Don’t Blink! How To Beat Debt by Staring It Down

For every link off the chain, things get a little better.

The pile of debt I hang out with. (paper chains representing thousands of dollars owed)

Back in January, I was inspired by a post at Get Rich Slowly to start collecting paper chains that represent my debt. I document that strong start here. The chains in the picture above represent my home equity, roof, credit card, and medical loans, plus a small family bridge loan that helped me get my credit score up last fall.

Then I went a little overboard.

This chain represents my mortgage.

Not pictured: The only chain I made that is bigger than this one, representing $230,000+ in my husband’s deferred student loans that I prefer not to think about till we get there. About three years from now.

I found it so satisfying to make these. The process offered me a sense of control and some much-needed patience with the years-long process it’ll take to clear these debs. Now I’m reaping the benefits — not often enough, but still— each time I take a link off one of these chains.

The very smallest loan chains have links that represent $100, but most represent $1,000. These days it takes me about 6 weeks to knock my debt down by $1,000, although we have fallen back this summer because my husband's teaching stipend stops until September, and that’s a full third of our income gone for three months.

I can’t say enough about the positive mental shift it’s caused for me to have these chains present in my workspace at home. You’d expect the opposite to be true — and I confess that I keep the biggest debt chain up high, knowing we won’t tackle it anytime soon, because I don’t want to be overwhelmed. Here are a few steps if you want to try this approach:

  1. Start small. I started with just a few of my most vexing debts at first, then added all of them when I gained confidence.
  2. Choose an increment for each link. I chose $1000 for most of mine, but if that doesn’t encourage you, choose a smaller increment that feels right.
  3. Make it fun. Choose nice paper or interesting old magazines, gather your supplies, and enjoy the process, especially if your chain is long.
  4. Relish the tear-off. It’s a really special feeling to yank a link off your debt chain. You might even make ritual of it. Indulge in a celebratory moment as you acknowledge what it took to knock down your debt by $25, $50, $100, $500, or $1000.
  5. If tracking your debt feels too negative, try chaining your savings instead. Hey, if staring at a pile of debt is too depressing, I understand. How about adding chains to a savings visualization instead?

The point here is to empower yourself. Don’t make it a punishment or create a shame cycle out of this exercise. Let it inspire you!

Need to start a budget? Check out these different approaches.

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I’m a 50-something bohemian with a mountain of debt and regrets. Can I dig out before it’s all over? I brake for poets.

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