6 Behavior Hacks to Help You Defeat Debt

Perhaps as a result of studying Psychology for my undergraduate degree, I’m always observing and analyzing people and their behaviors.

I frequently think about successful people and what makes them so, including those who’ve acquired wealth.

It’s been said that if you divide all the wealth in the world equally among all the people, in as little as three years, the same people would have all the wealth and the same people would have none.

If this is true, it must mean that (generally speaking) wealth isn’t a result of dumb luck.

It must mean that there are subtle behaviors, repeated time and time again – which begin to create a surplus of cash which, overtimes, snowballs into wealth.

If this is true, it’s good news for everyone; this implies that your circumstance or personality won’t necessarily dictate your financial success, rather your ability to replicate the healthy financial behaviors of those with the wealthiest mindsets.

Of course, the first step to building wealth is to eliminate debt.  As such, here are six behavior hacks to help you defeat your debt.

1. Fight Impulsiveness

I recently decided that I needed to update the accessories on my sofa.  In particular the cushions and one throw blanket – just to dress it up a little bit.  The first place I thought I should go was Home Sense – great designer products for a fraction of the retail price.

Upon walking into the store, I was immediately captivated by their immaculate, taunting, in-store displays.  Slowly, I paced the aisles of the entire store, resisting the urge to put anything (other than what I came for) into my shopping cart.

Proudly, I made it to the check out line with only what I set out to purchase.

But then…I was corralled into the checkout aisle with roughly ten groups ahead of me.  And, I was left there to wait.

Are you familiar with the Home Sense checkout system?

If not, you’re funneled into the checkout aisle – essentially another shopping aisle, but you’re captive, that is, until it’s time to pay.  Surrounded, as you wait, by a zillion knick-knacks.  You have nothing to do but peruse the items surrounding you, some of which include: dry baking mixes, olive oils, decorative mugs, socks, cell phone accessories, festive reusable bags, gift cards and chocolate bars.

The only addition to my cart that day was a sea salt and dark chocolate Lindt chocolate bar – nothing that would wreak havoc on my finances.  But, you can see how quickly one’s initially intended purchase could balloon into a shopping spree gone wild.  And, how, if every time you shop, you grab a little something extra, you’d burn through money at an alarming rate.

Home Sense is only one example of this type of shopping though.  Think of check out in most grocery stores, retail stores, gas stations, etc.

I dodge impulsive purchases for a few reasons.  The first is because I live in a small space and rarely buy ‘stuff’ unless it has a legit use – stemming from my fear of being overcrowded, and secondly because I don’t like to waste my money.

Combat your debt by planning, in advance, that which you wish to buy.  Write down what you need prior to shopping, and then, stick to it.  If you really want to tackle debt, you need to stick to your plan.

2. Take Direction from Your Budget Categories

When working as a Money Coach, I always ask new clients, to tell me, in the course of one month, how much they spend on food (including groceries, coffees, and eating out).

There are two usual responses – either, they confidently offer an amount (which is always a gross underestimate), or they simply don’t know.

The reason I ask clients about what they spend on food is that I know, even for myself, food expenses can be among the fastest ways to overspend and conversely the simplest way to save money.  In addition, having no sense of how much is being spent on food illustrates a detachment from spending decisions as a whole.

Rather than creating limitations in my spending, a budget reduced the guilt I used to experience every time I spent money.  My budget permitted me to spend money where and how I planned.

To pay of $77,000 of my consumer debt, I dug into budgeting in a big way.  And, contrary to what you might think, working with a budget was liberating for me.  Rather than creating limitations in my spending, a budget reduced the guilt I used to experience every time I spent money.  My budget permitted me to spend money where and how I planned.

Have you heard this before?  That which gets measured gets done.

To use food as an example, I might set $800 as my budget for food.  To use my budget to my advantage, I track my food expenses, then, as I approach the end of the month, I can change my behavior to line up with my budget.

For example, with two days left in the month, and $790 spent, I’d be more inclined to eat what’s left in my fridge or pantry rather than eating out.

Repeatedly operating from a budget allows you to set the amount you want to put towards debt while additionally accounting for your other living expenses.

To tackle your debt, operate with a budget, making spending decisions from the allotted budget categories while clearly setting the debt repayment amount you plan to achieve each month.

 3. Review Receipt/Bill/Invoice Details

When wrapping up a meal at a restaurant, I motion to the waiter to bring the cheque.  He does, and I tuck my credit card into the billfold.  He promptly returns with the debit/credit payment machine.  Then, I make the payment and leave.

Similarly, I head to the grocery store and fill my cart with groceries.  I idly watch the cashier swipe my items, then bag them, at which point I present my loyalty card.  I feel great as the loyalty card discounts are applied and the till beeps through my savings.

I pay and head home.

You might’ve already clued into the fact that, I paid no attention to my receipts.

In both cases, I never checked to ensure that what was on my receipt was what I had or received – in the case of both the restaurant or grocery store.  And, I never ensured that the price charged matched the advertised price.

In the case of a restaurant, you can see how easy it would be to be inadvertently charged for an expensive glass of wine when I made a cheaper selection, or, in the case of the grocery store, being charged for organic produce (at a premium) when regular produce was my choice.

While a trusting disposition is healthy, it’s still important to be vigilant with all bills.  When receiving a receipt in any circumstance, ask yourself if you were charged for the services/items you actually received, and if the amount you were charged was the same as those being advertised.

4. Ask Questions, Always

Have you ever felt a question burning on the tip of your lips, but you felt it’s something you should know, so you didn’t want it voiced?  Or, you’ve been faced with a salesperson who rushed you through a process, making it subtly clear, they’re uninterested in delving into the details?

Know this.  When you make the choice to spend your hard earned money, you reserve the right to ask questions when you ultimately decide to spend it.

Here’s an example.

For years, I paid a big bank monthly bank fees which I never explored or queried.

Years later, after crafting a budget and looking to reduce or eliminate as many expenses as I could, I quizzed the bank about the inclusions with my monthly bank fees.

Of the many services offered resulting from my bank fees, what struck me the most was my ability to use two bank drafts per month – something I think I’ve only ever needed (in my entire lifetime) twice.

I officially felt scammed.

The monthly bank fees I’d been paying for years was the equivalent of paying for a premium cable/satellite sports package with no interest in sports.

What a total waste of money.  And, guess who’s fault it was?  Mine.

When you sign up for a service (like cable, cell phone, internet) or buy a complex product (line of credit, mortgage, insurance, credit card), start asking questions, and better to ask lots of them.

Not only will you become less likely to be overcharged, but asking questions will free up money to put against debt.  Asking questions leaves you empowered while ensuring you receive the products and services best suited to you and your circumstances.  And, in some cases, great questions will reveal otherwise unknown specials and deals.

5. Leverage Cash or Debit

When receiving credit cards statements through the mail or logging in online, do you have a sense of the owed balance in advance?  Or, are you often shocked at how much you’ve spent?

While I believe that credit cards are an amazing tool, when used responsibly, many individuals struggle to feel connected to what’s being spent when using credit products.

As one of my client’s shared with me, it’s easy to think of the credit limit as a spending limit instead of a loan balance.

To keep spending on track and to avoid unnecessary debt, it’s most beneficial to spend with debit or cash.  Debit and cash are more tangible with fixed spending limits.  After all, you can only spend what you genuinely have available.

Those, overly tempted with credit cards and lines of credit, should make a concerted effort to leverage debit and physical cash, when possible.

6. Choose the Most Motivating Debt Strategy

Upon scheduling a vacation or approaching a wedding, graduation or reunion, have you ever suddenly gotten the energy you need for proper diet and exercise?  Do you ever wonder why you don’t have this level of focus on any other day?

In the same way, diet often requires a dangled carrot, so-to-speak, debt repayment does too.

Choosing a debt reduction strategy that will create the most motivation for you is crucial when tackling debt.

When paying down my debt (consisting of two lines of credit and multiple credit cards), I paid the debt I felt most guilty about first  (a credit card shared between my mom and me) followed by the balance of debts organized from smallest to largest.

You might decide to pay off the debts with the highest interest rates followed by those with lower rates.  You might pay off debts from smallest in size to the largest – commonly called the Snowball method.  Or, you might repay debts by those eliciting the most guilt.

To defeat debt, choose a repayment strategy most likely to keep you motivated.

 Bottom Line

Success, financial or otherwise isn’t necessarily linear.  You might experience setbacks and make mistakes along the way, but good intentions paired with subtle, daily shifts, in your financial behavior will only bolster your ability to defeat debt while ultimately fostering wealth.


Kelley Olinger is a freelance writer, blogger, and Realtor. 

Having paid off $77,000 of debt in one year and ten months, Kelley is passionate about helping others craft prosperous lives while mastering their finances.  She writes about personal finance and real estate on her blog, Reconcile Your Wallet.


Edward Shepard

Marketing Lead at Tiller. Writer. Budding spreadsheet nerd. Get in touch with partnership ideas at edward @ tillerhq.com.