Is Treating Debt Repayment Like a Game the Only Way to Win?

Also, what debt is good and what debt is bad?

My debt isn’t something I think about very often, either out of willful ignorance or a deep sense of denial about its very existence. I know it’s there; I make the payments. I tell the Billfold community how much I’ve paid off every single month. Sometimes I look at my loose budget and consider paying more on my monthly payments but have yet to take the plunge. When I’m feeling particularly melancholy about the state of my finances, I spend some time reading personal finance clickbait about 25 year-olds who managed to pay an enormous amount of debt down in the time it took me to defer my student loans and finally answer the phone when the credit card people call.

Reading these missives, I’ve noticed a common theme — if you want to pay your debt down fast — I’m talking really fast, like in a year — it helps if you make it like a game.

These people were sensible — they looked at their debt, made an emergency fund, moved out of their expensive house to a cheaper house and then used something called the “snowball method” to pay down their credit cards.

We started with our smallest credit card balance of $1,500 to get a quick, psychological win right away and then paid the other debts off from smallest to largest. As we paid each debt off, the money that used to go toward paying those monthly debts was applied to the next debt on the list. The “snowball” of money that was going toward debt each month grew like crazy.

All of this sounds reasonable, but there was something about the “psychological win” of the tiny debt payment that caught my eye. Motivating yourself via little mind games is a surefire way to get your debt paid off as fast as you can possibly manage it.

By focusing on smaller, more actionable goals, you’re more likely to stay motivated to pay your debt off faster— like defeating mini-challenges in a video game before finishing the boss armed with all the life pellets and weapons and whatever else you need to do so. Gamifying the drudgery of writing a check or watching money fly out of your bank account into the hands of some corporation to whom you owe money makes it easier to stomach. That makes sense. That’s fine. But what irks me a little bit is how in these scenarios, the driving force is a nebulous sort of freedom — one that feels temporary.

Maybe you won’t have debt for the next five years, but life is a pain in the ass that occasionally throws a curveball. Vilifying debt as an enemy feels limiting in a sense — if you’ve paid your debt off but find yourself wanting to do something like buy a house or start a business, you might need to go into debt to achieve that dream. A mortgage is a debt; so is a small business loan. Are those kinds of debt the “good” kind? Credit card debt is probably considered the bad kind, speaking less to an entrepreneurial spirit and more to someone who can’t seem to contain themselves when let loose in a J. Crew.

People get into the “good” kind of debt for making virtuous decisions that are long-term investments in their future, like a house or a flower shop or whatever. Chipping the old Mastercard out of the block of ice where it currently lives and ordering hundreds of dollars of bathing suits in a fevered frenzy is bad. Student loans are neutral. What I’ve learned from reading blog post after blog post about paying the debt fast is that if you accept your part in the wrongdoing — buying things or spending beyond your means — and then give yourself mental zings of achievement for repayment, you’ve gamed the system. Somehow, you will win.

Debt is debt is debt. Implying that one kind of debt is better than the other is a pointless endeavor; at the end of the day you still owe money to someone and you have to pay it back. Accepting that and then paying it back however you see fit is the only way to “freedom,” I guess. Qualifying the debt is pointless! Gamifying it seems fine or at least successful.

We all do what we need to do; we’ve all made choices that felt right in the moment and were maybe not so right later on. Pay your debt how you can, when you can. Do what you need to do.

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