What Weight Loss Can Teach You about Managing Student Loans

Huh? Yeah, weight loss.

Last year I got into a huge health kick and resolved to go all out to get healthy the scientific way. I was so motivated that I even diligently studied a 700 -page textbook in my spare time, and became a certified personal health coach – just so I could finally nail this weight loss beast.

My battle with the bulge continues pretty much like the eternal battle between good and evil. But along the way, I learned one thing I realized has immense application to anyone trying to battle student debt.

Think about it this way – in many cases, your relationship with student loans may last as long as, sometimes even longer than, many of your romantic or other significant acquired relationships. And it is definitely not going to go away by itself, just like those extra pounds you gained over the holidays. Most of all, getting rid of it calls for a lot more involvement on your part than just taking a few sporadic actions here and there.

What I learned from a boring psychological theory

I first learned about the “Transtheoretical Model” of change, or TTM for short, when I was preparing for my health coaching exam. This theory is the grand-daddy (or grand-mommy) of a lot of current behavior change approaches, whether they have to do with smoking cessation or weight loss.

Briefly, the TTM says that anyone trying to make a lifestyle and behavior change goes through six stages – and each stage brings its own challenges and demands its own unique set of solutions appropriate for that stage.

The six stages of change:

Here are the six stages of behavior change:

The “What problem” stage ( Pre-contemplation)

This is the stage where you really don’t think you have a weight (or student loan) problem. Or you think “that’s how it’s always going to be”. The key here is to slowly become aware of the many ways in which sticking to the status quo is hurting your long term life goals or aspirations. Many people obviously never get past this stage.

The “It’s too big to solve” stage (Contemplation)

In this stage, you know you have a problem, but the actions seem too overwhelming and too big. Moreover, you’re not sure where to even start or what to do to get moving. Clearly this is a tough stage, but it’s key at this point to work through for yourself what the pros and cons are of attempting to make the change you now realize is important to you.

The “What do I do now?” stage (Preparation)

After you’ve ruminated for a while on the costs of benefits of doing nothing versus maybe, you know, finally doing something about this problem weighting you down, you now become mentally ready to start searching your immediate environment for possible action opportunities. For weight loss, this might mean looking around for a free gym trial class. You’re not committing to anything, just want to see what it feels like.

The “How do I get started” stage (Action)

This is where the meat of the effort is – the part where you get to consistently practice the new and more effective actions and behaviors. This is the part where you get to substitute healthier foods for your donuts and soda breakfast staple, or go to the gym three days a week. The hard part here is sustaining your motivation after the initial high levels off, and the gains start to flatten out a little.

The “How do I keep going for life” stage (Maintenance)

This is the goal-state where doing the things you once struggled with has now become a mindless habit – you don’t even think about it, and struggles are unusual. Grabbing a salad for lunch is as easy and natural as grabbing your car keys on your way to the office. This is when the golden health and other benefits finally start to pile on and you feel virtuous and terrific. The key here? Staying the course.

The “Help! I fell off ” stage (Lapse)

This isn’t really a stage as much as it is a temporary detour that happens when you go out with friends and end up eating a big huge 2,000 calorie dinner, or you return from vacation, never to set foot in the gym for weeks. The secret to managing through lapses is to plan for them to happen, and importantly, to create gentle, kind on-ramps for you to get back on the highway in advance of these lapses happening.

The net result? You have a smooth transition, the changes you make end up likely being permanent, and you enjoy life in your new, healthier state. Mission accomplished with least pain and most gain!

Photo by Ganapathy Kumar

Why understanding the stages matters

Unlike with a goal like weight loss, when people decide to take up a challenge like tackling their student loans, they typically don’t realize that doing this effectively will require significant lifestyle changes, and therefore a more thoughtful and practical approach. It’s not just a matter of gathering up your loan statements and plunging into selecting the best repayment plans or refinance offers, although those steps are vital.

Your success with paying off student loans will probably require changes to how you think about your student debt, and debt in general in your life, the proportion of money you spend versus what you save out of your paycheck, and even deeper aspects of your mindset such as how diligent you are with monitoring your account balances and so on. And chances are, in doing so, you’ll run bang up against some pretty deep-seated beliefs, fears and anxieties around money, financial security, your own competence and sometimes even your self-worth.

If this is the case, then taking a self-aware and emotionally intelligent approach to an effective long-term strategy to pay off your student loans is going to be absolutely vital to your success. How you do that is by recognizing, first of all, that you will go through these stages- each with its own unique challenges, and secondly, to prepare to provide yourself with the supports, tools and allies you need to help you transition smoothly and effectively to the stage of successful maintenance.

The added bonus is that if you do this, it’s more than likely that the good financial lifestyle habits you cultivated around managing and paying off your student loans will spill over into building a much stronger foundation for a secure and abundantly-provided future.

Photo by Cesar Carlevarino Aragon

The specifics: what’s needed for each stage.

First, ask yourself which stage of this journey best describes where you are right now. Are you still under the impression that it’s not a problem (and if so, do objective sources corroborate that, or are they painting a different picture?). If so, you’re in the pre-contemplation stage. Or are you gamely making the efforts to generate more savings, lower the cost of your debt, or find new sources of loan forgiveness? In that case, you might be in the action stage, and will need a different set of solutions and supports to facilitate your success.

Here is a brief list of tools and supports you might want to consider depending on what stage of the journey you find yourself in:

Pre-contemplation: Focus on thinking about whether there are any downsides (no matter how remote they seem) to continuing as you have been doing. Can you think of anything that could go wrong if you don’t take any action on your student loans? Are there any people, sources or stories that could help you more objectively understand the likely future path if you continue as you are currently doing? Is there anything in that scenario you might want to improve? Be kind to yourself and assure yourself that you’re confident you’ll take the right steps.

Contemplation: If you’re aware your loans are problematic but wondering how you’ll ever start making an impact, take some time to explore how others have solved similar problems. Talk to peers, do some searching online for personal stories of success, for practical steps, anything that will give you evidence of something you would consider doable. What you consider doable may not seem to you like what’s sufficient to solve the problem – lay that aside for now. Your only goal is to see if there is any solution or path that you feel you can take on, given where you are right now.

Preparation: Perhaps you’re looking for opportunities to save money so you can make bigger payments on your student loans? Or taking the time to learn more of the terms of your loans? If yes, then you’ll likely benefit most by setting aside small but regular slivers of time in which to take on equally small bite-sized tasks to finish at each sitting. You may not actually be doing anything just yet, but both mentally and physically, you’re setting the stage to take action. You’re looking at your monthly credit card statements to see if there’s a dinner or two you might cut out, or a repayment plan that might better suit your needs. Log it and track it for increased momentum and confidence

Action: In this phase is where the rubber hits the road: you’re looking to make consistent and effective effort on the areas that are likely to have the biggest impact on your loans. Many of these may be repetitive and habitual, such as cooking more regularly at home to cut out your eating out expenses. Others may be significant one-off actions such as calling your servicer to change a repayment plan or request program details. Even in the case of these one-off actions, what matters is that you have a sequence of actions that make some kind of logical sense, are frugal in that you get the most impact for the least effort, and that you track progress consistently over time so as to pile on the results. What matters most here is to have some kind of a tracker and routine management system, such as a specific window of time two days a week when you’ll attend to these actions. Soon they will become effortless and a lot less painful.

Maintenance: In this stage you’re a pro – you’ve likely taken all the big actions to streamline your loan to the most efficient path to repayment as possible. Still, in this stage you continue to keep an eye out for new opportunities, new sums of money to make a bigger dent on that balance or other unforeseen levers. If your strategy requires following up on documents and filing, you’ll probably have developed a system for that by now. Simultaneously, it’s highly likely that buoyed by this progress, you’re starting to get hungry for other financial progress, and will want to start tackling other goals such as investing or greater savings. More power to you!

Lapses can happen anytime. Prepare for them, expect them to happen. In fact, I even create a “lapse allowance card” in my journal and number them so that I make it very explicit to my brain that this is no reason to fall off the bandwagon entirely. And of course, have a recovery routine that’s gentle, easy and immediately rewarding to get you back on the road. For example, if you miss two days of loan research in a row, you might want to prepare for that by providing yourself an “off” week once a month and use that to catch up.

Photo by Patrick Tomasso

The bottom line is simple: successfully tackling your student loans will require that you take the long view, understand that it’s not just a mechanistic series of motions you will go through – it will require changes to mindset that are likely to be uncomfortable. But by taking an emotionally smart approach to this journey, you’ll not only make it more likely that you’ll pay those dang things off faster, but will set the ball rolling for even more significant personal financial progress as well!