Debt Repayment and Frugality as Obsession

Yesterday, J.D. Roth at Get Rich Slowly posted an interesting article about whether repaying debt should be an obsession. His conclusion, to put it succinctly, was no:

When a person decides to make a lifestyle change — financial or otherwise — there’s a temptation GO ALL OUT. With the zeal of a new convert, you leap headlong into a life of thrift, for example, giving up everything you valued before.

There’s a problem with this.

Most people who leap from a lifestyle of deficit-spending to one of extreme frugality find the waters very, very cold. It’s a shock to the system. It feels oppressive. They struggle to stay afloat, but before long decide they’re going to sink rather than swim, so return to the warmer, familiar waters, the waters of debt.

I made several false starts before I found my way. I would decide to give up comics completely, or to never buy another computer game. These sorts of goals are foolish. Nobody has that kind of god-like self-control. Everyone needs an indulgence now and then.

Rather than quit cold turkey, I think the best way to begin a life of frugality is by taking small steps. Small steps eventually become big strides, but only after you’ve developed your frugal muscles.

I understand where he’s coming from here, and I think he’s speaking the truth about his experience in adopting a frugal lifestyle and overcoming debt. I also think that quite a few people will identify with this perspective – perhaps even a majority of people.

However, for a lot of people, laser-like focus is a key part of their personal finance success.

I find myself in this group. When I finally hit financial bottom, I dove into debt repayment and frugality with the fervor of a freshly-minted missionary, bent on converting the unwashed masses of my debts to the purity of clean financial living. I spent many long nights going over my bills, keeping track of every cent I spent, and reading every book I could find on personal finance. I spent my weekends trying every tactic I could find in those books, hoping to discover things that actually worked for me. In fact, The Simple Dollar was borne from this – I started it to simply share the things that were working for me and the things that were not.

It was only with that intensity that I was able to hammer away many of my worst habits and actually do the hard work that I needed to do to put my financial life in a better place. For me, day to day life is a series of patterns – and it’s hard work to change those patterns. It was only through serious intensity – yes, I would even call it obsession – that I was able to change a lot of patterns in a reasonably short amount of time.

Without that focus, I would have never found success. I might have been able to keep my head above water – or maybe not. One thing I do know – a leisurely approach to this would not have worked for me.

Gazelle intensity This is largely the same philosophy that Dave Ramsey espouses. As he puts it:

Gazelles are gentle creatures hunted by the fastest animal on earth, the cheetah. With the cheetah being so fast, you would think the gazelle would be extinct. However they’ve learned that the cheetah is only the fastest animal on earth while running in a straight line. So when being chased, the gazelle bobs and weaves and runs in circles until the cheetah gets tired and gives up.

It’s time to think like a gazelle. If you are a gazelle and the marketing and credit card companies are cheetahs, bob and weave and run; do whatever it takes to get away. When you get that new credit card application in the mail – you know, the one that promises low introductory interest rates and lots of bonuses – scream CHEETAH! and destroy it as quickly as you can!

What works for you? Every person is different, and different techniques work well for them. Some people learn from text, while others learn visually and still others from audio. Some people learn best by repeating lists of facts – others learn by figuring out the patterns.

In the same way, some people succeed by applying a laser-like intensity to changes in their life, while others succeed by dipping their toes in and gradually moving forward. There are different levels for each.

Here’s a great example of how it actually works on the ground. A while back, I wrote a list of 100 ways to start saving money. A person who succeeds by taking slow steps might try one or two of them, then try one or two more, bringing gradual change into their life – and that’s awesome! Others succeed by taking that list and trying to do as many as they can at once, hammering on them until many of them become new habits – and that’s also awesome!

In my opinion, the best personal finance advice is modular. In other words, people who move more slowly can take a piece at a time, while people with gazelle intensity can grab them all and dive in head first. I usually try to see both sides of the coin.

Which side of the coin are you on? Are you a practitioner of intense focus on your money and personal habits, or do you like to dip your toes into new tactics?

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.