How to Use Trackers to Get Out of Debt and Save

Paying off tens of thousands of dollars in debt is no walk in the park. Thankfully, I’ve found a surprising, yet sure-fire way to keep me motivated—coloring.

I’ve used coloring pages and charts for saving, paying off credit cards and eliminating college loans. There’s no way I could reach my goals without visual trackers. Here’s why I love them so much.

Visuals make the impossible possible.

For my daunting savings goal of $10,000, I made a chart with 10 gray money bags. Every time I saved $1,000, I colored a money bag gold. 

The chart helped me clearly see how my small efforts were feeding into the bigger picture. It was exhilarating to save 20 percent, then 50 percent and then 80 percent. Every time I was feeling low, the chart allowed me to see how far I’d come and helped me stay motivated.

in 2008, Heidi Ifland Nash, creator of Debt Free Charts, made basic charts with several lines to help her pay off credit cards and a HELOC. The rows represented a portion of the debt balance. Nash and her husband would color each row as they got closer to debt freedom. 

“I needed something to see—not just in numbers—how far we had come and how far we had to go,” Nash writes in an email. “Before I made that first chart, it felt like attacking a mountain with a toothpick. But with the chart, I could actually see the progress. It didn’t feel like throwing money into a black hole anymore. It felt like winning a game.”

The couple paid off nearly $65,000 in three years, Nash says.

Visuals turn pain into pleasure.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from my customers how the charts have actually made paying off debt and saving money fun, how the day of the month they get to color in their charts is their favorite day,” says Nash.

I understand. I initially felt shame, anger and helplessness when I first calculated my debts. The consequences of my poor financial decisions weighed on me every day. When I sent hundreds of dollars to a creditor, I thought about giving away my hard-earned cash to complete strangers and all of the things I could have used that money for—vacations, clothes or gifts. 

Visual trackers changed my perspective and made the debt-payoff process more palatable—even fun. Every time I color in my trackers or check off a box, I go from ashamed to empowered. I go from victim to victor. I see a bright array of colors on the trackers when I reach my goals. This artwork reminds me that I can do anything I set my mind to. It gives me the courage to aim at the next target.

Visuals make your efforts tangible.

Being able to save and make debt payments online is convenient. But seeing numbers on a website doesn’t give me the same feeling as seeing thousands of dollars sitting in a bowl right in front of me. Whether I’m saving or ditching debt, I need a physical representation of my actions to make it real. 

An enlightening book called Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter touched on the importance of making “invisible things” visible. Co-author, Dan Ariely, and his colleagues conducted an experiment with thousands of customers of a mobile money-saving system in Kenya

All participants got text reminders to save each week throughout the 24-week experiment. Some were told that they would get a match based on how much they saved or a 20 percent bonus for the first 100 shillings saved.

One group only received the text messages and coins with the numbers 1-24 engraved on it. The Kenyans were told to put them somewhere visible in their hut and scratch with a knife the number for the week to indicate if they saved or not. 

This group saved more than everybody else—even the ones who got cash incentives. 

On days when they didn’t get text reminders, the “gold coin made the act of saving salient by changing what people were thinking about as they were going about their day,” write Ariely and co-author, Jeff Kreisler

The physical presence of the coin changed everything. Just like with those Kenyans, I get a sense of real accomplishment and motivation when I color another part of my trackers. 

Coloring may not be your cup of tea. Perhaps you could make a paper clip chain for every $100 you save or move a chocolate coin from one jar to another every time you pay off $500 in debt.

The eyes have it! Just get visual!

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