The elephant in the liability column: How to stay motivated to pay down debt

I was thinking about Step 3.5 in our nest egg retirement guidelines recently. Yes, knowing how to pay down debt is great. Getting motivated to do so is an entirely different matter, however.

Personally, my favorite phrase when it came to getting my family’s financial house in order had to do with eating an elephant. Not exactly the most appetizing mental image, and definitely not literally, but I had to come up with something to keep me motivated over the long-term.

No one can force you to change your life except for you.

[See also: Five things you can do with $100 right now to change your financial future]

As with most things, the main deciding factor when it comes to paying off massive levels of debt is staring at you in the mirror. Most people in the beginning of the year take on some sort of lifestyle-changing goal, only to have fallen back on their old habits come February.

That is generally true whether your goal is to lose weight, quit smoking, or become debt-free.

But this isn’t news to you.

Or anyone, really.

My favorite motivating phrase

When my wife and I got married, we were several thousands of dollars of debt. Her credit score was phenomenal, but mine was in the low 600s (and here I am with an MBA and a personal finance blog only a couple of years later! I’ll just go right ahead and pat myself on the back right now actually).

It wasn’t a tenable situation. Especially considering we wanted to own a house sooner rather than later. We also wanted to have a baby sooner rather than later.

Some people may have said we were biting off more than we could chew.

We both disagreed, however, and this brings me to my all-time favorite phrase. For me, it was the perfect thing to recite whenever I felt like I was getting overwhelmed. If I was tempted to just give up and splurge on superfluous items like new clothes or expensive dinners.

At times, it felt like an impossible task.

But so is eating an elephant —

Unless you eat it one bite at a time.

Linda Culbreth’s book of a similar title provides a lot of great motivational tips. It’s free on iTunes and I won’t get any money if you click the link. Just passing along a friendly bit of info!

How do you stay motivated?

For me, picturing a giant elephant going down in very tiny bites helped me break down this massive endeavor into more manageable daily tasks.

That doesn’t mean this will work for you, however.

It took my wife and I a very long time to finally get motivated enough to actually make a change. It took even longer still for us to learn about the best way to attack our finances. Once we had the basics down, we had to dig deep in order to keep the motivation going once we hit zero in the debt column and started moving further into positive territory.

You can do it, but you need to figure out what works for you. Is it staring down cold, hard numbers that can help you get motivated to pay down debt? Do you need a daily mantra? Some people need to download an app that literally forces them to save. That’s fine too.

Whatever works for you is what works for you. Take my example, and get weird with it if you need to.

Just don’t ACTUALLY eat any elephants, my friends.


Check out the ongoing, full retirement ladder here:

Step 0: Create a budget that helps you get wealthy

Step 1: Why building an emergency fund is so important for your nest egg

Step 1.5: What type of account is best for your emergency fund?

Step 2: Contribute to your 401(k) up to the company match

Step 2.5: How should I pick the best 401(k) investments for me?

Step 3: Pay off all high-interest debt as aggressively as possible


  1. For big goals, I tell my friends and family that “I am going to do X”. Then, if I don’t do it, I think that they’ll think that I don’t stand behind what I say. It’s not my only motivation tool, but one that I use for big things.

    September 21, 2017
    • NestEggNinja said:

      Very interesting. Verbalizing goals can be extremely powerful means of formulating intention and really generating motivation. That said, you may be putting yourself at risk of generating some jealousy … for example, if you tell your friends that you are going to buy a Corvette, maybe they might resent that your goals are more costly than theirs? Obviously, your situation is specific to you, but maybe it’s something to think about?

      September 22, 2017

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