Why clearing debt is like dieting



Being overweight and having too much debt both occur through over-consumption. But what is more interesting than that simplistic labelling is the close parallels between the difficulty that many people have in dieting and the problems others face in trying to clear their debts.

It’s often a lot easier to sort out other people’s problems, so if you are reading this because you have debts, think what you would say to a friend who was struggling with dieting… and then look at how that advice might translate into tactics for dealing with debt.

If you are thinking this is all going to be rather depressing, it’s not all bad news. For a couple of these areas, people trying to lose debt have a much easier time than people trying to lose weight!

So what might your friend with a weight problem be saying?


“I’m sticking to the diet but the scales aren’t moving”


This is a pretty easy problem to diagnose, unless you are the dieter of course. If your friend isn’t losing weight, then they are consuming too many calories. If they think they aren’t, that is because they aren’t counting them properly… They need to keep a food diary, writing down everything eaten and weighing those portions, not guessing.

With debt, the equivalent of the diet sheet is your budget. If your budget shows that you should have money at the end of each month to pay off one of your debts and you are keeping to your budget but there’s nothing left – then money is leaking away somewhere and you aren’t noticing it.

Keep a spending diary and monitor everything, even coins slipped into a charity collection. At least counting money is easier than counting calories!


“I keep hoping for something that will let me carry on eating and lose weight”


There is one option that will let you do this, but your friend may not like it… serious amounts of exercise, that will use up those excess calories. The financial equivalent is to increase your income. Getting a lodger or a second job at the weekend may not be what you want to do, but it could really speed up debt repayments.


“I don’t have enough will-power to stick to this diet”


I expect you would ask your friend about the details of their diet. Is it one of the looney ones? Only grapefruits except on Sunday, when a small piece of dried toast and a stick of celery is allowed? Or anything they want providing the helpings are miniature so they consume less than 800 calories a day? If it is, then it’s not really very surprising that they can’t keep to it, no-one could.

Too many people plan a budget like this, putting in nothing for clothes, no entertainment, no alcohol, halve the grocery bills etc. They keep going for a few weeks, have a few lapses, keep re-starting but eventually give up, blaming lack of will power.

The key to getting a realistic budget that will work for your family is to focus on how long it’s going to take to clear your debts. If it’s only a few months then you could go for the “hair shirt” approach with everything cut back to the bone. But if it’s a year or more, then you need some discretionary spending allowance every month or you are setting yourself up to fail.

If your friend has what sounds like a sensible diet, is there a pattern to their failures? Eating a carton of ice-cream at midnight is a different sort of problem to not managing to eat salad when the rest of the family are enjoying pizzas.

And it’s the same with money saving. If it seems too tough to keep to a budget, what are the main things that cause problems? If a hard day at work means you pick up a take-away, then you could plan to have something easy to defrost in the freezer.

If every month there just seem to be too many extras, from car insurance to the kids all needing new winter shoes, then your budget needs some attention, because these aren’t “unknown unknowns”, you could predict many of them and need to allow for them. If you are serious about debt reduction, then smarter budgeting is probably the single most important skill to focus on.

Also be careful that we all tend to justify treats today because we expect to be “good next week”, whether it is in dieting or paying off our debts. This self delusion is called “present bias” and it can be very hard to tackle.


“I’m only losing half a pound a week – it’s so slow!”


You will probably make soothing noises about slow and steady being better for their body and more likely to succeed than crash dieting. Which is true – but it is also a sad fact that the more weight you lose, the harder it is to lose the next pound.

Luckily the opposite applies to debt reduction! It can seem so slow at the start, when much of your monthly payments are going on interest charges, but your snowball will gradually pick up speed. And the less debt you have, the easier it is to get a good balance transfer offer and so your debt drops even faster.


”I lost 20lbs, but now it’s all gone back on again”


That is the saddest thing about dieting: so few people manage to keep to their desired weight even if they can get down to it. But it is really doesn’t apply to debt for two reasons.

Firstly if you have the strength of character to get out of debt in our consumer society, then the chances are that many of the small frugal habits you adopted will stick, even when they are no longer essential. And those little things over time add up to a lot of money saved.

Secondly, compound interest – whilst you are in debt, it’s a millstone around your neck, dragging you down. But when you are debt free and accumulating savings, then it’s working in your favour.Which must be a good point to end on. Have you ever dieted? Did you find dieting harder or easier than tackling debts?

Post Contribution: Sara Williams is a London-based debt advisor. She set up a personal website, Debt Camel, a year ago where she blogs about everything personal debt-related: tips on budgeting; answering questions about debt management and bankruptcy; and news about what’s changing in debt regulation in Britain.

If you are interested in submitting a contribution and you are a personal finance blogger contact me today!


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  1. I agree with what you said about people all of a sudden going gung ho and finding they can’t stick to either debt reduction or their diet because it is too fast or too restrictive. It took a long time to put on the weight or debt (probably), so pace yourself so you can manage the long haul.

    1. That’s a good point – you added the debt $20 dollars here and $50 dollars there – and that is how you will get out of it. Realism and planning may sound boring, but they are the only way to take control of your finances!

  2. To carry the theme of comparing dieting to debt reduction, my Mom lost weight years ago with TOPS and she was taught there to eat more nutritiously and watch the way she was cooking. You. An carry that forward to debt reduction with all those habits you used to reduce debt to help you build the funds after the debt is paid off. Both habits work to your advantage down the road with your weight and your financial health…

  3. I’ve not tried it myself, but I have several friends that swear by the 5:2 diet because they can eat what they want on the other five days of the week. Now that wouldn’t work well with money, would it!

  4. This is a great topic Mr. CBB. And I can say that I can totally relate to this one, right now, I’m paying some of my personal debt and at the same time, I really want to lose weight by dieting and having a good exercise. Sometimes, I said to myself it’s okay to have a cheat day, sometimes that means eating junk food and just like on spending money, even if I know it’s not on my budget list I still splurge sometimes.

  5. I’ve been watching the pounds creep up and so I think it’s time I make some changes. I definitely find it easier to manage my money than what I put in my mouth. I’ll try to give myself advice like I would to a friend in debt. I think this is genius!

  6. I most definitely find paying my debt much easier than dieting. I need to do both but only have ambition for one. Maybe one day, I’ll find the ambition for the other 🙂

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