This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more information.
It’s a new year! And you’re probably reading this because you want to make a change with how you handle your money in 2020. You want to pay off your student loans, start investing, and maybe save up for a big girl vacation, like, to Europe or something.
You want to make big changes but very rarely do big things happen to move the needle. It’s the little things that sustain you when you’re trying to make big changes.
Like, pay off more money in debt than you make in a year.
My husband, Travis, and I paid off nearly $78,000 of student loan and consumer debt in 23 months. When we started, we were making less than $50,000 between the two of us. I have no clue what made us think we could do this.
The story seems like a big deal now but it didn’t feel that way when we were in it. I remember being halfway through, tired, and hopeless because there was no light at the end of my tunnel.
It’s no wonder more people don’t pay off their student loans. According to the US Dept. of Education’s Direct Loan Portfolio by Repayment Plan, almost 3 million borrowers are in programs that offer a loan forgiveness option.
But… people’s reliance on the loan forgiveness concept is slipping. In the same report, you can see that the number enrolled in Income-Based Repayment has fallen every quarter since the end of 2016. People are realizing that the government is not going to take care of their student loan crisis.
So where do we go from here? You can’t go from drowning in debt to financially independent overnight. It’s a hard road. There’s a glamorous story to tell at the end but the process is anything but.
I’ll tell you honestly, it’s the everyday things that get you through this process.
There’s no magic bullet, there’s no personality, job, or location that makes someone better suited to pay off debt. It’s the small habits you build and perform day-in and day-out that make it possible. And there are dozens of them. But you can get started with just a few.
These are the 17 easiest and most import habits I’ve found that you can start to incorporate into your life to pay off debt and create the financial future you want. I hope you don’t think they’re trivial. Taking a small step forward is vastly more impactful than doing nothing and some days it’s all we’re capable of.
Even if you’re not getting there as fast as you think you should you’re still moving forward and it’s a better place than you were yesterday.
- Drink a Glass of Water Upon Waking
After 8 hours (hopefully) of sleep, your body is massively dehydrated. Drinking 16 oz. of water before you do anything will potentially aid digestion and other bodily functions.
But why in the world is this a good “financial” habit?
Your body can mistake thirst for hunger when you’re dehydrated. Being well hydrated in the morning can help you avoid that starving feeling that starts when you’re on your way to work and conveniently driving past a coffee shop or bakery.
There are tons of mornings that I have my perfectly portioned breakfast ready to go but my hunger is so big it doesn’t seem like enough. But on mornings I’m not hungry I don’t even think about stopping for coffee and pastry, which costs me $6 a trip.
- Eat Protein in the Morning
For most people, our days are back-loaded with protein. We eat granola and the light turkey sandwich for lunch and a big ol’ steak for dinner. It should really be the other way around.
Protein stabilizes blood sugar levels, which strengthens your concentration and reduces brain fog. It also boosts energy levels and keeps you fuller longer. All this is essential for the avid side hustler.
When I have protein throughout the day I’m more productive at work and I could go home with enough energy to work my side hustle and not crash after. If I forgot about my diet I would feel tired, worn out, and eventually get sick.
- Do Your Least Favorite Task First
This one could also be “do your most inconvenient task first.” I’ll never say I’m perfect at these. I am still know for putting off important tasks for weeks when they could be over in 5 minutes.
Things always come up during the day and they always seem more important (translation: easier) at the time. Calls to creditors, applying for jobs, and completing freelance work are some of the tasks I’ve had to complete first to make sure they get done before the last minute.
- Respond Open Endedly to Invitations
We get invited to new things everyday. Whether it’s via Facebook events or in-person requests we want to do everything but we can’t afford everything. We’re those people who respond “interested” to events and say “I’ll check my calendar” to most invites.
If it’s free we won’t hesitate to say yes but anything that’s going to cost money has to thought about before agreed to. Eventually, we got good enough to immediately suggest free alternatives to coffee dates and expensive restaurants but some invites don’t have alternatives.
We’ve had to turn down wedding invites, out-of-state birthday trips, and dinners out. They were nothing to cry about but had to be thought through instead of impulsively agreed to.
- Track Spending Manually
Apps like Mint are nice because they track you spending automatically. But when you’re on a budget you shouldn’t be looking back at the end of the month to see where all your money went, you should be actively managing it.
Manually tracking your spending every night helps you see where you are on your budget and helps you know whether you can say yes or no to those friendly invitations. I like EveryDollar, it’s a beautifully designed app and it’s free.
- Admit & Respond to Your Mistakes
When you’re avoiding sweets and you find yourself eating a cookie do you give up and say “Oh well, I’ll try again next month” and proceed to finish the box of cookies? We are so prone to give up if we make a mistake; that is a seriously limiting mindset.
When you buy something you regret, miss a day of your side hustle, or fall short of your debt payment it’s not an excuse to quit. It’s also not a time to start justifying the reasons behind all your mistakes. Call it what it is, decide how you’re going to respond better next time, and move on.
This is a daily practice because I don’t know anyone, myself included, who can make it through a perfect day while paying off debt.
- Celebrate Small Wins
As frequently as we call out mistakes we need to be calling out wins. Every day has something that’s worth celebrating. I prepped all my produce for the week last night, I celebrated that, I was two days late in prepping it but I got it done.
When I say celebrate I don’t mean go out or throw a party. Simply saying out loud what you accomplished or writing it down will suffice. Just identifying the good and progress everyday is what you’re going for.
- Make Manual Payments
In addition to automatic payments for debt payments and savings goals it’s good to make manual payments too. This allows you to actively participate in reaching your goal.
Sure you could do all your payments automatically (and you should on some) but adding additional payments manually helped us regain motivation, make bigger payments, and pay off the debt faster.
- Meal Plan & Prep
Setting aside an hour each week to meal plan and make a grocery list is essential to paying off debt. Honestly it’s essential for anyone who doesn’t want to blow all their money on food.
Meal planning isn’t hard and there are options for premade meal plans if you absolutely hate it, but don’t use the excuse of “not having enough time” to skip this. It’s that important.
One thing I was missing for a while was actually cooking the meals I’d planned for with the ingredients I’d bought. I was too busy (or lazy) throughout the week to go through the monotony of cooking, until I started prepping.
Now after I get home from the grocery store I meal prep produce according to all my recipes and even pre-season vegetables so during the week all I have to do is dump and cook. It’s helped me reduce food waste, which has saved even more money.
- Always Check For Savings Before You Buy
Dont get in the checkout line or hit “Buy Now” before you search for a coupon, cash back, or cheaper option. Here are my favorite places to check for deals.
- Use Blink to save on prescriptions.
- EyeBuyDirect to save on prescription eyewear.
- Energy saving methods like low-flow showerheads to reduce our utility bill.
- Sites like Restaurant.com for dining deals.
- Groupon and LivingSocial for deals on activities.
- ThredUp for nice secondhand clothing at steep discounts from retail.
- I take advantage of free trials at gyms.
- Shopping through Ebates when making any purchases online will get you cash-back from virtually any retailer.
- Apps like ibotta and Checkout51 to save at grocery stores and other big box retailers.
- Use healthcare sharing to save big time on health insurance.
- Help Someone
When I was a year into our debt payoff I was feeling really hopeless. The first year was so hard and we were only at the halfway point. It was like finishing a half marathon and feeling accomplished only to remember you’re running a full marathon.
What helped me regain my motivation was helping people with the knowledge and skills I now possessed. I started a blog but you don’t have to, in fact I think you can help more people without one.
Facebook groups are a place people ask questions all the time and there’s a thriving #debtfreecommunity on Instagram where people are honest in their accomplishments as well as their shortcomings. These are great places to start and it’s energizing to find others with as much zeal for being debt-free as you.
- Write a Thank You Note
Sometimes living on a limited budget can feel isolating. Everyone is travelling, going out, and growing closer while you sit at home. That’s why it’s important to be intentional about cultivating the relationships you do have.
Saying thanks for little things and big things in a handwritten note or on Facebook is how you forge deeper relationships in less time. When you know someone is grateful for you don’t you go out of your way more to accommodate them?
Obviously your gratitude should be sincere and not to get something in return but don’t feel like your missing out on relationships if you don’t participate in everything.
- Put it On Ice
Sounds funny right? I discovered Icebox, a free Google Chrome extension, last year and found it to be an awesome idea. The idea is to minimize impulse spending by replacing the “Buy Now” button on over 500 online stores with a “Put It on Ice” button.
This button saves the product in your “Icebox” for a period of your choosing, then it becomes available to buy. The hope is that after a cool down period you’ll rethink the purchase and save your money for something better. Watch the video to see it in action:
Impulse shopping is a monthly obstacle for most millennials, and it actually affects more males than females. I’m all about working smarter, not harder, and anything that forces me to think more about my spending is a welcomed inconvenience.
- Automate Everything
Its 2018 and you might think you’re automating everything but this. But somehow we can’t find the 3 minutes it takes to set up auto-pay on something and we miss deadlines. It might sound silly but it’s worth the reminder.
We recently got a new debit card for Travis, we forgot to change the card number on our cell phone bill and got hit with a late fee. Our utilities don’t allow us to automate online and I had to go during working hours to set up auto-pay. Everyone should be regularly auditing their bills to make sure cards aren’t expired, numbers are up to date, and that you’re not incurring random fees.
- Unfollow People on Facebook
I did this regularly while paying off debt because I had a big ol’ case of FOMO. Friends were doing things and getting stuff that I wanted and I couldn’t participate. Well, I could but my bigger goals won out.
I never unfriended people, they weren’t doing anything malicious; I just wanted to live in ignorant bliss. And it helped a lot. Instead of following friends who were living their best lives now, I started following Instagram accounts of people paying off debt and it made social media an inspiring waste of time vs. a depressing one.
- Look For More Money
Every opportunity we get Travis and I look for ways to make money. Whether it’s an online survey, mystery shop, or freelance gig we spend our free time productively.
Most of these side hustles are a refreshing change of pace from our 9-to-5’s so they don’t drain energy like a minimum wage hourly job would. But hey, if you like your hourly side job stick with it! But it should pay at least $10 p/h. 😉
- Shop Used First
One of the most deeply ingrained habits in American culture is that if you need something you go to Target or Walmart and buy it. Or if you can wait two days for it you order it on Amazon. But even though you think you’re getting a bargain, you’re probably still paying way more than you could if you got it used.
Instead of taking the easy way out check Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, pawn shops, consignment, and thrift stores for your needs before buying new. It only takes a few extra steps and you will save thousands of dollars by making this a habit in your life.
We didn’t adopt all these habits overnight. It snowballed with one here, one there, until we were practicing all of them. Start with two or three and work on incorporating more healthy financial habits for the rest of your life. Paying off debt is only the start of your prosperous financial journey.
Jen Smith is a personal finance expert, founder of Modern Frugality and co-host of the Frugal Friends Podcast. Her work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Lifehacker, Money Magazine, U.S. News and World Report, Business Insider, and more. She’s passionate about helping people gain control of their spending.