My wife and I recently ran the 13-mile Chicago half-marathon.  For us, it was the accomplishment of a very challenging goal.  Over the past 10 years, we had never run anywhere close to that distance.

As we trained for the event, I noticed a lot of similarities between our pursuit of this long-distance running goal and the pursuit of a tough financial goal like getting out of debt.

Getting started is difficult. For the first half-mile or so of most training runs my breathing was labored and I often felt a strong desire to return home, sit on the couch and eat pancakes.  When I realized that it's normal for the first part of every run to feel like starting a car on a cold day, it made it much easier to work through the initial discomfort and keep going.

When pursuing a difficult financial goal, the early days are often some of the toughest.  If you're trying to get out of debt, perhaps you've taken the bold and helpful step of removing your credit cards from your wallet or purse.  If that feels uncomfortable, rest assured, that's normal.

Eventually, you'll get into a rhythm. At some point in most training runs my breathing became easier.  I hit my stride.  My engine began running smoothly.

The same is true when pursuing a financial goal.  You will get to a place where putting some extra money toward your debts is normal.  It'll become part of your financial routine.  Your debt retirement machine will be humming.  

When the going gets tough again, focus on smaller sub-goals. As we went on longer and longer runs, I experienced a very predictable pattern: initial discomfort, rhythmic running, and then true pain.  At about the seven or eight mile mark, my legs would start to hurt, or my feet. At that point, looking straight ahead was deeply discouraging.  The road seemed to stretch on forever.  I seriously wanted to stop.

That's when I got in the habit of picking out landmarks just a block or two ahead like a mailbox or a fire hydrant.  Then I would look down for 10 to 20 paces, then up for 5 to 10.  Down for 10 to 20, then up for 5 to 10. After looking down for a while, when I looked up, my progress was more noticeable.  The sub-goal was much closer.  Soon I was in a rhythm again.  I was systematically knocking out smaller goals and that was encouraging.

If you're trying to level a tall mountain of debt, it can seem overwhelming.  Believe me, I know.  Take a few minutes to figure out when you'll be out of debt based on how much you put toward your debts each month.  Then focus on hitting that sub-goal each month.  Just knock out that smaller goal each and every month and eventually you'll be out of debt.

Don't go it alone. Since we have young kids, my wife and I were only able to run together once before the half marathon.  Still, we were a team in pursing this goal.  Especially as the training runs got longer, the one who was staying home with the kids would encourage the one who was running.

The day before the half marathon, we picked up our runner's packets and were happy to see that the event organizer included each runner's first name on the front of his or her number bib.  That way, spectators along the route could encourage people by name.  Whenever I heard someone shout, "Go, Matt," that added noticeable energy to my running.

Make sure someone else knows about the financial goal you're pursuing.  Ask them to encourage you and cheer you on.

Have a bigger purpose in mind. We used the goal of running a half marathon as a motivator to become healthier.  It forced us to develop a more disciplined exercise routine.  I want to be around to see our kids grow into adulthood, marry well, and experience the joy of having children of their own.  I often thought about them as I ran, which added greatly to my motivation.

You'll find it beneficial to make your financial goal about more than that goal.  If you're working toward becoming debt-free, why are you pursuing that goal?  What would becoming debt-free enable you to do?  How would it make you feel?  Your answer to that question is the real goal; becoming debt-free is the means to that greater end.  

Keep the momentum going. After all the training we did for the past 12 weeks, the last thing we want to happen is to slip back into not exercising.  We need a new goal that'll motivate us to keep running.  We probably won't run another half marathon anytime soon, but we're planning to run a 10k before the end of the year, and we've committed to an ongoing training schedule of five-mile runs three times a week.

Once you accomplish your goal of becoming debt-free, set a new goal so you'll maintain the discipline you developed while getting out of debt.  What will you do with the money you no longer need to send to your creditors?

What other similarities do you see between pursuing a challenging athletic or other type of goal and pursuing a challenging financial goal?

October 1, 2010 

Matt Bell is the author of "Money, Purpose, Joy" (September 2008), "Money Strategies for Tough Times" (April 2009), and the upcoming "Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples."  He teaches a wide variety of workshops, including the MoneySmart Marriage workshop (www.MoneySmartMarriage.net), at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.  To learn more about his work and subscribe to his blog, go to: www.mattaboutmoney.com