Can Giving Yourself a Break From Financial Worries Help in the Long Term?

Michelle Jackson

For the past seven years, I’ve slowly paid off thousands of dollars of debt, some accrued due to ignorance, some because of bad habits, and the rest due to circumstances outside of my control. The numbers were scary. So scary I wasn’t sure how’d I’d stay focused when it would take years to be debt-free.

To be honest, debt repayment felt like a punishment to me. It’s difficult to get excited about cutting your spending, denying yourself small treats like eating out, and saying goodbye to those epic international trips. And it is hard to do. The logistics of paying off debt can feel like an endless jigsaw puzzle—as soon as one bill is paid off, another one pops up. Long-term financial goals felt like training for the Olympics—constant, everyday work and sacrifices for a shot at something years down the road.

So, I buried my head in the sand for years. Until I finally hit a breaking point: Creditors were calling all the time, my bills were mounting, and I knew I couldn’t put it off anymore.

But I also know myself, and I knew that years of total self-sacrifice wasn’t going to lead to lasting happiness. So, I devised another plan: I’d focus wholeheartedly on paying off my debt, but I’d also give myself regular breaks to step away from it all and enjoy life. It may have taken a bit longer to reach my goal, but I reached it calm and refreshed.

Over the last seven years, here’s what I’ve learned about paying off your debt without sucking all the joy out of life in the process.

Understand the pace of your debt repayment will change

When you first make a plan and actually start tackling your debt, it is exciting. All you want to do is make meals at home, coupon, and check your accounts online. But after a while, the newness wears off and sitting at home, Instagraming your latest home cooked meal, isn’t fun anymore.

For me, it was happy hours with friends and traveling that I started to miss the most. While I’d been gung-ho in the beginning, my sacrifices were driving me crazy and I had to find a better balance between “give up every splurge” and “give up no splurge.”

To do it, I really thought about what I enjoyed, what I could do without, and what I could compromise on. There was no way I was going to eat bad food for years, but I was OK with thrift store clothes, and I could compromise on traveling less.

To find the happy medium, I had to slow down my debt repayment pace, adding a few months to my overall goal, but it felt worth it.

You don’t have to give up everything, but you do have to change

To be able to enjoy the things that mattered most to me and stay true to my debt repayment plan, I really had to evaluate my life—and my spending habits—and let me tell you, it wasn’t always easy.

I’m a shopper. In the past, if I was outside my house, I would spend money. To really get at the root of my shopping habit, I partook in a yearlong “no shopping” challenge. During that time, I was able to really zero in on why I spent money when I did. There would be moments when I was bored, lonely, or just wanted to buy something–so I did. Once I knew what the trigger was, I could change my habits for life—not only helping me pay off my debt faster (which it did) but helping me not accumulate more in the future. Now, I am very deliberate about my spending. And, with the exception of buying a lot of coffee at coffee shops, I’ve kicked my impulse shopping habit to the curb.

A yearlong shopping ban isn’t necessary—or the right fit—for everyone, but paying off debt is a lot like crash dieting. Go to an extreme, and it might work for a while, but without building lasting change, you’ll just snap right back to your starting point. If you address your financial bad habits in the beginning, you can still enjoy the occasional splurge and meet your goals.

Side hustles work, but maybe not for everyone

At this point in my life I love to joke about all of the side hustles that I’ve worked.

I worked at Starbucks and actually really enjoyed slinging the bean. Even though I made around $9 an hour including tips, that money made a difference in my life. I worked as a brand ambassador for food brands that paid well, provided a fun environment, and occasionally gave me free food to take home (plus an hourly rate). Currently I am exploring entrepreneurship and make money from a mix of hosting my own events, sponsorships, blog income, freelance writing, and product sales. I focus on different areas of business depending on the time of year. During the summer when there’s more opportunities available, I work my side hustle more. During the fall, I add more freelance writing clients, and throughout the year I focus on my product sales.

Is that a ton of work? Yes. But at the beginning of my debt payoff journey I had so many creditors that it was overwhelming. Having some extra cash to put toward both my debt and my life made things easier.

I’m fortunate in a way because I can schedule my time how I want. Working parents and those with busy, demanding jobs may not be able to do the same, and that’s OK. You don’t have to side hustle to get your finances in order.

With a little ingenuity, you can still live the same life

If you were to ask me what my life looks like during debt repayment, I could honestly say that it’s basically the same as before. But, with fewer creditors.

My secret? Finding cheap and free things to do for fun. And when that fails, find a way to do what I love at a discount. For example, I love yoga, but classes are expensive, so I look for major discounts. I check out EventBrite and sign up when they have one-time events. Usually the events are a part of a partnership between different organizations, typically sponsored and at a crazy low cost. I once went to puppy yoga (an event to support animal adoption at a local winery) and I paid $5 and got free swag from the event sponsors.

Slow and steady… 

In a multiyear financial journey, taking an extra six months to pay off debt because you focused on self-care is not a big deal in the long run. I’m now a few months away from paying off my unsecured debts. I’ve gone from dealing with dozens (yes, dozens) of creditors to only a handful. Taking breaks, going on a few frugal trips, the occasional night out, and buying an outfit or two made debt-repayment a lifestyle, not a punishment.