Before I left my job as a psychotherapist, solution-focused therapy was my favorite way to help clients discover their strengths and work toward what they usually described as “being happier.” The same basic steps used in solution-focused therapy can also be applied to our finances.
You may be asking yourself, Why would I want to do that? I’ll tell you why. When you’re in debt, it’s easy to become frustrated with your situation. Budgeting and cutting back on spending is no fun. Watching other people go out to the movies or buy new cars is depressing. Even the most determined among us can lose motivation and wonder why we’re working so hard for so little gain.
Even if you don’t normally get depressed, it’s easy to feel down in the dumps while working your way out of debt. Lots of people find themselves battling the blahs, especially if they have debts that will take many years to eradicate. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Step One: The Miracle Question
Imagine that you wake up tomorrow and ALL of your debt is gone. Every bit of it. What would you be able to do that you can’t do today? How would you act? If you didn’t tell your friends and family that your debt was gone, how would they be able to tell that something had changed?
Your answers to those questions can tell you a lot about your values and goals. For example, if my debt was erased tomorrow, I would immediately resume saving for retirement (I’m taking a break right now due to my jump into self-employment). I’d also allocate a certain amount toward the now defunct vacation fund that I started last year. Mostly, though, I would ramp up my emergency fund.
From that, I can see that I have three main goals: (1) retiring someday, (2) traveling, and (3) being better prepared for emergencies so I can continue to be self-employed. Your goals may look completely different, and that’s okay. They’re yours, not mine or anyone else’s.
Step Two: Give Yourself Some Credit
Now that you know what your financial goals are, it’s time to remember one of the most important aspects of solution-focused finances: YOU are the expert on your situation. Not Dave Ramsey, not a personal finance blogger, not your mother or your best friend. While you might get helpful information from any or all of those people, you know better than anyone else what works for you. With that in mind, remember the following:
- If it works, don’t fix it. Find the things you’re doing right, financially speaking, and leave them alone. For instance, if you know your income is adequate, don’t waste time looking for a second job. Focus your energy on the things that aren’t working.
- If you find something that works better, do more of it. You may be fine with your current income, to stick with the example above. But that doesn’t mean you should automatically turn down a higher paying job. Be willing to consider ways to improve the things that are working.
- Look for exceptions to “never” or “always.” You may say or think things like, I never have enough money to make extra debt payments. Are we seriously talking about NEVER? Or just most of the time? If there are times when you do have extra money, take time to review what was different that helped you accomplish that.
- If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. Maybe you’ve tried to cut out things like restaurants, Saturday night bowling, or shopping for clothes. Maybe you’ve also felt like a failure when those plans didn’t work out. If you’re trying something that isn’t working, try a different method. Instead of cutting something out entirely, try to cut it by 25%. There’s no point in continually setting goals that you can’t meet.
Step Three: Work it Out and Check In
Once a week, sit down and look at your debt payoff for the week. Are there any improvements since last week? If so, give yourself a pat on the back and look for ways you could continue improving. Check for exceptions – are there any times when spending wasn’t a problem, or when you spent less than usual to put more money toward your debt? Identify those situations. Finally, think about what could have been different this week – instead of ordering pizza, could you have used that $20 toward debt payoff? This isn’t time to beat yourself up; just time to notice possible changes.
Each week, ask yourself these additional questions:
- What has improved since I set my goals in step one? You may not have earth-shattering changes to report, but hopefully you can see small differences, whether they are financial or emotional.
- What do I need to accomplish next week to feel I’ve been successful? All of us have big goals for getting out of debt, but they can only be reached through smaller steps. What do you want to do in the next 7 days? Put $20 toward debt? Resist at least two impulse buys? You make the rules.
- What else? When you think you’ve come up with a solid plan for moving ahead, take a second to make sure there isn’t one more thing you could add.
Step Four: Rate Your Progress
Solution-focused therapy (and finances!) is all about the 1-10 scale. When you make goals related to your debt payoff, rate how close you are to those goals on a scale of 1-10, where 1 means “I’m on a different planet” and 10 means “I’ve already reached my goals and I’m debt free!” Also, rate your level of confidence in your ability to meet your goals on that same scale.
Each week during your check-in, rate yourself again on that scale based on the week you just finished. On a 1-10 scale, how close did you get to your goal? How confident are you, based on this week, that you will reach your goal? Keeping track of these numbers from week to week can give you a visual reminder of your progress.
Keep in mind – some people don’t need to get to that debt-free “10″ to be satisfied. Maybe your goal is just to get rid of credit card debt. Or maybe you want to pay off everything but the mortgage. So your goal may be to reach a 7 or 8 on that 1-10 scale instead of a ten. Remember, you’re the expert here.
About Solution-Focused Finances
This post gives a quick overview of solution-focused methods, but obviously it’s not a comprehensive guide. What you can gain from this approach is the ability to see what’s going right instead of beating yourself up for the things you did wrong.
When you’re able to look beyond financial mistakes to the possibility of a debt-free future, it becomes easier to find the steps you need to take to get there. Instead of paralyzing yourself with thoughts like, I have screwed up so badly, I’ll never get out of debt, you can use solution-focused questions to figure out what you need to do next.
Solution-focused therapy is designed to move us from dwelling on problems to working toward answers. Similarly, using solution-focused finances can help you find the steps you need to reach your financial goals, even if it takes some time to get there.
When you think about money, are you looking at problems or solutions? How could a solution-focused approach help you stay motivated to pay off debt?