Get Out of Debt with Solution-Focused Finances

Mon, Feb 13, 2012

behavioral finance, debt, spending

Before I left my job as a psychotherapist, solution-focused therapy was my favorite way to help clients discover their strengths and work toward what they usually described as “being happier.” The same basic steps used in solution-focused therapy can also be applied to our finances.

You may be asking yourself, Why would I want to do that? I’ll tell you why. When you’re in debt, it’s easy to become frustrated with your situation. Budgeting and cutting back on spending is no fun. Watching other people go out to the movies or buy new cars is depressing. Even the most determined among us can lose motivation and wonder why we’re working so hard for so little gain.

Even if you don’t normally get depressed, it’s easy to feel down in the dumps while working your way out of debt. Lots of people find themselves battling the blahs, especially if they have debts that will take many years to eradicate. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Step One: The Miracle Question

Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and ALL of your debt is gone. Every bit of it. What would you be able to do that you can’t do today? How would you act? If you didn’t tell your friends and family that your debt was gone, how would they be able to tell that something had changed?

Your answers to those questions can tell you a lot about your values and goals. For example, if my debt was erased tomorrow, I would immediately resume saving for retirement (I’m taking a break right now due to my jump into self-employment). I’d also allocate a certain amount toward the now defunct vacation fund that I started last year. Mostly, though, I would ramp up my emergency fund.

From that, I can see that I have three main goals: (1) retiring someday, (2) traveling, and (3) being better prepared for emergencies so I can continue to be self-employed. Your goals may look completely different, and that’s okay. They’re yours, not mine or anyone else’s.

Step Two: Give Yourself Some Credit

Now that you know what your financial goals are, it’s time to remember one of the most important aspects of solution-focused finances: YOU are the expert on your situation. Not Dave Ramsey, not a personal finance blogger, not your mother or your best friend. While you might get helpful information from any or all of those people, you know better than anyone else what works for you. With that in mind, remember the following:

  • If it works, don’t fix it. Find the things you’re doing right, financially speaking, and leave them alone. For instance, if you know your income is adequate, don’t waste time looking for a second job. Focus your energy on the things that aren’t working.
  • If you find something that works better, do more of it. You may be fine with your current income, to stick with the example above. But that doesn’t mean you should automatically turn down a higher paying job. Be willing to consider ways to improve the things that are working.
  • Look for exceptions to “never” or “always.” You may say or think things like, I never have enough money to make extra debt payments. Are we seriously talking about NEVER? Or just most of the time? If there are times when you do have extra money, take time to review what was different that helped you accomplish that.
  • If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. Maybe you’ve tried to cut out things like restaurants, Saturday night bowling, or shopping for clothes. Maybe you’ve also felt like a failure when those plans didn’t work out. If you’re trying something that isn’t working, try a different method. Instead of cutting something out entirely, try to cut it by 25%. There’s no point in continually setting goals that you can’t meet.

Step Three: Work it Out and Check In

Once a week, sit down and look at your debt payoff for the week. Are there any improvements since last week? If so, give yourself a pat on the back and look for ways you could continue improving. Check for exceptions - are there any times when spending wasn’t a problem, or when you spent less than usual to put more money toward your debt? Identify those situations. Finally, think about what could have been different this week - instead of ordering pizza, could you have used that $20 toward debt payoff? This isn’t time to beat yourself up; just time to notice possible changes.

Each week, ask yourself these additional questions:

  • What has improved since I set my goals in step one? You may not have earth-shattering changes to report, but hopefully you can see small differences, whether they are financial or emotional.
  • What do I need to accomplish next week to feel I’ve been successful? All of us have big goals for getting out of debt, but they can only be reached through smaller steps. What do you want to do in the next 7 days? Put $20 toward debt? Resist at least two impulse buys? You make the rules.
  • What else? When you think you’ve come up with a solid plan for moving ahead, take a second to make sure there isn’t one more thing you could add.

Step Four: Rate Your Progress

Solution-focused therapy (and finances!) is all about the 1-10 scale. When you make goals related to your debt payoff, rate how close you are to those goals on a scale of 1-10, where 1 means “I’m on a different planet” and 10 means “I’ve already reached my goals and I’m debt free!” Also, rate your level of confidence in your ability to meet your goals on that same scale.

Each week during your check-in, rate yourself again on that scale based on the week you just finished. On a 1-10 scale, how close did you get to your goal? How confident are you, based on this week, that you will reach your goal? Keeping track of these numbers from week to week can give you a visual reminder of your progress.

Keep in mind - some people don’t need to get to that debt-free “10″ to be satisfied. Maybe your goal is just to get rid of credit card debt. Or maybe you want to pay off everything but the mortgage. So your goal may be to reach a 7 or 8 on that 1-10 scale instead of a ten. Remember, you’re the expert here.

About Solution-Focused Finances

This post gives a quick overview of solution-focused methods, but obviously it’s not a comprehensive guide. What you can gain from this approach is the ability to see what’s going right instead of beating yourself up for the things you did wrong.

When you’re able to look beyond financial mistakes to the possibility of a debt-free future, it becomes easier to find the steps you need to take to get there. Instead of paralyzing yourself with thoughts like, I have screwed up so badly, I’ll never get out of debt, you can use solution-focused questions to figure out what you need to do next.

Solution-focused therapy is designed to move us from dwelling on problems to working toward answers. Similarly, using solution-focused finances can help you find the steps you need to reach your financial goals, even if it takes some time to get there.

When you think about money, are you looking at problems or solutions? How could a solution-focused approach help you stay motivated to pay off debt?

31 Responses to “Get Out of Debt with Solution-Focused Finances”

  1. Bogofdebt says:

    I had to stop thinking about the time it would take me and I try to remember how it is going to feel when I'm completely out of debt.  When I was thinking about the amount of time it would take, I would feel so discouraged that I didn't even want to try to get out of debt. Then I pictured how I would feel and what my life would be like debt free and I realized that the little steps I would take would eventually get bigger as my debt grew less. 

    • I'm the same way; I know it will take YEARS to pay off my student loans, barring miracles. And that is so discouraging I can hardly think about it. So I try my best not to think about it. Instead, I ask myself, What can I do TODAY that will help me make progress? That mindset has helped a lot.

    • HarMoney says:

      You just have to take it a step at a time, then one day you will look back and be very proud.  But don't start then, be proud now, for taking the steps to get there.

  2. Newlyweds on a Budge says:

    Now that we're thisclose to paying off all our consumer debt, I think we can be a little relaxed in the next phase of paying off student loans. It's hard to be gazelle intense all the time, and I feel we've really come a long way. It feels pretty good not having so much debt hanging over our heads anymore!

  3. Anotherhousewife says:

    I Love this post!  I see the problem first, desired outcome second and then the baby steps to make it happen.   "YOU are the expert on your situation. Not Dave Ramsey, not a personal finance blogger, not your mother or your best friend."  This is the best advice in any circumstance and I try to preach it as often as I can! Of course I didn't realize it until I tried to make others advice fit my obviously different lifestyle and failing. I also love tracking success small chunks at a time it keeps me focused on the task at hand and not overwhelmed by the big picture. 

  4. Joe says:

    Fascinating. If I don't have any debt right now, I don't think I would do anything differently. I probably would put more into saving, but I'm pretty comfortable where I am. 
    Would love to hear your thought on my latest post - Go It Alone. 

  5. Cash Flow Mantra says:

    Very encouraging post.  Climbing out of debt can be a long and lonely road, but by just making sure there is progress can be all that it takes to start the ball rolling.

  6. JT says:

    Positive reinforcement doesn't work for me - I'll just get lazy.  I also know that I've learned way more from my own failures than I have success.  

    I think there is a lot of good in doing some managerial accounting of your personal finances to see what works, and what doesn't, though.  And of course, it's always important to focus more on what you can control rather than what you can't.  If your retirement accounts aren't growing because of the market, that's far more excusable than that they aren't growing because you're sucking cash out of them early, for example.

    Surrounding yourself with people (or at least information) that caters to your goals is very important, too.  As I read different personal finance blogs where X blogger has $500,000 cash in the bank I think I'm falling behind.  It's the good kind of keeping up with the Joneses, so long as it doesn't become discouraging.

    At some point, I think the most powerful realization that anyone can have with their finances is in some cases external.  I may want to be a multi-millionaire someday.  But the odds aren't so amazing.  There's a lot of good I can do for myself and others (family, especially) with much smaller sums.  Having the capital in older years to take care of aging parents, or putting cash aside for a world-class education for your kids is a very serious accomplishment, even if it doesn't put you on the list of the wealthiest people in the world.  

    “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.”

    • I really think you need some therapy to figure out why you need to be kicked to make progress. Maybe it's a guy thing; I don't know. When I read blog posts about people with tons of money, I just get depressed - I can't imagine ever feeling motivated by something like that. But I guess that's the amazing thing about life; people are motivated in different ways.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I'm always looking for solutions!  I just found a 1k whole in my budget and my wife and I are hell bent on fixing it.  No sense in focusing on problems.. get to the solutions now

  8. American Debt Projec says:

    This is really great, definitely bookmarking it. I've been doing some things differently. One is having a plan for every dollar before it comes in. I know my tax refund is $100…as soon as it comes in it's going to my smallest debt. I don't have a lot of extra money this month so it's my only extra debt payment and I want to make sure I use it for that! 
    I also really like the "What do I need to do next week to feel successful?" It helps me to have little weekly goals. If I hit my little goals each week, I can see them adding up to a lot. 

  9. Jaclynajohnson says:

    What does it mean if my first thought for being debt free was fill up my gas tank completely! Honestly my first thought :-)

    • I think it means welcome to the 21st century! Seriously, gas prices are ridiculous. When I started driving, gas was 89 cents a gallon, and I haven't even been driving that long. I used to put $3 in my tank on Friday and drive around all weekend. It's so sad that those days are gone!

  10. Kris @ BalancingMone says:

    I couldn't comment when I first read this because I was at work, and our work firewall hates Disqus. I love this because it breaks out of the cookie cutter debt repayment plans of make more money and spend less. I already make a good living at a job I love that takes between 50-60 hours a week of my time. While I'm working to generate a little side income blogging, the thought of taking on another 15-20 hours a week working somewhere else exhausts me. So instead, I need to focus my attention somewhere else!

    The ability for me to recognize that in our house, being completely debt free isn't the primary goal either was important. There are debts we want to pay off, but there are things we want to do that we are trying to balance along with paying down the debts. This was very, very thought provoking.

  11. Susanna Luck says:

    Hello. Thank you for your excellent blog! I'm finding it so inspiring.
    I know I'm totally new here and it's probably very rude to make a possibly inflammatory comment like this but.. with regard to your response to Jaclynajohnson about gas prices.. it's *not* sad that those cheap gas days are long gone! It's hard on our pocket books, for sure, but super cheap gas that enabled us to drive huge cars everywhere is a big part of what got the environment into the state it's in right now! If I may suggest another way to look at high gas prices: they are a *good* thing; they are the only thing that will force us to drive less or to drive more mileage-friendly cars like your Yaris.Okay. Mini rant over. I just have to speak up when I hear people talking like that. Sorry.

    • Don't apologize - thanks for coming in and sharing your opinion right off the bat! That's the kind of participation that makes it fun. I do see your point and I agree; I've always driven very efficient small cars (I'm a small person) so I don't always think about the people driving gas guzzlers. I've found that very few people actually NEED a SUV, and I wouldn't be caught dead driving one unless it was a rental for a vacation or something.


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