When my husband and I finally fought our way to debt freedom, it was a huge relief. Where we once had a ton of bills to pay and keep track of, we were finally down to living expenses only—things like our mortgage, groceries, and utilities. And while money stress had once been a fixture of our daily lives, after paying off our last dollar of non-mortgage debt, our financial situation became crystal clear and effortless overnight.
Debt-free for only a few days, we began mapping out our future. Our core group of short-term goals included bumping up our college savings, investing even more for retirement, and starting targeted savings accounts for emergencies and rainy days. Beyond those objectives, we also wanted to retire early, pay for our children's college educations in their entirety, and avoid ever falling into the trap of debt again.
The feeling of debt freedom was absolutely wonderful, and we were so excited about our future. Instead of spending our free time plotting our way out of debt, we could finally dream and plan for the debt-free future we really wanted.
Unfortunately, the excitement waned off and on from there. And in a lot of ways, our dream of debt freedom became more of a let-down. Up until that point, we had been working toward something tangible—paying off all our bills. And honestly, paying off debt had actually become "fun" somewhere along the way. Not only were we working together as a team, but it was exciting to work toward real goals and watch our progress as the months ticked by.
But, what now? Somehow, the idea of saving for retirement and college—both decades away at that point—wasn't nearly as exciting or immediately rewarding.
Three Ways We Stay Motivated in the Absence of Debt
Fortunately, we had an epiphany along the way. All the work we were doing wasn't about today; it was about the long game. The reason we became debt-free in the first place was to provide a better life for our children and ourselves in retirement, not to make our lives easier while we're young.
We finally realized something else, too—getting out of debt wasn't enough. To make our debt-free lifestyle meaningful, we had to put our dollars to use and stay on track with our goals for a lifetime. While this isn't always easy, we eventually found a few strategies that make long-term financial goals fun and exciting in the absence of paying off debt.
#1: We use a zero-sum budget.
One of the most productive hours we spend every month is the time we set aside to create that month's zero-sum budget. In case you're not familiar with this form of budgeting, a zero-sum budget requires you to spend all of your month's income on paper until it's gone. The kicker is, you put your extra funds toward savings, debt repayment, and investments.
Since we fell in love with this strategy, zero-sum budgeting has changed our lives in so many ways. First, it forces us to allocate each dollar we earn to something, with overages allotted to savings and investments now that we're debt-free. Second, budgeting each month makes us painfully aware of lifestyle creep, and how our spending habits change over time.
Lastly, creating a budget each month reinforces the idea that we should discuss our money together regularly. When my husband and I sit down to create our budget, we talk about our financial goals, our concerns, our planned spending for that month. Keeping the communication lines open has been a huge part of our financial process, and budgeting each month has helped in that respect.
#2: We set our finances on auto-pilot.
Without any debt, my husband and I are in the position to max our out retirement accounts and invest every month. We're also prepaying on our rental properties so they're mortgage-free that much sooner.
Over time, we've found the best way to work toward these goals seamlessly is to set our finances up on auto-pilot as much as we can. What that means is, a certain amount of money is automatically contributed to certain accounts and mortgage payoff every month without us having to do it manually. In a lot of ways, this allows our extra money to stay "out of sight and out of mind," too. We may technically have extra money left over every month, but I'm rarely tempted to spend it—because I never see it!
The best part about automating your finances is that it doesn't take long to set up. Spend a couple of hours on your bank's website and you can likely automate your entire investing and savings strategy.
#3: We celebrate small wins and milestones.
When your real financial goals are decades away, it can be hard to stay on track or even care about when you'll get there. One way we stay on track is creating "mini-goals" along the way. Not only do we create small, short-term goals and reach them all the time, but we celebrate them when we do.
This has helped us stay motivated, and added some "fun" back into the equation as well. Perhaps I've become a money nerd, but I still find it exciting when we hit certain financial milestones.
Here's an example: In the absence of debt, we've been trying to prepay the principal on the rental properties we bought in our 20s as quickly as possible. Each time we pay off another $5,000 in mortgage payments (which takes a while), we celebrate with a fancy dinner out.
That's just one example, but the point is, we've created a system of smaller goals to work toward each year. With these small goals always on the horizon, we're able to keep our eye on the prize without getting bored or letting lifestyle inflation take hold.
Getting out of debt is a huge accomplishment, but it's easy to squander your progress if you don't change your mindset and keep up your financial intensity. For us, a series of strategies that include creating mini-goals, budgeting, and setting our finances on auto-pilot has helped us remain debt-free and continue saving.
Keeping our minds on our long-term goals has also been helpful. Even though we're only in our 30s, we've learned to ask ourselves how we want our future to look all the time. How do we want our lives to look in 20, 30, or even 40 years? Asking that question over and over helps us keep things in perspective, and could do the same for you.
It may be hard to stay motivated when your real goals are decades away, but it can be done. Like anything else, long-term financial success requires confidence, self-restraint, and grit.