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So you have some debt that you need to pay off. If you listen to the advice of many get-out-of-debt gurus, you should pay it off as quickly and intensely as possible. They say you should never set foot in a restaurant, go on vacation, or do anything “extra” until the last credit card and student loan are paid off.

This seems like a good approach. If you can just cut out all your extra expenses — and maybe bring in some additional income — you’ll get out of debt much sooner, right?

Well, maybe not.

In fact, becoming debt-free may be quite similar to getting to and maintaining a healthy weight. The intense, fast options may seem like a good idea, but they can actually have negative consequences.

Paying Off Debt & Yo-Yo Dieting

Intense weight loss strategies can often result in what’s called a “yo-yo diet.” It’s when you lose a bunch of weight quickly only to gain it back quickly after your intense efforts are done. Even Biggest Loser contestants aren’t immune to this problem.

If you cut calories dramatically for three weeks before a big event, sure you’ll lose weight. But you haven’t made sustainable changes that will help you stay healthy over the long term.

This is similar to getting out of debt. Sure, you can cut your budget to the absolute bare bones to pay off credit cards in a matter of months. But does this approach really help you build sustainable habits — and a sustainable budget — for the long run? Maybe not.

My husband and I struggled with this early on in our marriage. We wanted to pay off our student loans and car loan desperately. So for a few months, we’d cut everything extra out of our budgets. No restaurants. No fun money. No nothing.

It would work for a bit, and we’d make some progress. But eventually, we’d get to the point where we felt so restricted, we just had to break free. And break free we did. Usually to the tune of a couple hundred dollars or more of “unnecessary” spending.

We went through this cycle for literally years until we learned to take a more measured approach to our “debt diet.” We still keep a close eye on our spending and try not to waste money. But we each have a monthly allowance for things like new clothes, our hobbies, and other personal items. And we have a date night fund so that we can enjoy each other’s company out of the house at least once a month.

This extra spending means we’re not paying off debt as quickly. But it also means that we avoid those splurges that used to throw us completely off track.

You Should Still Enjoy Life

What’s the main point of losing weight on a diet? Sure, you want to look good in a pair of jeans. But you also want to be able to move more freely, have more sustainable energy levels, and just enjoy life more.

What’s the main point of getting out of debt? Sure, you want to stop paying ridiculous interest rates on your credit cards. But you also want to free up money in your budget so that you have more options financially, so that you can enjoy life more.

So what’s the point of dieting or paying off debt if you’re miserable for months or years while you’re doing it?

When you’re dieting, you could cut out everything but salads with dry grilled chicken and probably lose weight very quickly. Or you could learn to make delicious, healthy meals that you love. And you could give yourself tiny splurges once in a while. You might see slower, steadier weight loss progress, but you’ll enjoy life while working towards your goal.

The same applies when paying off debt. You could spend on only the absolute necessities — food, housing, utilities, and transportation — to pay off debt more quickly. Or you could create a reasonable, sustainable budget that allows for frugal vacations, occasional meals out, and entertainment options you love. Again, you’ll see slower, steadier progress, but you’ll actually enjoy life while getting to that debt-free goal.

Your Approach Depends On Your Situation

Are there some times when a quick crash diet may be appropriate? Sure. Bodybuilders who are already in excellent shape will often cut calories dramatically right before an event. They’re just taking their everyday discipline one step further for a few days or weeks.

Similarly, what if you’re generally good at managing your money but just had an unexpected emergency — a broken-down vehicle or a medical emergency, for instance — that bloated your credit card debt? In this case, a few weeks or a couple months’ worth of cutting your budget to the bone to pay off the debt may make sense. Since you’ve already got good money management habits in place, you’re unlikely to rebound into more unnecessary spending.

But if you’re staring down a scale that says you need to lose 50 pounds? Research shows that slow and steady is the way to go.

And if you’re staring at massive amounts of debt? Slow and steady may work better for you, too.

Some Tips & Tricks

So how do you get started with a slower, steadier approach to paying off debt? Here are some tricks we’ve swiped from the diet world:

Make smart swaps on things you eat every day. When you’re trying to cut calories, it’s amazing how much progress you can make just by switching to a lower-calorie salad dressing or sprucing up your breakfast routine. The same goes for your finances. Try refinancing your mortgage or auto loan, renegotiating or even eliminating your cable bill, or revamping your insurance policies for painless ways to save money month after month.

Also keep in mind that your credit can impact how much you pay in mortgage and auto loan interest, and even increase your insurance costs if it isn’t very good. You can keep track of your credit by checking your credit scores regularly right here on Credit.com.

The quality of your calories matters. More and more research is saying that “calories in, calories out” isn’t the end-all-be-all of dieting. High-quality foods, especially healthy proteins and fats, can keep you satisfied for longer, making cutting calories easier. Similarly, not all spending is equally satisfying. If you only have a few extra bucks a month to enjoy life, spend it on what really makes you happy. (Hint: Experiences are usually a better bet than more stuff!)

Track your progress. Weekly weigh-ins are an important part of many weight loss programs. Weighing in often helps keep you motivated — and lets you spot problems quickly so you can correct your course. When paying off debt, keep track of your debts each month. Consider using a line chart to get a visual representation of your debt dropping each month over time.

Budget calories for enjoying. Many successful weight loss programs operate with the idea of a cheat meal, cheat day, or set number of cheat calories per week. This means you know how much and how often you can splurge. Do the same for your budget. Set aside some fun money each month, and you’ll reap the benefits of staying on track without feeling miserable.

Paying off debt isn’t exactly like dieting, of course. But you can draw plenty of parallels. So when you’re trying to get debt-free, think about ways to make your progress steady and sustainable over the long haul.

Image: LeoPatrizi

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