Financial Fitness: 33 Steps To (Mindfully) Pay Off Your Debt, Big or Small
Paying off debt: maybe not the most yogic topic you can think of, eh? Ariel Kiley would disagree majorly. Ariel Kiley is an NYC-based yoga and meditation teacher, teacher trainer, author, and IAYT certified Yoga Therapist. Ariel specializes in stress reduction and Somatic Experiencing® trauma resolution. Plus she’s kind of obsessed with “financial fitness.”
On WANT, we talk about shame, vulnerability, and seeing the light in the midst of the darkness. “How To Pay Off Your Debt” might seem like an odd subject choice for this site..but really, is it?
Financial fitness, as Ariel calls it, can sometimes feel like the final Adulting frontier. The one elusive thing we’re supposed to just *know* how to handle with ease, but few of us do. So we’re left to fend for ourselves, shying away from asking others for help because we don’t want to seem out of control or immature. We’re not out of control OR immature, though – we’re just doing the best we can with the information we have.
Ariel is a Doer: when she says she’s going to do something, she DOES it. So when Ariel first told me about her plans to tackle her five-figure debt, I knew she’d hit her goal. I just didn’t know how FAST she’d hit it. We’re talking eight months, folks.
Whether you’ve got massive bills to pay or want to spruce up your savings account, here’s the 33 (yes, thirty-three) step plan Ariel used to build up her financial fitness. Take the shame out of your money game and read on – then tell us in the comments what step you loved most and can start implementing TODAY.
On June 1st, I made the last payment on my last student loan. I thought I would be making payments on these loans for several more years, but last November I decided to do a full-scale attack and knock them out as quickly as possible. I teach yoga and meditation for a living, so it’s not like I’m swimming in dough, but there are still lots of ways to monetize this career, and I was ready to get super busy.
To my surprise, I was able to accomplish this much faster than anticipated. I totally wiped out over $25,000 in student loan debt within eight months. There was no magic involved, nor big financial gifts. It was a series of small behavior and attitude changes that added up to this big payoff.
After hitting “confirm” on my final student loan payment something wonderful happened — I got Bon Jovi’s song It’s My Life stuck in my head for days. It’s cheesy, but I feel like I have my life back. And it feels amazing.
So in case you’ve got lingering debt you’d like to annihilate too, I’ve made a list of all the most significant shifts that made this happen.
(BTW, it’s worth it.)
1. I Got Mad
Upon reviewing my finances last year, and realizing I was still lugging around over 25k in student loan debt, I got increasingly angry. I was particularly angry at Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. VSAC’s website is all green and white and looks like it’s an ice cream shop or something, but IMO they are total financial scavengers. I was paying 6.9% on my debts to them and hadn’t made much of a dent in over 13 years. This anger reached a boiling point where I didn’t want to pay just a measly $10-$20 extra each month. I wanted to never sign in to their dumb website again. Anger is fire. It motivates. You can use it to fuel debt-removal!
2. I Decided To
This sounds obvious, but it’s very powerful. You have got to make the DECISION I’m going to do this. No really! I’m doing it. It’s like that quote by William Hutchison Murray: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.” Decide. Commit. Don’t look back.
3. I Cut Down All Excess Spending
Here I must thank Mr. Money Mustache. He makes frugality a game, he calls it “badassity” to ride your bike instead of drive. Or in my case, ride my bike, or the subway, or walk instead of take a cab. I tracked my spending for two full months and I trimmed the fat EVERYWHERE. Yes, on lattes, on eating out, on impulse purchases like makeup and shoes… there is so much excess spending that many of us do that we don’t even think about. We want it, so we reach out take it, drop our money down and buy it. I cut a lot of that shit out.
4. I Questioned Every Expense
My desires can be very sneaky. For instance, I like to wear sunblock. I can validate my purchase of sunblock cause I’m pale AF and I need to protect my skin. HOWEVER, do I need to buy $45 La Roche-Posay sunblock? No. I can actually use the FREE sunblock that I got in a gift bag that’s been sitting under my bed since last year. And yes, I like binging on the odd Netflix series, I even consider my late-night nature documentary watching part of my education — what’s more valuable to study human behavior than watching animals? BUT, do I REALLY NEED this video streaming service? Upon examination, I found that the answer was NO. So it got canceled. My $90 phone bill got reduced to $40 by changing companies. I talked down the rate of my newsletter service. Questioning EVERY SINGLE EXPENSE that you have is wildly helpful when you want to reduce them.
5. I Created a Zero-Based Written Budget — and Stuck to It
Do you hate the idea of budgeting? Does the thought of writing down your limit for spending in every category of your life totally bum you out? If the answer is “yes,” then you haven’t given it a fair shake. Because BUDGETING IS AWESOME. Budgeting equals success and the freedom to spend wisely. A zero-based budget is when you “give every dollar a name” as Dave Ramsey says.
In the beginning of each month I added up all the money that was in my checking/savings/Venmo accounts, plus all cash, and that was my budget (aside from a few hundred dollars in savings reserved for the unexpected). Then I wrote out a list of each category of spending and planned ahead what I would pay in each one. The leftover money all went to debt payments. This extra debt payment added up to anywhere from $688 (month 1) to $5,073 (month 8).
Sticking to my budget proved to be a fun and satisfying game, not a punishment. I loved the feeling that I was the boss of my money, not at the mercy of my fleeting cravings.
6. I Listened to All Different Experts
Some people get really judgy about all the different financial “gurus” and “experts”. I think that the reason they are so critical is that they are looking for a reason to avoid their own financial issues. Instead of bitching about whether I liked the personality, political ideas, or facial hair of various “experts”, I just listened to all of them that seemed to have something valuable to say. I found that no one teacher had all the answers for me, but pulling from different systems brought it all together. That said, Mr. Money Mustache and Dave Ramsey proved to be the biggest influences.
7. I Used the “Cash Envelope System”
This system is brilliant. Basically, all expenses that you don’t need to mark as business expenses or keep track of, you just set aside cash for. My cash envelope system was very crude. I wrapped my stashes of cash for the categories of Groceries ($250), Dining Out ($100), Coffee ($40), Laundry ($25), Fun ($50), Giving ($25) in Post-its in my wallet. Apparently when you feel cash leaving your hands it registers in pain centers in your brain. This causes people who use cash to spend significantly less than those swiping cards, or god forbid, using something like Googlepay — which doesn’t even need a signature or a pin. When you feel your money leaving, you spend less. Setting aside the cash forces you to adapt to that budget. When the cash is out, no more buying.
8. I Made a Game of Accountability
When I decided to really DO THIS, I decided it would be interesting to post the journey on YouTube. Partly, because I figured that if I pulled it off, recording that journey could be informative and helpful to others. But even more so, I knew if I posted it live, I would have to be accountable to my choice. So by making it a game of making videos and sharing online, that upped my accountability and motivated me to save more and earn more so I could make a great uplifting video the next month.
9. I Paid my Debts Smallest to Largest*
This is a Dave Ramsey thing. He says that our psychology is much more significant than “the math” so he actually recommends paying off your debts smallest to largest, regardless of interest percentage. So even though I wanted to pay my biggest student loan debt first (the one from VSAC that made me so angry!), I had to pay off two smaller ones (originally they were Sallie Mae, but were sold to Navient). Seeing this progress really helped fuel and motivate me.
10. I Found ‘Pleasure Workarounds’
I enjoy a new $500 dress just as much as the next gal. You know what else I like? Dinners out at world-class restaurants with iconic chefs where I don’t look at the price of anything and order whatever I want. You know what else I like? Impulsive trips to exotic and glamorous places. Plus I really enjoy fancy hotel rooms. But you know what? That sh!t wasn’t going to get me out of student loan debt anytime soon. So I found ‘pleasure workarounds’.
This meant that instead of going out for a whole meal, I’d go to a beautiful hotel lobby and order a really nice cup of tea (I am partial to the Meadow Tea at Ace Hotel). Or instead of planning a trip overseas on my own dime, I used the Law of Attraction to create an opportunity to teach in London where all my expenses were paid. Instead of new clothing, I decided to take extra morning time to get ready mindfully and really appreciate the clothing I already own. The takeaway? Pleasure workarounds work!
11. I Stopped Magical Thinking About Fantasy Income
I’m actually curious if you have this issue too, or if it is particular to my mind. I’ve got this idea in my head that the really big-income opportunity is always right around the corner. I have this thought that if I just invest in that program, or write that book, or whatever, suddenly my “ship is going to come in” and like, half a million dollars is going to drop into my lap. This has caused me, over the years, to invest tons of time and money into things hoping that they will produce gobs of income. And to be honest, none of them have worked out. If anything, it’s the learning I did while pursuing them that led to other, more organically and gradually growing aspects of my income. So I stopped magical thinking about fantasy income over these months and decided to focus on where my money was ACTUALLY coming from. It was a total relief.
12. I Got Humble and Stopped Feeding My “I’m Special” Ideation
Facing debt and doing the cost-cutting/extra-buck-earning details to get out of it quickly is humbling. While taking on this process you have to admit, once and for all, that you are not a princess. You have not been “discovered” and swept into a life of fame and wealth. You are just regular old Joe/Jane who is sick of being in debt and there are many ways to earn that money that will really help you get there, but they aren’t all fancy-pants. For me this meant teaching more yoga classes at hours I’d rather be sleeping. It meant saying “yes” to work I didn’t feel like doing. It meant getting un-special and just getting the job done.
Admittedly, I did have a major program that I “starred in” come out on Daily Burn during this time, I taught at Yale with radical chef Elizabeth Falkner, and I did get to do a few glamorous things like travel and do photoshoots. But juxtaposing this glamour with those early mornings and extra private sessions, kept it quite real.
13. I Did What I Know How to Do to Make Money
This is related to #11. Instead of getting in my head that I needed to create the “next big thing”, I just buckled down and did what I know how to do: I taught yoga classes, taught meditation, I led trainings, I worked as a blog editor, I put together yoga programming, I did coaching, I helped people get stronger and more flexible in private sessions. I just did what I know how to do. That was enough.
14. I Maximized My Earnings by Also Doing What I’ve Been Wanting to Do
Yes, I did the regular stuff to keep my earnings up as stated in #13. But I also took action on projects I’ve been wanting to do, but hadn’t gotten around to. Like my Business of Yoga Success Course. I’d been thinking of doing that for years. Plus putting a therapy ball training on the books. My financial freedom journey helped me pull the trigger and actually do what I’ve been thinking about doing. This also included special workshop themes, trauma resolution work, and other coaching approaches.
15. I Took My Business Seriously
Here in the yoga world things can get a little mushy-gushy, gooey-spewy. But once I got on my budget and made the decision to do this, I got more clear about my business. Sometimes people reach out to me wanting to do privates but don’t actually schedule until months down the road (if at all). I don’t have time for this. I do a call with them immediately and schedule if they want to schedule, and if I sense it’s murky, I let it go. Plus I don’t care to tiptoe around money talks with studio owners. I don’t have energy for vague rules around space rental. I have a business and I need to take it seriously. In the past few months when I’ve encountered other systems or people that I can tell are wishy washy or unprofessional, I’m OUT. It’s a waste of my time.
16. I Said YES to Unexpected Ways to Make Money
During this time I was contacted by my dear friends/colleagues at Tune Up Fitness about joining the blog editing team. I would not have considered this were I not on my debt-free bender. But given the fact that it’s kinda draining to ONLY teach yoga, I considered it. Then I took it. And you know what? I LOVE IT! I’m having so much fun in this position. Who would’ve thunk it?
17. I Sold Stuff
Dear Craigslist, you’re so cool. I didn’t think I “had anything to sell”. But you know what? I was wrong. As it turns out, a family in Queens really wanted my plant pot collection. And a lady in Crown Heights was happy to take the grill that I had inherited from a friend off my hands for $40. Plus some furniture went out the door. I actually would’ve sold a lot more stuff if I had more time. I got rid of a lot of clothing and tchotchkes. But I did the math and figured I’d make more $$ teaching than selling small items.
18. I Unloaded the Past
Part of making this shift to being debt-free, was also making the shift to let go of the material stuff that was weighing me down psychologically. For instance, I have been carrying a “boyfriend box” of old stuff from exes for a while now. I’m a Taurus which means I’m a bit sentimental and a bit of a hoarder. But I decided enough was enough and got rid of not just the boyfriend box, but hundreds of other things that had been given to me that carried energies I didn’t want to carry into the future.
19. I Gave Gifts and Showed Gratitude
Apparently part of attracting wealth is having an “abundance mindset.” And part of having an abundance mindset is being generous. During these last eight months I have felt very, very grateful. First, I’m grateful to several incredible individuals at Daily Burn, Equinox, Tune Up Fitness, Yoga Sole, Dou Yoga, Prema Yoga BK and more who gave me great opportunities and discounts. I’m also grateful to people in my life like my family and friends who bring so much wealth of spirit and heart to me. As such, I wound up sending out lots of flowers, thank-you cards, and “I appreciate you” texts. NOTHING I have done, I have done alone. Everything has been because someone gave me that opportunity and gave me support to do what I do. I feel that more than ever now.
I also make a point to thank all of the waste removal workers in NYC that I encounter. Especially people changing the garbage in the subways. I stop and give them a little bow and say “thank you for your hard work.” There is almost always a great moment of warmth and uplift between us when I do that. I am really grateful to these people for keeping the city clean and beautiful. They work really hard doing something low-status and potentially dirty and they should be shown gratitude and appreciation.
20. I Refocused My Intention Every Morning
There is a reason I’ve been dragging this debt around for SO LONG. It’s because society normalizes it. Lots of voices talk about “good debt”. All the time people promote “treating yourself” and say dumb stuff like “you deserve it” about expensive items and empty-calorie foods. I deserve what? To be broke and chubby? I deserve to be financially strapped and unable to zip up my favorite dress? No. I don’t deserve that. And I don’t want it. But those messages are STRONG, man.
So every single morning I get up and write out my goals. I refocus on what I’m trying to accomplish by writing it down. Then as I move through the day I’m able to discern those voices I don’t want to listen to from my own voice within.
21. I Listened to Tons of Podcasts and Read Tons of Blog Posts
Yo. There is a shit-ton of inspiration out there. And I’ve been soaking it up. I may have dropped my Netflix subscription, but YouTube is free and I watch all kinds of videos of other people paying off their debt. It inspires me. Mr. Money Mustache’s blog posts are hilarious, full of amazing frugal ideas, and super motivating. The Minimalists podcast gives so many great ideas on how to “live better with less.” Dave Ramsey has dozens of callers each week into his radio show sharing their financial issues and receiving live advice — also telling the stories of their success. Over these past eight months I have kept a steady stream of ideas and inspiration pouring in to keep my motivation up.
22. I Ate Really Good Food… At Home
My dining out budget each month was $100, which doesn’t get you far here in NYC. So I made sure, with my $250 grocery budget, to buy really great ingredients like fresh fruit & veggies, nut butters, hummus, herbs, sauces, cheese… stuff that I was excited to come home and eat. Yeah, I’ve eaten a ton of oatmeal too. But I like oatmeal. It gets the job done.
23. I Let People Take Me Out to Eat
I have some very sweet friends (and family members!) who have been totally supportive of my debt-free mission, and super generous over these months. As such, I have been taken out to some absolutely delicious dinners and lunches. These meals were even more special than past meals out. Partly because they were rare. Also because of the deeply kind gestures of the people close to me. They were fortifying on so many levels.
24. I Created a Support Network
I have not been alone in this. First, there is the mysterious group of people (between 100-1,000 per post) that watch and encourage me on YouTube. Then there is the killer circle of whip-smart witchy girlfriends with whom I did a formal financial coaching group for several months. Then there is my sister who is a rockstar earner and also on a major mission towards financial freedom. My mom, who has never been one to pour over financial spreadsheets, has hopped on board and also started becoming more excited about money and budgeting with me. Plus my dad, who is kind of a numbers geek, has patiently (and seemingly with genuine interest) waded through numbers with me on looong phone calls. My support network has helped me feel really, well, supported. It’s awesome.
25. I Took Others’ Encouragement to Heart
Sometimes on YouTube I get a really simple comment like “great job! You’re doing awesome! You got this!” Instead of just brushing past it, I take it to heart. Someone I don’t even know took a couple minutes out of their day to write that. So I fully receive the message and send them a big thank-you out over the sky to wherever they live (often across the world). This gives me a real boost!
26. I Imagined a Better Future
What will life be like when I’m financially free? Is a question I regularly pondered. Then I took the time, either in my imagination or a journal, to play it out. When I’m financially free I will be able to be more brave with my career moves. I will feel confident speaking boldly and honestly about my beliefs and values. I will take time to study more books and participate in more trainings. I will feel a greater sense of inner worth, as opposed to inner deficiency. I will have much more freedom to think about where I want to live, what I want to do, who I want to do it with… I will be able to be generous towards organizations and individuals who need help. This imagining was intensely motivating. By painting an inner picture of why I’m doing this, all the harder stuff like budgeting and working longer days felt positive instead of like a drag.
27. I Smiled at Money and Thanked Every Bit of it That Showed Up in My Experience
You know that thing people seeking wealth do where they pick up a penny off the street because they don’t want to say “no” to any money? I think it might’ve come from that book Rich Dad, Poor Dad. Or maybe it was in Think and Grow Rich. Anyway, I rarely do that. When I see a dirty penny on the street, I do not have the urge to pick it up. But you know what I do instead? I look at it and think to myself “amazing! There’s money all around me! What an abundant world I live in!” Then keep walking.
The other thing I do, is every time I get a paycheck or a small fistful of cash from a private client I smile at it and enthusiastically thank it for showing up in my life. I also thank the person who gave it to me. Both when they gave it, and when I’m home filing it to be deposited in the bank.
28. I Ignored Wussy Whiny Messages
As mentioned in #20, there are surprising amount of people who will try to talk you down from your badassity when working extra hard and “depriving” yourself of stupid things like lattes. There are people that think you are doing too much and burning out. When I encountered wussy whiny messages like this I paused and did a little inner reflection, having thoughts like this:
I make many thousands of dollars each month strolling around barefoot in plush, warm, beautiful high-end environments inviting people to stretch their limbs and breathe more deeply. I listen to music of my choosing, I wear incredibly comfortable clothing. I have deep and pleasant moments with absolutely wonderful, evolved, intelligent people. When I’m not at yoga studios I’m in lovely homes throughout this city with working toilets and all the fresh water I can drink. I sleep at least 8 hours each night in a soft, warm cozy bed under a leak-free roof. I eat fresh organic vegetables and grains. When I feel a little blue I have layers and layers and layers of support both emotionally and financially to fall back on. I think I’ll be okay. Now let’s get back to work!
(There is a teeny bit of wisdom in the caution about not burning out, which is why it’s good to diversify your earnings — so you aren’t overly taxing yourself by doing the same thing constantly.)
29. I Remembered My 13-Yr-Old Inner Hustler
When I was 13 my dad said I should earn my own money so I got a job at the local farm pulling weeds in a pumpkin patch for 4 hours each day at $5/hour. When I was 14 my best friend Christyn got me a job at the local Italian restaurant for $5.25/hour washing dishes. A year later I was promoted to prep cook and I made $5.75 rinsing the flies out of the lettuce, cleaning and slicing up calamari, prepping giant mounds of pizza dough and all kinds of other random tasks. And I loved it. I took great pride in my hard work. Maybe it is all the episodes of Sex & The City I watched in my 20’s, but sometime between then and now I got soft. I developed a distaste for scrappy uncomfortable hard work. But this debt-annihilation stint brought me back to that scrappy teenager who mopped many, many floors to get a taste of the great freedom and opportunity that money provides.
30. I Broke My Lease With No Penalty and Moved to a More Affluent Neighborhood
It is usually not advised to move while hauling ass to get out of debt. Moving can be extremely expensive. But I knew my lease was coming up for renewal, I knew the price would go up, and I also knew that I wanted to move to a more affluent and socially vibrant part of NYC. I had been living in a small apartment on the far side of Prospect Park long enough. So I scoured list serves and wrote my ideal apartment attributes: view of the East River and Manhattan skyline, cool funky loft space, living with three funny/interesting/inspired guys (cause I like that show New Girl).
Then I found it. A big funky loft space in DUMBO overlooking the river with three young funny fun brilliant men. To move in I had to break my lease. But I didn’t want to pay extra rent, and I wanted to get my deposit back. So I wrote a totally kind and open email to my building manager 10 days before I planned to move, and he agreed. The deposit check is in the mail right now. Very little financial loss for a huge neighborhood gain. Boom.
31. I Let the World Provide
As previously mentioned, I was offered some really lovely things over these eight months, trips, meals, tips, trades for other services I could benefit from. The last night of April I recall my grocery budget was drained, I had nothing good to eat, and I came across a business giving away free vegan dinners at Equinox where I had just finished teaching a class. Yes please! At the end of a yoga private the student offered me a giant round loaf of sourdough bread from She Wolf Bakery — I’ll take it! Plus many more free offerings crossed my path. I trusted that with a goal this clear, the world would provide. It did and I said “yes”.
32. I Practiced Contentment
In the Yoga Sutra there is this word “santosha” which means “contentment”. Instead of entertaining the parts of me that wanted more/better during these months, I regularly returned to this idea of santosha — of being content with what I have. And when I did this every single time I looked around I saw that I have SO MUCH. What more could I possibly want?
33. I Trusted My Ability to Change My Reality
I’ll be honest, you didn’t need to read all the points in-between. The two most important ones are #2 and this #33. If you don’t believe you can change, you can’t. If you believe you can, you will find a way through every single challenge, every roadblock. You will see a world of interesting opportunities and fascinating quandaries to solve. This debt-freedom happened because I decided to do it, and believed it was possible. Period.
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*photo credits: furthermore by equinox, arielkiley.me*