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Getting Out of Debt

During the month of July, we will publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on January 27, 2010.

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.

Joseph Grenny is author of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations.


InfluencerQDear Crucial Skills,

My husband and I have $40,000 in credit card debt. We’ve made all kinds of budgets and set all kinds of goals but still can’t get together on this. We fight about it a lot and it’s become a real source of conflict for us. We both want to get out of debt, but one bad deed keeps leading to another. How can we stick to our budget?

Good Intentions

A Dear Good Intentions,

I’m sure you’re not alone after a tough financial year—many of us have had to try to change our spending habits to help us weather everything from economic anxiety to a true financial famine. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to change your good intentions into good behavior.

First, I’d suggest you and your husband play a game together. Let’s call the game Name That Influence! The object of the game is to identify all the different sources of influence that are undermining your good intentions. You’ll be shocked at how long the list is. Here are three questions to help you generate some specific answers:

1. What visual images in your home get you thinking about spending rather than saving? (Hint: Do you longingly browse shopping pages on the internet? Do you have a Library of Congress-sized stack of catalogs by a comfortable reading chair?)
2. How do your interactions and conversations with friends or family affect your thoughts, plans, and actions toward spending? (Hint: Is shopping a social event?)
3. What sources of influence keep you from immediately counting the cost of your spending choices? (Hint: Do you buy with cash? Checks? Credit cards? Do you have “one-click” purchasing enabled on favorite Web sites?)

Set a goal with your husband to come up with at least a dozen different influences that both motivate and enable you to spend more than you should. Be honest with yourself and recognize your role in your current situation. As you do this, something very important will happen. You’ll realize the problem is not that the two of you are weak. The problem is that you are blind and outnumbered. You’re blind to the many sources of influence that are shaping your choices. And the one source working for you (your willpower) is hopelessly outnumbered by the sources working against you. (If you read our book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, you’ll find you’re outnumbered 5 to 1. Not good odds!)

When you finish creating this list, your job is to change as many sources of influence as you can to support your good intentions. Dismantle those sources you know are encouraging your indulgence. Create positive influences that will keep saving top of mind, make it easier, and help you feel rewarded for following through.

For example, you could:

1. Make it a game. Create a progress chart for your savings goal. Keep it visible. Make a ritual of posting progress as a couple and generating the “completion endorphins” that come when you color in the next progress bar.

2. Banish temptation. Change your home page, delete tempting web pages, toss out magazines and catalogs or other “triggers” of spending impulses. Make no mistake—shopping generates dopamine in the same pleasure centers of the brain that cocaine does. You’re fighting a pleasure-driven habit and your best defense will be to minimize the temptations.

3. Make spending harder. Eliminate any structural enablers of mindless spending. For example, research shows people spend far less if they have to fork over cash than if they can simply slide a credit card through a slot. You might try carrying nothing but cash with you for six months. You’ll find this one physical change will profoundly affect your choices. You may also choose to undergo “plastic surgery” by cutting up your credit cards.

4. Change an accomplice into a friend. If shopping and spending are social activities, you’ll need to identify your accomplices. For example, if you and a girlfriend enjoy a regular outing at a mall, you’ll need to change that relationship. Eat some humble pie and let her know you are in desperate need of change. Ask for her help. If your husband is the accomplice, find a substitute activity you can do together. You won’t succeed by simply eliminating social activities; you’ll need to generate new ones. Our research shows that changing habits almost always involves engaging the help of at least two trusted friends.

These ideas may or may not be the right ones for you. But one thing I can promise you is that if you’ll examine your situation carefully, you’ll realize the problem is out there. There are myriad sources of influence working against you—and until you recognize and reverse them, you’ll continue behaving in a way you don’t want.

Best wishes for a prosperous, frugal, and fun year!


Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.

The ideas expressd in this article are base on the skills and principles taught in Influencer. Learn more about Influencer.

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23 thoughts on “Getting Out of Debt

  1. Great suggestions to fix the problem, but do you really think that they are blind and outnumbered. No, they just overspend! They need to look around and decide if they are keeping up with the Joneses when they spend that much on credit! This type of person is the same person that buys a $1 million house when making 50K and then blame the mortgage company when they can’t pay the mortgage and want bailed out! It isn’t their fault, because they were preyed upon by lenders.

    Your next book should be “take ownership of your actions. You spent it- you own it!”

    Trying to blame others for your actions would not im my opinion be a crucial conversation.

    Pay off your credit bills at the end of the month and you don’t have a problem. If you can’t pay them off, you have a problem.

  2. “Good Intentions” should watch the show ‘Til Debt Do Us Part’ with host Gail Vaz Oxlade on Slice TV network. She will give you a structured approach to getting out of debt. She also has a book and you can apply to be on the show.

  3. You described how the debtors got where they were so successfully that I will purchase your book to influence me toward weight loss.

  4. I liked the idea of celebrating, perhaps publicly. each milestone of debt erasure. But you left out the idea of allowing themselves to spend a specified – and small – amount so that they don’t feel deprived. I have found that that approach works for me. Did you omit that because you have found it doesn’t work? Thank you.

  5. This is by far one of the best articles about money I have ever read. My problem is that I don’t make enough money to make my bills to begin with but it is always helpful to find ways to diffuse that need to spend. Thank you for this article.

  6. One of the things that we always seem to forget is altering our surroundings. So I thought that the suggestions about getting rid of catalogs and looking at how time is spent i.e. visiting websites or wandering the mall was great. Before we can want something we have to see it.

    The only thing I didn’t see addressed is something I’ve noticed in myself as well as others – the more stressed I am, the more buried by work, the more likely I am to make poor decisions. Just like the question of “fruit or cake?” in the experiment described on NPR’s Morning Edition

    And I’m not yet sure how to combat that… any thoughts?

  7. Good article.
    I have found over many years that there is excellent advice and hope provided by such authors as Larry Burkett and Ron Blue. In recent years, Dave Ramsey and Clark Howard are becomming the icons of personal financial advice and voices for reducing household debt. I have heard of a Dave Ramsey class / series that may be helpful. I think he markets his tools through “Financial Peace University.” Check his website at for more details or see if a local church is offering his series. My wife and I have taken some of the classes long ago that Ron Blue and Larry Burkett put together and they were terrific. I have heard nothing but high praise for Dave’s series. Hope this helps.

  8. For those interested in getting a better handle on their finances, I recommend any of the books by David Bach. They are very readable and provide a great deal of useful information and advice for developing responsible financial habits.

  9. Thank you so much for answering that question! I really like to see applications of these skills in life situations in addition to work situations. As I read your response, I couldn’t help but see the direct correlation to my weight loss goals. I have printed this article and am taking it to my Weight Watchers meeting today. What a great way to think about changing bad habits and establishing new ones! I especially liked the idea that we are so outnumbered! It is not always our lack of willpower, sometimes we are just overwhelmed with the unhealthy influences. Thanks so much!!

  10. These are great suggestions. I’d like to add that you should also stop and consider whether your partner might have mental conditions that are part of the problem. It took me several years, and bankruptcy, to finally understand that my partner has multiple emotional issues and will never be a responsible person. We are now getting divorced; I am rebuilding my credit and paying off many bills.

  11. These are great comments. What I think is particularly cool about them is that taken as a set they reinforce the very point I hoped to make in the article. Below some of you have suggested various sources of influence that could help–a TV Show/Book (Source 2), a counselor (Source 3/4), celebrations (Source 5), etc. The central point is that our habits are a function of lots of bad sources of influence when they’re bad and good sources when they’re good. Keep the great ideas of various sources coming!

  12. Affluenza-,af-flu-enza- the desire or drive to obtain materiel possessions, status, life style or wealth by incurring debt. Its symptoms are rampant in our culture, yet accepted, even embraced by advisors within the financial industry, mass media
    And to learn that there is chemical mind link is just really making sense now.
    You know, perhaps It’s like rewarding someone who is trying to battle the bulge by signing up at the Gym with a New York Cheese Cake to indulge their self in, just for the effort or intent to lose weight. Why would the Gym do that? Is that called rewards or torture?

  13. @Joseph Grenny
    A friend of mine (Patrick) said “It’s like the blind leading the naked”
    How and why are so many bad decisions being made throughout our society?

    You will be credit approved, no one is denied credit/slavery to finance. At what cost though?

    I am working on pain avoidance myself.

  14. There is one very important component that should have been mentioned. The debtors should talk to their lenders and ask to bring down the accrued interest rate debt. This would help considerably.


  15. There is one very important component that should have been mentioned. The debtors should talk to their lenders and ask to bring down the accrued interest rate debt. This would help considerably.

    author of HELP! My Company’s Going Out of Business, What Do I Do Now?

  16. I recommend Dave Ramsey to any of you having trouble getting out of debt. People quibble about a couple of his recommendations on how to pay off debt, but when it comes to controlling spending, he is tops. Get some savings for emergencies, cut up ALL credit cards and start reducing debt. If you do nothing else, do that. We have used the envelope system very successfully to control spending on household items and clothing. We never racked up this kind of debt, but once we paid off our car loan in 2003, we have never been in debt again. You can do it.

  17. Gale Vaz Oxlade (Canadian) has a television show and various books ‘Til Debt Do Us Part’. She uses a no-nonsense, in-your-face approach to getting and staying out of debt. I truly suggest they take a reality check and check out her show (Slice Network), website (google her name) or one of her books “Debt Free Forever: Take Control Of Your Money And Your Life by Gail Vaz-oxlade ” (about $15 on amazon). There is no better way to get out of debt then to stop spending.

  18. I loved your response to “Good Intentions”. I would like to add another idea that really helped our family cut down on random shopping and pay down debt:
    De-cluttering / de-junking seems to produce the same shopping dopamine high, and while cleaning out the closet / garage / basement / attic we always discover lots of hidden treasures. Gathering wild food — blackberries, nuts, wild greens, mushrooms (if you know how to do so safely) or for the kids — collecting seashells, rocks, acorns, leaves and so forth, seems to satisfy that powerful shopping urge as well.

  19. David Bach’s books are also excellent for helping individuals take control of their finances. They not only focus on how to decrease debt but also on how to really make your money work for you.

  20. These people need to realize they are not entitled to spend spend spend on things they want. There are tons of resources out there to help people get a handle on their finances. The biggest hurdle is wanting to change spending habits. Just BTW, a reasonable home mortgage isn’t bad debt. I’d rather take the tax deduction and save the difference for retirement and my children education. It takes discipline to be master of your finances.

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