URI BERLINER, BYLINE: There's this moment when you realize you're in really big debt.
CHRIS ARNOLD, HOST:
And we're not talking about, like, $200, oh-no-I-bought-some-shoes kind of debt. We're talking about serious debt.
TONY GARDNER: I remember standing in our kitchen, seeing the - it was a letter.
ARNOLD: Uh-oh. That doesn't sound like a very good letter, Uri.
BERLINER: Not a good letter at all. That's Tony Gardner (ph). What he's talking about is a letter he got about his student loans - Tony's and his wife Meredith's (ph). They had racked up about $40,000 in debt. They had recently got out of college. They had a couple of kids. They were going to have more. And they felt really kind of hopeless about the whole situation.
T GARDNER: And just feeling like - how are we going to do this? How are we going to pay for our student loan debt on the money that we were making at the time and still get by?
ARNOLD: And that's the thing about really big debt, right? I mean, it feels terrible, but it also feels just like, I am never going to be able to pay this off. It's going to take, like, 20 years.
BERLINER: But there are ways you can climb out of it.
T GARDNER: We climbed a big, steep mountain.
MEREDITH GARDNER: We didn't think we were going to be able to do it.
T GARDNER: And we didn't think we were going to be able to do it.
M GARDNER: There was lots of times that we wanted to give up.
T GARDNER: It was hard. And it's worth it.
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ARNOLD: This is your NPR LIFE KIT for getting out of debt. In this episode, extreme debt-reduction strategies. I'm Chris Arnold. I cover personal finance and consumer protection.
BERLINER: And I'm Uri Berliner, senior business editor here at NPR. And there are a bunch of different approaches to getting out of debt. We're going to look at one of them today, and it's not for the faint of heart.
ARNOLD: Right. This is a close all the hatches on the submarine, we are going underwater, and we are not coming back up until this debt is paid off - this is the kind of approach we're going to be talking about right after this.
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ARNOLD: OK. Extreme debt reduction - this is like the X Games of getting out of debt. But you know, people do X Games, and it can work. So Uri, you went to Nebraska, and you talked to this family who actually did this. And they walked the walk. They succeeded at something that a lot of us would like to do - right? - get out of a pile of debt really fast.
BERLINER: Right. I met Meredith and Tony Gardner at their home. It's in a leafy neighborhood in Omaha.
M GARDNER: Hi. How are you?
BERLINER: Hi, I'm Uri. Hi.
So back in 2012, Tony had just gotten out of college. They had two kids at the time and jobs where their salaries were really not that great. And between their credit card debt, some medical debt and both their student loans, they owed about $37,000, which was almost as much as they were making together in an entire year - all the money from their jobs. This was stressing them out.
M GARDNER: Money was, in our marriage, a source of conflict big time. There's definitely times when we would have overdraft fees. We just weren't communicating on the same page. And we didn't know how, looking forward in the future, we were going to be able to afford anything.
BERLINER: And then they heard about this radio host, a financial advice guy, Dave Ramsey.
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DAVE RAMSEY: Place your debts smallest to largest. Pay minimum payments on everything but the little one, and attack that little one with a vengeance.
BERLINER: So we're not saying here that this is the only answer. But for Meredith and Tony, this Ramsey thing sounded pretty good. It's a system that's really totally at odds with American consumerism and the way most of us, like you and I, Chris, live our financial lives.
ARNOLD: Yeah. I mean, I've definitely heard of this. It's, like, you really cut back on spending and put a lot of your money towards paying off your debt.
BERLINER: Yeah. Meredith and Tony found out about it when a friend of theirs gave them one of Ramsey's books.
M GARDNER: And I remember reading it and feeling like, this is really great, but I don't think we could do it.
T GARDNER: And I remember reading it, and I remember it and thinking, we have to do this. To me, it was kind of a ray of light in a very dark money time for us. And we just decided from then that we would try, and that was how we wanted to do it.
BERLINER: Tony and Meredith decided they're going to be debt-free by the time they were 30 years old - debt-free by 30. But they only had two years to do it, to pay off $37,000.
ARNOLD: So Uri, there's someone actually that I want to bring into the story here. And I knew you were going to talk to the Gardners, so I called up Ayelet Fishbach.
AYELET FISHBACH: I study motivation - how people motivate themselves, how they motivate others, how do we get ourselves to do things.
ARNOLD: So Ayelet's a professor of behavioral science at The University of Chicago. And I wanted to talk to her, Uri, because I wanted to better understand what is the best way to motivate yourself if you're trying to do this really hard thing that the Gardners are doing. Right? And she has spent most of her adult life studying this exact question. So she's going to give us a few tips from her research. And the first thing she says, Uri, that you have to do - and this is tip No. 1 - you have to set a goal, and it has to be really specific.
FISHBACH: Yes. Basically, what psychologists discovered is that when you set the goal of saving X amount of money, you're more likely to do it than when you say, I will just save as much as possible. When you set the goal of doing 20 pushups, you will do more pushups than when you say, well, I will just try to do many pushups. That's probably good for me.
ARNOLD: And Uri, you said that the Gardners did this - right? - that they're going to be debt-free by 30. That's, like, nice and specific.
BERLINER: Yeah. So they had a good goal. It was really specific. But you know what? It was hard. It was hard to actually do it. And they realized that to reach that goal, they needed to radically change their spending habits.
T GARDNER: So probably one of the biggest transformations that we had was making and trying to stick to a budget. When we were - at that point in our lives, we did not do that.
BERLINER: It wasn't fun at all. They were driving these beat-up, old cars, and they were getting their clothes from thrift stores and hand-me-down furniture from friends who thought, like, this was actually a pretty good thing. And basically, they furnished their living room almost for nothing.
ARNOLD: And that part sounds pretty good - right? - I mean, people giving you free stuff. But I mean, it can't just have been all free stuff. So like, what were they doing as far as, like, cutting back on spending?
BERLINER: Yeah. So they just paid for everything in cash.
Tell me about the cash system.
T GARDNER: Cash system's where - it's a series of envelopes with budget names on them - you know, groceries. And we would use a certain amount of money for every grocery trip, and that was the limit. Like, you couldn't go over it. If Meredith was shopping and she had $150, that was all she could spend, whereas before, if there was a card, there's no ouch. You know, we started to use cash because it was painful to separate with the money. It was - you know, it added feeling to it.
BERLINER: So over time, Meredith and Tony got kind of used to this, and it really helped them.
ARNOLD: Yeah. And I've heard about this, too, that, like, if you're spending cash, like, somehow that's going to make you spend less. So I asked Ayelet about that to see, like, OK, well, what's going on there?
FISHBACH: The reason people spend less when they use cash versus cards is basically what Tony describes as his intuition. It's hard to separate from your cash because you can see the limit. It's not abstract.
ARNOLD: And this brings us to takeaway No. 2. You have to have a plan for resisting temptation. For a lot of people, using cash like this can work really well. Or you might just decide, like, all right, we're not going to go out to dinner at all. Or we're only getting about once a month. So there's no, like, oh, well, should I? Shouldn't I? I am really hungry. Let's just get Chinese food. We tend to give into temptation, she says, when we make decisions in the moment like that.
FISHBACH: There will be temptations. There will be obstacles. And what we find in our research is that one of the best ways to have self-control, to be able to motivate yourself, is by sitting down and thinking about the upcoming temptation, by anticipating in advance, what's going to stop me.
ARNOLD: And this idea of anticipation - Ayelet says there's research that shows that this is really powerful. And it's kind of like - imagine you're about to pick up a piece of heavy furniture. And it's not just, like, some folding chair. You know this is going to be heavy. So you're like, all right; let's get ready to do this.
FISHBACH: Then you approach it with full force. Often it will be even easier than you anticipated because you were already prepared to lift something heavy. This is very different than a situation in which you approach the same piece of furniture not knowing that it's going to be heavy and - oh, no - all of a sudden, you just can't lift it.
BERLINER: You know, that sounds all right. But what the Gardners were facing, they had to lift something really heavy, like a gigantic couch. The Gardners were making some progress towards their financial goals. They weren't overdrafting, but they weren't making a dent at all in all that debt. They started feeling like just cutting spending wasn't enough. They needed something bigger. They needed a bigger shovel to dig out with, and that meant they needed more money.
T GARDNER: Then one day, I told Meredith - I was like, maybe I should just go deliver pizzas. She's like, I think it's time.
BERLINER: Tony became a pizza delivery guy. He'd come home from his IT job at around 5:00, and he'd put on his Pizza Hut cap.
ARNOLD: Wait. So he worked in IT. Like, he's a computer guy.
BERLINER: Yeah, he's a computer guy.
ARNOLD: And now he's delivering pizzas.
BERLINER: So like, he's finished at 5:00, and then he gets home. He puts on this Pizza Hut cap and "Savor the Flavor" T-shirt. He wore these shoes he told me about. They were, like, $20 Wal-Mart non-slip specials. And he'd be off at 6:30 in the evening delivering pizzas around Omaha until after midnight. Didn't really get to see much of his kids - his sleep was shot. He wasn't getting any sleep. And then he got sick. He got shingles because he was really so exhausted.
ARNOLD: Shingles? I mean, come on. I mean, look - I mean, I support getting out of debt and everything. But this just sounds like it sucks. Right? I mean, this guy is going to, like, die of some ailments here.
BERLINER: I don't know if he's going to die, but it sounded pretty unpleasant.
Did you ever feel like, this is no way to live, I hate this? I...
T GARDNER: Absolutely, yeah. That's part of why we did it so fast, I think, is because - you know, we knew, hey, this is not sustainable, but it's not forever. That was the plan going into it. You know, we knew this was going to be hard. But we're going to do it, and we're going to do it now so that we're free to act later.
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ARNOLD: And we should say, we are not recommending that you work so hard that you aren't sleeping and you get shingles. But to get out of debt fast, I mean, that is just going to be an inherently challenging thing. And I talked to Ayelet about this. And she said that having a goal that is challenging - just the fact that it's challenging can actually help you achieve it.
FISHBACH: Yes, it's hard. And yes, it's not going to be fun. But it is going to be fun in the sense of we are going to do it together. This couple is able to frame it as a challenge, and meeting challenges is already something that could be exciting as you do it.
ARNOLD: And this is takeaway No. 3 - that in order to stick with a hard goal, you have to find ways to make it fun or at least enjoy parts of it - because you know, it can suck. But Uri, it can't totally suck.
BERLINER: Yeah. And actually, they did sort of find joy in other ways, too. Like, even the pizza delivery job - Tony, he actually kind of liked it.
T GARDNER: I was just getting so much payoff in stories. Like, I would just meet the strangest and coolest people. And I worked with the strangest and the funniest and the neatest people.
BERLINER: Tell me a pizza delivery story.
T GARDNER: Oh, man. This one time, my customer was on his way down, and there was a man inside the door who's like - oh, hey, pizza delivery guy. Don't worry. Nobody here is going to rob you, but how much are you carrying? Right? And so I was like, uh - you know? And I just backed away, and I put my back against a wall. And I was standing next to this - he was, like, 7 feet tall. And he looks down at me, and he said, do not worry. He said, you are a pizza delivery man. You have no enemies. (Laughter) And, you know, I felt like it was going to be OK. It was going to be OK.
M GARDNER: (Laughter).
BERLINER: And really, the pizza delivery thing was fun because the whole family got involved in it. At one point when I was at their house, Tony (ph) pulled me aside. And he showed me a bunch of his pizza delivery gear.
T GARDNER: Pizza Hut T-shirt, jacket for cooler or colder weather, and then probably my favorite part is the clipboard. We got this, and my daughter started decorating it. They had bought these little glittery hairpins, and they wanted me to keep it on my clipboard. So I put the hairpin on my clipboard. And I just started getting tips, and people were asking about it. And, you know...
BERLINER: I'm just going to ask. I mean, do you think that people saw that clipboard with the hairpin on it, and they realized, oh, this is a dad who's got a kid, and we're going to give you a tip?
T GARDNER: Yeah, you know, that's - I don't think that's an unreasonable guess. I mean, that's - absolutely. They may have also just been like, oh, this is...
BERLINER: This is a weird guy.
T GARDNER: Weird guy.
T GARDNER: What a weird guy. Probably needs some cash.
BERLINER: Here you go.
FISHBACH: This couple really nailed it, how - that if you are going to stick to something for, you know, more than a little while, you have to find joy. OK? People overestimate how much they can suffer through it. OK? It's often the beginner's mistake - I'll just suffer through it and just somehow do this. Then, at the moment, people don't like suffer through anything. So to the extent that I can make anything that is by itself not very enjoyable into joyful, that's the way to go.
ARNOLD: So the Gardners (ph) found the joy. And Ayelet says that there's something else also that's going on with this family that she found really interesting. And this is takeaway number four. She says having social support is super critical to sticking with these hard long-term projects.
FISHBACH: You need to get your community, your family, your spouse to support your goals. You need to have the conversation with them. They need to agree with you. They need to support you. We might be hesitant in seeking social support because we will have to admit that we are in a bad place. And this couple suddenly have figured it out.
T GARDNER: Meredith (ph) and I's marriage was hurt by the debt and by the conflict and the fight. But the stress of getting out of debt, that was also taxing.
M GARDNER: But it helped that we were working together toward a common goal.
T GARDNER: Absolutely.
M GARDNER: Knowing that, you know, we were a team, and we were going to work together to solve this problem, and we were on the same page, I think that really made all the difference.
ARNOLD: Uri, like, I find that pretty moving actually that this is a really hard thing they were doing, but they're saying, like, what made it work - and what Ayelet's saying too what made it work - is that they were really in it together. Like, they were just really good to each other and supportive of each other.
BERLINER: Yeah. And they really were. And working together in that way, it really advanced their goals. Tony starts bringing in pretty good money, about $20 an hour. And the family starts putting away almost all that money into paying off their debts.
T GARDNER: So we used a method that's pretty common. It's called the debt snowball. We ordered all of our debts, smallest to largest, so that we'd get quick wins. And once it started picking up speed, and we started - really started into paying on debt, it was very motivating and helpful to do that.
BERLINER: This snowball method, it's a little controversial. Some economists say what you really should do is start with the debt that has the highest interest rate.
ARNOLD: Right. And we get into why it's controversial and different methods like this in episode one of this LIFE KIT guide. But, Uri, keep going with the story.
BERLINER: For Tony and Meredith, paying off each debt gave them a burst of new energy to tackle the next one.
ARNOLD: And I guess, Uri, like, each one of these things was like a little victory, and that kept them going. And Ayelet says that that totally makes sense that they felt that way because - and this is takeaway number five - when you break up something big into smaller goals that are, like, more doable, she says that can really help keep up momentum.
FISHBACH: It's easier to do anything at the beginning and the end. There are a few reasons. Well, it's more exciting to do it at the beginning - I just had the idea - and at the end, where I'm about to meet the goal, than in the long way that is in between. So we know that middles are hard. You know, what Tony described there is a method that makes him feel that they are making progress. And feeling that you are making progress is very, very important.
BERLINER: The Gardners were doing a lot of things to keep themselves motivated. And eventually, they started paying off their debt pretty fast. And that felt pretty good. But this long period in the middle was also a grind. It was a real slog. And what they decided was they needed to give themselves a little slack.
M GARDNER: Just for mental health, we got to a point where we said, like, we need to have some spending money.
BERLINER: So Chris...
BERLINER: ...How much money do you think they allowed themselves for fun, for spending money?
ARNOLD: I was going to say, like - I don't know - maybe a hundred bucks. I mean, you know, come on. You got to live a little.
BERLINER: Chris, it was 20 bucks a month each.
ARNOLD: 20 bucks each.
BERLINER: Yeah. So...
ARNOLD: You can't even go to the movies for, like - I mean, I guess if you get, like - if you drink water, you can go to...
BERLINER: They didn't go to the movies. They got a few sodas. Think...
ARNOLD: (Laughter) That's terrible.
BERLINER: Yeah, it is terrible. And Tony wound up needing a little extra to stay motivated.
T GARDNER: There was one point where it was kind of stressful, and I went to Meredith. And I said, you know, I'm - I said, how about I keep 10 percent of tips on top of the blow money that I make, you know, my 20 bucks? And she said, yeah, that's fine. So I saved up for several months and was able to buy more expensive things. And that was - it was a good reward. It was like, OK, I'm working hard, but I've got something to show for it.
ARNOLD: So Ayelet says that these little splurges and rewards can also be super critical for pushing through the long middle that she's talking about. And this is our tip number six - reward yourself. That's very important. But just make sure you're using the right kinds of rewards.
FISHBACH: It's important because it makes the process fun - right? - because if you're enjoying saving, then you are more likely to continue saving. The worry about rewards is really when the - you reward yourself by disengaging with a goal. OK? So you're like the - you know, the dieter that reward themselves with a giant chocolate cake or the saver that's rewarding themselves with spending.
ARNOLD: Yeah. Or for the Gardners (ph), you know, where if they bought, like, a new car, and Tony (ph) was like, hey, you know, Meredith (ph)? I just got an Aston Martin - you know, something expensive - that that would be bad. You know? But dinner at Chick-fil-A's (ph) is probably OK.
BERLINER: And that's probably about as much as they were going to do. And they were chugging along, moving along towards this goal of getting debt-free. But, you know, a couple of roadblocks popped up along the way - kind of inevitable. At one point, they had a baby, and they pressed pause on the debt for a while. That original goal of being debt-free by 30, it didn't work out. But they stuck with it. And then finally, one day, this happened.
M GARDNER: We got paid in early April. And we had enough money to pay off the balance. I think it was a couple thousand dollars left on his student loan. And so I paid it and took a picture of it and sent it to him. And it was over. It was done.
BERLINER: This was about a year late. They were 31. But they did it. And to celebrate, they put this video up on YouTube.
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TONY AND MEREDITH GARDNER: Three, two, one. We're debt-free.
ARNOLD: We're debt-free. That is very cool.
FISHBACH: You know, it makes me curious to know what's the next goal that this family's set for itself. Sounds like they could achieve more.
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ARNOLD: All right. So if you have a big pile of debt that you're working to pay off, or really, if you have any big financial goal that you're working towards, there are things that you can do to help get yourself to the finish line, stay motivated. And, of course, we covered a lot of ground here, so here's a quick review. Takeaway number one, you have to set a goal.
FISHBACH: Make it specific. Make sure it's a goal, not a chore.
BERLINER: Takeaway number two, make a plan for how you'll resist temptation.
FISHBACH: The best way to guarantee that you have self-control is anticipate the obstacle. Anticipate the temptations. Sit down and think what's coming. And if you see that it's going to be hard, have a plan of how you're going to overcome that.
ARNOLD: Putting cash in envelopes, you know, for the grocery store or whatever else can be good for that. That worked for the Gardners. Now, takeaway number three, resisting all that temptation, might suck. But this project you're undertaking, it can't only suck.
FISHBACH: We set goals that are hard. It can be daunting. But the only way to get there - if we can enjoy the process, if we can find some fun in doing it.
BERLINER: Takeaway number four, you need support from your community.
FISHBACH: We need our friends, our spouses, our kids, our parents, our neighbors to support our goals. They should know what we do, and they should be on board.
ARNOLD: And takeaway number five, you want to break up your big goal into smaller mini goals so you get some small wins along the way. And that'll help motivate you and keep up momentum.
FISHBACH: We know that middles are hard. Try to make the middles not too long. OK? That is, set some sub-goals.
ARNOLD: And lastly, takeaway number six, when you achieve those little goals along the way, reward yourself. Just make sure your reward doesn't throw you off track.
FISHBACH: It's important to make sure that you enjoy what you're doing. And giving yourself some reward, even just a pat on the shoulder, is important in order to feel good about what you do, which means that you will continue doing it.
BERLINER: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other guides about how to start saving and investing and how to eat healthier.
ARNOLD: And check out the next episode in this guide. It's about strategies to deal with medical bills. And, Uri, so many people struggle with this, and there are great ways to get the amount that you owe, for example, cut in half, sometimes forgiven completely, all kinds of other strategies to do with medical bills. So definitely check that out.
You can find all the LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to our newsletter so you don't miss anything. We've got more guides coming out every month on all sorts of topics. And, as always, here's a completely random tip. This time, it's from NPR listener Genevieve Shoal (ph) of Parkdale, Ore.
GENEVIEVE SHOAL: I hate scraping frost off my windshield. So I have a really good trick. I keep a household spray bottle in my car filled 50/50 with rubbing alcohol and water. And whenever there's frost on my windshield, I just squirt it with this mixture, and it melts the frost right away. Hit it with the wipers and drive off, and no scraping.
BERLINER: If you've got a good tip or want to suggest a topic, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Uri Berliner.
ARNOLD: And I'm Chris Arnold. Thanks for listening.
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