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’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.
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.
Take a look:
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.
The right way to make a debt visualization
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 $500 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.
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!
So many people asked me to share this visualization that I decided to add it to our store! I’ve created a blank, customizable version that includes a calculator to automatically assign a dollar amount to each brick. It’s only $5, so go check it out!