Updated on 09.16.14

Debt Repayment and Frugality as Obsession

Trent Hamm

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?

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  1. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    “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.”

    That is exactly how I feel. I actually had the same thoughts when reading J.D.’s article yesterday. While I agree with his basic tenets, I knew it wasn’t really how I felt.

    For us, it’s all about the passion. We aren’t lunatics about it in the sense that we let everything else go down the tubes. We are constantly struggling for balance, while still remaining as focused as possible.

    There is a lot of power in leveraging a single, impactful event to turn around your financial life. Some people don’t have a singular event, but most have a time they can remember really sitting down and making the commitment. Whenever we look at issues within our debt reduction process we always think “How will this help us maintain focus, determination, and momentum”?

    This is why we use the Debt Tsunami instead of paying off high interest debt first. And, like you, why we are constantly sharing our struggles with family, friends, and people on the internet. Once you get rolling in this kind of process it’s almost impossible to stop!

    Great post!

  2. Dawn says:

    I’m actually more with J.D. I believe in moderation in all things – including moderation. If I attempted to cut everything from my life, I would quickly get depressed and end up binging. What has been working for me is keeping a firm eye on my finances and working on it a little each day, but not letting it be an obsession. I take time out. I make time and have in my budget things that are important to me. I have a dining out budget so I can still spend time with friends over a glass of wine or cup of coffee, for example. I think what J.D. is saying is that if we totally deprive ourselves of pleasure (which usually means spending money) in an effort to eliminate all debt ASAP, some of us burn out and go deeper in debt than we were before. It would be like me trying to go on a crash diet – it wouldn’t work for my personality,

  3. J.D. says:

    Actually, my conclusion — which I may have done a poor job of communicating — was to do what works for you (which should be no surprise to those familiar with Get Rich Slowly). For some, gazelle-like intensity (or laser focus) is absolutely the right choice. But if you find that this obsession feels oppressive, I think it’s best to allow yourself a safety valve.

    Also from my post:

    “There’s no one right path to debt-free living. Each of us has different priorities. To find the way that’s right for you, you need to set financial goals, draft a spending plan that moves you in the direction of these goals, and then practice patient persistence. And let yourself have a treat now and then.”

    In other words, my conclusion is the same as Trent’s! :)

  4. I agree with you on this one, that in order to be successful you must possess intensity towards accomplishing whatever goal it is. I wrote an article about the “5 Secrets of Successful People” over @ Hundred Goals and Focused Intensity was the #2 Secret. It takes more than just intensity though and I recommend your readers to check out the rest of the Secrets over at my blog.

    Great post!

  5. SteveJ says:

    Not only does your personality affect your overall approach, but it affects your goals and implementation as well. Laser like focus for Trent was tracking every cent and reading books. Laser like focus for someone more extreme might be to espouse the financial system altogether and pull a Thoreau. We see it all the time in the frugalista topper pyramid: Washing out baggies trumps buying CFLs trumps giving up starbucks. Some people are satisfied with giving up credit cards, others want to be completely debt free, others just want the phone to stop ringing, yet others want millions in the bank.

  6. You are right, you have to do what works for you. Personally, when I was in debt, I was better just jumping in, taking the sock of being frugal and making extremely large payments all as part of the process. My only reasoning for this was because I wanted to get out of debt FASTER than making really low payments over am extended time. To each their own, but people need to stick with what works and get out of debt!

  7. Tony says:

    Trent, I think you and JD are talking about slightly different aspects of debt repayment and frugality. His comments seemed to focus more upon forming and keeping habits. Here single-minded focus often does not help habit-forming and sometimes even hinders it. Think dieting, quitting smoking, etc. Your comments seemed to focus more upon learning how to solve your debt problems and finding strategies that work. Here single-minded focus is useful as you must plow through countless bills, books and strategies. Think researching a term paper in college. While related aspects of debt repayment and frugality, each set of tasks likely require different levels of focus and intensity to accomplish your goals.

  8. tightwadfan says:

    When I first started turning around my finances, I had a low-paying job and had no choice but to be intense in order to save each extra dollar. Even so it took me a year to pay off my $1200 credit card balance. A couple years after that I found a much higher-paying job and by then I just had what remained of a car loan and my student loans. I knew I wanted to pay them off early but this time I didn’t pinch every penny, I allowed myself some “fun money”. (Since my income was so much higher I was still able to pay off those loans more quickly than in my more “intense” period.) At this point I’m completely debt free.

    If I somehow ever got in debt again I think my level of intensity would depend on my income level, how much debt I had, and the interest rates on the debt.

    What helped: paying off a little of that debt each month gave me an emotional boost, and incentive to keep going.

    What hurt: socializing. I don’t have the discipline to not spend money around others, suddenly that cappucino or whatever sounds so good. It was easiest to save money when I lived in a different state from most of my friends and family and was rather isolated.

  9. I agree with your point that every individual needs to carry out what strategy works well for them. However, it is normal for an individual drowning in debt to become obsessively frugal in order to come out their difficult situation as fast as possible. Generally speaking, when a person changes their lifestyle suddenly, it becomes difficult to cope up with the change and keep up with their expectations. It is best to take it slow and make right and informed decisions.

  10. Dr. Faith says:

    Perhaps the biggest problem is that some people don’t KNOW what works best for them.

    I know this isn’t money, but the analogy parallels, some people really stick to running when they try to Couch to 5K program. It starts slow and just gets you used to running. Plans like that work fantastic for me because I like to build slowly for fear that I will peter out.

    My boyfriend, however, balked at such a slow running program “I’d rather just get out there and run!” (He does the same thing with personal finance, it is all hard-core frugality or none at all). Which, if you can keep it up to see it to its end, that’s great. His problem is that after 2 weeks he stops. He doesn’t like slow and steady, but can’t handle ‘all-the-way’ for long stints of time. So he is stuck in a ‘yo-yo’ dieting of personal finance.

    Then there are people who can just start running and never stop (I have a friend who decided one day, after never running before, he would run a marathon in 2 months. He did, and posted a 4 hour 45 minute time. These people can focus unrelentlessly on goals for months, years, decades at a time.

    The problem is that many people don’t know what type of person they are until they start and try different methods. However, I still haven’t find any way to convince my boyfriend that all-in may not be the best method — what do you do for these people who want to jump in with both feet but can’t maintain that consistently and don’t want to try a slow and steady pace?

  11. Sarah in Alaska says:

    Gazelle intensity
    Has anyone mentioned the fact that in addition to being fast, gazelles have very efficient metabolisms? Because their metabolism is so efficient they do not require much water to survive and will recycle their waste until it is almost completely dry. In addition, gazelles have shrunk their hearts and livers to survive drought conditions.

    It’s like the animal kingdom equivalent of “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without”.

    I think both attributes are important – intensity and consistency – in straightening out finances. The early intensity gets you going and learning, consistency keeps you on track so you can implement your newly found skills.

  12. Matt says:

    I agree with Tony. The only way to handle debt is in moderation. Trent, your philosophy would explain that you’d never buy that bottle of wine, or DS game, etc. That’s the gazelle method, so-to-speak, and it just doesn’t work. Yeah, it could work for long enough to where you get out of debt enough to use the moderation approach, but you can’t do it forever. No obcession is a good thing, I hope everyone can admit that. :)

  13. Eve says:

    But, Trent, you pay a little extra for things that you and your family consider important and that fit with your values. Higher quality food, etc. So to some extent you didn’t, as J.D. writes, “leap headlong into a life of thrift, for example, giving up everything you valued before.”

  14. Des says:

    @Matt (comment #10)

    I don’t think anyone ever suggested being “gazelle intense” *forever*, only long enough to get yourself out of debt. To that end, it absolutely works.

  15. Like so many other things intensity follows a power law and the Pareto principle holds, that is, 20% of the people will do 80% of the total effort. Actually I think it is closer to a 10/90 division.

    Personally, I would never feel any kind of accomplishments doing baby-steps. For me a single-minded focus can replace any bad habits with good habits in about 3 weeks, whereas small steps are likely to be forgotten in about the same time because they simply don’t bring tangible results fast enough. I tried both, so I know.

    I think it ultimately comes down to how much you value the comfort of the status quo vs the vision you have of what you could be. Death before dishonor, or not?

    PS: I see exactly the same thing with physical exercise. 90% want easy; only 10% go all out. It is interesting to note that some of older guys I play hockey (one of the toughest sports on the planet) with were all very good athletes when they were 30 years younger, and they still are. It’s all in the mind. Character! You become what you are.

  16. Matt says:

    I’m a zealot for debt repayment. I get hyperfocused trying to figure out the best/fastest way to do it, but I always seemed to fail until I realized that I couldn’t stay that hyperfocused for an extended period of time (3 months). However, once I internalized the idea of saving for the purchases that I wanted to make rather than just buying them on credit I found success. I don’t feel deprived because I know that I’ll eventually get what I want, it’ll just take a little while longer.

  17. Noelle says:

    Hi, Trent. I finally decided to un-lurk to post about this. Exec summary: I am on the “obsession” side of the fence on debt reduction.

    Prior to seeing Dave Ramsey in action (as opposed to just reading his books), I had always thought that if I tried to be too intense it would fail. This was based on my experience after reading _Your Money or Your Life_ and the Jerrold Mundis book _Get out of Debt…_ at different, high-debt, times in my life. I loved the books and really wanted to commit seriously, but fell back into “it’s too much; I’ve got fun stuff to do now in my 20’s/30’s; I’ll catch up later,” etc.

    It wasn’t until I saw the energy DR put into his presentations (I did FPU at home last year) that I got a real sense of what it could be like to hit the debt HARD and get it gone.

    Perhaps this just means that I am a visual and auditory learner :~), but I’d like to think that 3rd time is a charm and THIS TIME I’ll do the sacrificing now and get to coast later.

  18. Michiko says:

    Somehow I think the situation really dictates which way you approach frugality. When you’ve hit rock bottom, and there’s no where to turn, the pressure of the situation may give you the motivation to adopt changes one might not have otherwise.

  19. Kyle says:

    We went one step at a time.

    First, we cut off some non-essential bills.

    Then, we made a real budget and stuck to it for two whole weeks. We used the envelope method.

    Then, we started mixing in ways to cut our food budget. (Thanks, Trent, for the bread and pizza recipes!)

  20. F says:

    Hey Trent,
    Your post reminds of a similar (very inspiring!) post I read a while ago: “save money like a madman”


  21. Angie says:

    I find this very difficult. When you finally take the plunge to pay down debt how can you NOT be obsessive when everything you buy could have been put towards repayment instead. Say I spend $50 at a dinner. Because I didn’t put that towards my loan (where it could have saved interest at 9%), its pretty much like I’m buying it on credit at 9% even though I’m paying out of my checking account. At least thats how I look at it.

    I feel I’m depriving myself too much and being miserable because of it. But I can’t stop being obsessive about it because the amount of debt to repay is so stressful.

  22. I’m somewhere in between Trent and J.D.’s scenario. Mentally I converted quickly: I made a relatively sudden decision to change to an extremely frugal lifestyle. But in terms of my routine and the material changes – that all happened gradually. Little by little I found new ways to save money here and there. Yeah, there were a few things that saved us a lot of money in one fell swoop, but those are few and far between. The little changes happened so slowly and steadily that I never felt any shock to the system. It’s worked well for me, and I’m still sticking to a very frugal lifestyle, so I think this has staying power in my life.

    We were never in debt prior to my conversion though. It was getting a mortgage – still our only debt – that caused me to convert. Guess I’m just allergic to debt.

  23. JT says:

    I think its about priorities. Everyone has a different reaction to debt, and if its a stressor in your life than you’re better off with the gazzelle approach to just deal with it, because at least then you’ll feel empowered instead of crippled over the debt. If you feel like you’re in a good place though, and are making strides in paying the debt then its ok to just relax a bit – still stay focused on it but without going into total deprivation mode.

  24. Rachel says:

    Maybe it’s just not giving up entirely, but doing it in a different way. I recently became aware of how much you can actually do with $1.00. I love ice cream, and I can treat myself to a sundae or a cone for that price at McDonalds or Sonic. I can also get a bag of popcorn and a soft drink at Target for $1.00. WE have a theater shows movies a few months after their release for $1.00. I love to read, and I mostly get books at the library, but I will buy a book at a yard sale if it something I really want to read, but I don’t pay more than $1.00. I think if you don’t have a standard like this, you give in to the $4.00 Starbucks drink a lot more easily.

  25. Lily says:

    I agree that intensity (especially over a long period of time) is just another term for stress, which is why I don’t recommend intensity as a life plan. But for some people, people who truly have not been paying attention to their finances, a period of intense focus on debt might shake them out of their complacent spend-and-owe pattern.

    If you can reprogram your brain to automatically say “Do not buy” instead of “Buy,” you’re on the right track to controlling your spending. The problem for a lot of people is that they simply will not give up their patterns of wasteful spending.

  26. Char says:

    I absolutely have to attack finances with laser focus or I drift back into my old ways. I agree with JD’s comment though, I think you are both saying the same thing. People have to do what works for them. I know people that if they did what I did with my finances they would fall off the wagon the next day, at the same time, if I don’t stay completely focused (not to say that I am some kind of lunatic about it) then I fall off the wagon completely very quickly. Different strokes for different folks- but authors like you and J.D. help us all get to were we need to be!

  27. Kevin says:

    Very good article. I too am “gazelle” intense. I started about 2 years ago — got myself debt free except the mortgage and then sat around accumulating money and investing. Eventually, I figured out I needed something new to attack so I turned my attention to my mortgage about 4 months ago. I have taken that 180,000 down to about 157000 by plunging that extra cash into it (i still have my fully funded emergency fund of course). I plan on paying that “bastard” off in 3-4 years depending on how much income I can create. I’m kind of addicted to the process! It’s fun!

  28. Liko says:

    I’ve struggled with debt for almost ten years (since I was 19). To me debt seemed like this big monster, throwing pebbles (small payments) at it only angred it. By applying the slow and steady method my debt grew from $3k to $43k. Then I decided to wage all out war against debt. I attacked it with everything I got! I was extremly intense about it and made it my #1 enemy! I knew it was going to be long battle so I did “pace” myself by allowing myself a little blow money.

    Just when I thought I almost killed this monster, a few weeks ago it got back up in the from of a Vespa. This monster just won’t DIE! Now the scooter is back up on Craigslist and I should be completely debt free in a week or so! This battle took over 14 months of intesnse focus and obsesion! I’m looking forward to a vacation for the first time in over a year.


  29. Sarah says:


    LOL, I love that! It’s definitely my own take on cc apps and the like that come (unwanted) in my mail.

  30. Tara says:

    I am a student in college (19 yrs old) and putting myself through college. I spent one yr at a community college (tuition, books, everything was free) and in about a month I will be moving out of my parent’s home to stay on campus (veryyyy expensive but def worth it). I am constantly looking for ways to save money while understanding that these are certainly the years of sacrifice. Does anyone have any suggestions for college students?

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