each brick represents one thousand dollars. I color one in for every $1,000 I pay down toward the principal. If you look closely, you’ll see one brick with a dotted black outline. That’s where I would be today if I only made minimum payments.

This is the right way to use a debt visualization. It’s motivating and cheerful instead of self-flagellating. Updating it is fun, because it feels like I’m racing against someone else’s expectations of me—and I’m lapping them.

Whenever you have the option to be self-affirming, go ahead and be self-affirming. I give everyone reading this permission to let go of their shame and guilt over their debts and past financial illiteracy—yes, even you, Jewish and Catholic readers! You can’t magically know what no one has taught you. And I think you’re going to be okay no matter how far away your goal seems today.

Whenever you have the option to be self-affirming, go ahead and be self-affirming. You can’t magically know what no one has taught you. And I think you’re going to be okay, no matter how far away your goal seems today.

I’m curious to know what kind of debt visualizations our readers use, if any. I’ve seen a lot of trees and thermometers, and they’re cool, but I’m curious if anyone has anything more original. Do you find them motivating? How often do you look at them? Tell us about yours in the comments below!

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20 thoughts on “Share My Horror: The World’s Worst Debt Visualization

  1. This one is tooo awesome (and sooo pretty), Kitty! I’m not a visualization person myself, but I had a notion of doing one with the floorplan of my house. That way, I could color in the square footage (as a percentage of the total) as I pay down the mortgage. I can imagine it would be so fun to yell “I OWN THE GUEST BATHROOM” if I had a housemate.

  2. We did a very similar mortgage payoff colorful chart. I drew a blocky picture of our little house in Excel and we filled it in brick by $1k brick. It was glorious, fun and motivating. Although we did it bottom to top and the chimney was the last block – I’m curious why you chose from the top down?

    Now you’ve got me thinking I should do something similar for our current “financial independence” goal – it seems so daunting and far away that its hard to stay focused.

  3. I have soooo many. I love visualizations, but I agree that they should be motivating and not depressing.

    My fave: A jar of chocolate $1 coins, each representing $1,000 of debt. Every time I pay off $1,000, I move a coin to a second jar. It’s easy to see how much I’ve paid off and how much I have left, and at the end I’m going to eat all of the chocolate. Win.

  4. Is it wrong that I also liked your first wallpaper, and was thinking of borrowing it?

    I’ve personally never used a visualization technique but I bet it would have helped while we were paying off our consumer debt or the mortgage on our first home. And the brick idea is super slick.

    I wrote once about having the same sprinter’s approach: it’s a common thing among us, I think. We’re a nation of sprinters.

    http://www.donebyforty.com/2015/09/when-sprinter-hits-wall.html

    I ended up doing the same thing during the one season I foolishly signed up for cross country: I take breaks when no one’s around.

    1. YES IT IS BAD! Don’t use it! It makes you feel focused and xXx~hardcore~xXx for about two days. After that you will feel ambivalent, and after that you’ll feel like crap.

      I love this article, by the way. NOT TO GET ALL NERDY. BUT. The next-level sorting on Sorting Hat Chats has a really interesting perspective on secondary houses. Gryffindor secondaries (that’s me) “charge.” Hufflepuff secondaries (that’s Mr. Kitty) “toil.” I tend to throw myself into short projects with a lot of energy and intensity, but he has the cross-country mindset. I don’t know what I would do without him. Eat off of a lot of paper plates, most likely.

  5. Colored pencil gal, over here! For my debt du jour, I outline a funky design or letter of the alphabet, mark my payoff increments and then giddily color each in as we hit them. It hangs on a bulletin board above my desk and it makes me VERY HAPPY. We’ve got $20k to go on my husband’s original $80k student loan balance … the visual undoubtedly keeps me motivated!

  6. Hahahaha that horribly demoralizing debt reminder wallpaper is definitely a route I could see myself taking had I been in your shoes. As it is, my debt visualization is looking at the number in the “credit cards” section of Personal Capital and going “GIRL, PAY THAT SHIT OFF.” I’m a sucker for colors so goes without saying that I love the second one! I hope that gif accompanies it on your computer because yes.

    Also Five Guys is the shit. An ex and I used to go like two or three times a month. I weigh a bit less now that I’m not doing that, but no regrets. So fucking tasty.

    1. Last time I was there, I ordered a cheeseburger, and the cashier was like “you mean a Little Cheeseburger, right” and I was like “SIR, SIRRRRRR, DO NOT PROJECT SIR, YOU PRESUME MUCH SIR…”

  7. I have a visualization in my head of a large hole in the ground, representing my debt, and a large pile of dirt, representing my assets. (Because I’ve chosen to focus more on investing than repaying low-interest debt, I actually have a positive net worth despite the six-figure student loan debt.) Every time I earn money, I picture it either going into the hole to get rid of debt or growing the large dirt pile. Not the most romantic way of visualizing money, but it works for some reason!

    Also, I want everything in life to be a smiling corgi standing in a field of colourful flowers.

    1. That visual strikes fear into me. But like, helpful fear! I can’t really think about digging without thinking about that buried alive scene from Kill Bill.

      This corgi has half a dozen such gifs in different flower fields. Don’t worry, I have them ALL saved and will strategically deploy throughout 2017-18!

  8. Hmm, I’ve never been much of a visualizer, but I do like to color. I wonder if I could make something like this to mark the milestones as I start my own business.

  9. Uh…not to pick nits but, based on the separation between the milestone bricks it looks like they’re each worth $500?

    I don’t really use visualizations. Just looking at the balance amount in the accounts is enough for me.

    I started graphing our total liquid assets by month a little while back, but most months I almost forget to update it because I never look at it. Just wired different I guess.

    I like the concept regardless, and agree that whatever metrics you give yourself, it’s much better to focus on the positive stuff for your own psychological health.

    Great post.

  10. I’m so lame, Kitty. I never heard of debt visualizations before. I liked your first one, but I liked your second one better. And I liked your explanation for why Two was better than One. You helped a curmudgeonly old dude learn something today. Thanks.

  11. I had a very motivating method for tracking my mortgage freedom. Do you know how people measure their kids height on the wall? I started at the bottom of the wall with the number- eg. $179,000. Then after a month I scratched it out and put $178,901. As it got higher, I got richer instead of taller. And yes, the number reached zero a few years ago. FREEDOM!

  12. Loving the bricks!!! My mortgage is like, twice that so I’d need to figure out my ratio/sizes … gonna be a big chart but I need the increments to be small enough that I get to colour stuff in relatively frequently 😀

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