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Financial goals: Sticking to the plan when the funk comes to visit

I am halfway to paying off my mortgage and suddenly progress feels incredibly hard – as if I’m carrying a backpack filled with rocks. My motivation is sagging in the no-man’s land of neither here nor there, and I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Paying off the mortgage is the Number One Financial Goal on my ‘to do’ list – the other big task being to accumulate a retirement fund that will keep Ms Accumulator and I supplied with tea and cake in our dotage.

Currently 50% of our savings go into cash, 50% into index trackers, and a big, fat 0% goes to the mortgage company. This way, all mortgage allocated funds remain in our control. Who knows, I could be binned off at work tomorrow so I want the flexibility. Come the happy day, when we hit the magic number, we can pay off the debt in one fell swoop as our mortgage deal allows unlimited overpayments.

But that day is a long way off and, according to classic psychological theories of motivation, goal-orientated performance can vary depending on how you measure progress. If you’re staring at the finish line then motivation increases during the sprint towards the end.

For example, if your financial goal is to save £1,000, then things get very exciting as you hit the £900 mark.

The opposite is true if you judge progress from your start-point. When you begin, you get an early rocket boost as you go from zero to – well, anything’s better than that.

Performance can slump halfway towards a goal

Without even realising it, I based the progress of our top financial goal around the start-point. Having anything in the mortgage pot at all felt like a small wonder of the world because we’d spent many years avoiding even thinking about it.

I drew more motivation juice by calculating the lifestyle changes we could make, drawing up savings targets, and spreadsheets to track ’em, and after that watching the monthly savings drip-drip into a creditable stumpy stalagmite of assets.

Endurance of the camel

But now… now the only thing to do is to keep going. It’s like plodding across the Sahara. I can see countless footsteps trailing behind me, and nothing but empty miles of sand ahead.

Everything that’s in my control feels like it has been done. There are few costs left to cut. Positive steps to up the ante would require drastic action like:

  • Taking in a lodger
  • Getting a second job
  • Downsizing

All are a sacrifice too far at this stage.

Fear is playing its part. There’s no doubt that hitting the halfway point has flicked a psychological switch in my head. Previously I felt we had little to lose. Now with so much achieved, but so much more to do, I fear that something will go wrong with the finishing line still far out of reach.

I hope to pick up a second wind as we start the downward slope of the journey – that the excitement will build as we claw our way towards the endpoint. Still, it feels like we need to be well over the halfway hump for that momentum to kick in.

In the meantime, I’m taking solace from the fact that goal-setting theory is on our side because our top financial goal is:

  • Accepted: We remain fully committed to the goal. I could imagine living in our current house for the rest of my days and the thought that no-one could take it away from us, regardless of rampant interest rates or a career cataclysm is a powerful spur to finish the job.
  • Specific: There’s a number to hit. I know how much we have to save, every month, and for how long, in order to get there.
  • Difficult: Goals that are too easy or too difficult wither our interest. Business leaders Gergen and Vanourek suggest that goals should be “BHAGs – big, hairy, audacious goals – that really stretch us”.
  • Susceptible to feedback: I could get extra support from Money Saving Expert’s Debt-Free Wannabe forum board, but for now a spreadsheet tracker and the occasional chat with Ms Accumulator about our mortgage-free dream is enough.

Pull yourself together man [slap!]

Despite the slump, I don’t fear falling off the wagon. Our financial goal is too important and too well-aligned with what we want for that to happen.

Bouts of despondency are only to be expected. If you’re in a similar funk then I can tell you that reappraising your motivation for achieving your goal help refresh your spirit (writing this post has been part of that process for me).

I bet it would also have helped if my former self had written a note to the future me about why we are doing it. I wouldn’t have wanted to let me down.

I’m going to try a couple of other things, too:

  • Setting some clear short-term goals – paying off the mortgage is a long-term aim. Hitting some quick-fire targets in the meantime may well take my mind off how far there is to go.
  • Finding some inspiration – I know a few people who’ve paid off their mortgage early through blood and toil. I’m going to find out how it made them feel once they’d done it. Hopefully that’ll act like some kind of dream caffeine, clarifying my vision and redoubling my energy.

I wonder how Monevator readers have coped when they’ve hit the wall in pursuit of their financial goals? Let us know below!

Take it steady,

The Accumulator

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • 1 Steve September 20, 2011, 1:21 pm

    The wife & I managed to pay off our mortgage a couple of years ago. We approached it differently to you – we kept paying more than neccesary rather than saving up for a big payoff. We also threw in the occasional lump sum. It was mainly to eliminate temptation. We asked our building society to keep the original monthly payments rather than reduce them, so the end date was brought forward each month. They kept sending letters saying “if you carry on like this, you’ll pay it off by this date”. I found these letters a little pointless & wasteful at first, but I started looking forward to them – they provided regular encouragement, and a sense of accelerating towards the finishing line.

  • 2 Matthew September 20, 2011, 1:37 pm

    I’m 36 and through various property purchases, sales and saving, less some terrible stock market investments I’ve now built up enough equity to sell up and pay off one whole London property with a reasonable lump sum to spare. If I don’t sell, my properties and investments could give me a 15k income per year. My motivation thus far has been fear. Fear of becoming unemployed and poor, fear of having to work in a dead end job until I’m 60 and fear of feeling like a failure. I feel like turned a corner, I’ll not be rich, but I have a safety net now.

  • 3 Ben September 20, 2011, 3:33 pm

    great article

    I agree there is a massive dull bit in the middle of any sensible investing plan where you’ve read the books, come up with the strategy then have to go through the motions for years and years.

    A good low cost hobby is what you need to keep your mind off things in these ‘wilderness’ years such as hill-walking, whistling or swinging…

    Until the home straight suddenly looms into sight, at which point the swinging can wait, whilst a big financial independence party rages.

  • 4 The Accumulator September 20, 2011, 8:28 pm

    @ Steve – congrats on making it to the finish line. So far I’ve resisted all temptation to misappropriate funds. Even the cash component earns more interest in a bank account than if I handed it over (mortgage is tracker), which is just as well as I’m getting a bloody nose from equity right now. Those letters sound like high-grade motivational fuel. Maybe I should write ’em to myself.

    @ Matthew – you’re going great guns! I’d find it hard to give up a 15K annual income. Ms Accumulator and I don’t need much more than that to live on – when we’re being good. Intrigued by the role of fear in your life. It looms large in mine too – for precisely the same reasons as yours.

    @ Ben – thank you! And your independence party comment made me laugh. Can’t wait to organise one of those. Funnily enough, Ms Accumulator and I took up walking this year. We’ve burnt off a lot of shoe leather but there really is no finer way to spend a day.

  • 5 Matthew September 20, 2011, 8:54 pm

    Mr Accumulator,

    My goal is to try and pay off a large proportion of 4 of the mortgages I have. Like you I’m not paying a penny of the principle off, but instead have opted for monthly deposits into ETF’s and index funds from savings and the same from the rental income I currently get. I’m hoping that low interest rates and a healthy dose of inflation will eventually shrink my mortgages in relative tearms whilst my rental income from low interest rates will add to my war chest and slowly rise over time. Eventually the plan would be to pay off large chunks of mortgage and live on the rental income – or start putting money into preference shares like NWBD and LLPD for a bumper 10% return.

    Fear of being middle aged, poor and single helped put me on this track. I have a career with a shelf life (how many old mid level IT staff are there) that I don’t particually enjoy and I’d like to be doing something completely different by the time I’m 42.

  • 6 Carole September 21, 2011, 9:24 am

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve stumbled on your article just as I am experiencing exactly the same feelings. Halfway through establishing a pot to pay off our mortgage and there are only so many times you can get a ‘high’ from dreaming about a mortgage free house however important it is for your future. Getting some real lows at how much we are sacrificing in wearing clothes that were fashionable in the 80s and cutting our own hair etc., (okay a slight exaggeration). Desperate to pay the mortgage off to allow some choices to return to our lives but the goal is still too far to see on the horizon and our disposable income is being squeezed with price rises and pay freezes.

    Keep going!! I think I may start jogging to the mantra ‘it will be worth it, it will be worth it’.

  • 7 ermine September 21, 2011, 10:22 am

    The halfway point is a low-water mark in achieving many long term goals, like this financial one or learning a language, it feels like the effort’s gone in but there’s little to show for it.

    You’re too far from the start point to go back and often have committed a lot of sunk costs, both financial and nervous energy, and yet it’s still further to go than you’ve come. It does get better – I felt just like you after taking a lot of negative equity on my first house and it felt like endlessly throwing money into a bottomless pit. The good news is it’s on the up from now – the last half of goals like that go quickly, as the inital investment starts to pay returns 🙂 As my mortgage dropped, I could pay increasing amounts of what was left, which rocketed in the second half.

  • 8 DIY Investor September 21, 2011, 12:05 pm

    I paid off the mortgage by sending in an extra principal payment each month and redoing the payment sheet. The act of seeing the reduction in the total amount that would have to be paid over the life of the mortgage was incentive enough to keep me going.
    I like your idea of short term goals. They can help a lot.

  • 9 The Accumulator September 21, 2011, 7:53 pm

    @ Matthew – Four mortgages? I’m having enough trouble with one. Interesting that prospect fatalism is a strong theme running through the thoughts of many on here. I wonder if an overdeveloped desire for security is a common characteristic of DIY investors. Also, have you seen The Investor on preference shares: http://monevator.com/2010/05/18/preference-shares/

    @ Carole – You’re too right about that fading bliss. We’re on a crash course too, which entails a fair whack of financial sacrifice. One of the keys to reducing the severity was a piece of mental accounting known as the ‘fun fund’. We set aside a sum that’s only for spending on frivolities that keep us happy/sane. Moreover, the sum is built from freelance earnings so it’s a strong motivator to bring the work in.

    @ Ermine – Thank you! It’s good to hear from someone who’s been there and done it. And I know from your blog that you were really up against it in the early years. I’m taking a great deal of comfort from your description of the second half.

    @ DIY Investor – That’s an excellent idea. Cackling over a spreadsheet of future savings could just see me through the winter!

  • 10 Moneyman September 23, 2011, 9:59 am

    It might seem a little simplistic but I can’t see much point in spending time ‘investing’ if you have a lot of debt, and a mortgage is a debt. If your goal is to pay it off, then do that in a focussed way. Yes, your mortgage rates are low at present, but so are many other returns. Better to pay if off and then get your money working to produce tax-free income.

    I found the motivation was provided by what I call the Money Snowball :


  • 11 ermine September 23, 2011, 10:17 am

    I can’t see much point in spending time ‘investing’ if you have a lot of debt, and a mortgage is a debt

    There’s a lot to be said for that point of view, but there is the other angle – money is cheap, and you might as well leverage your investment performance. In the past there were ISA mortgages which express this sort of thinking – where you pay the interest only but build up the capital in a S&S ISA. Presumably like a retirement account you’d migrate the ISA to bonds in the final 5 years.

  • 12 The Investor September 23, 2011, 11:05 am

    Here’s an article making the case for investing even while you have a mortgage, along the lines Ermine discusses:


    I would never knock anybody for paying off their mortgage first – it’s prudent and a great psychological boost. Still, we only live once, and investing in equities is a long-term game. It’s not something you really want to start at 50.

  • 13 The Accumulator September 25, 2011, 11:19 am

    @ Moneyman – it’s a risk, absolutely, and one I battle with mentally all the time. It’s a risk I’m prepared to take because with 50% in cash I feel like we’re doing enough to manage the situation if other assets take longer to prove their worth. Also, I don’t think we can afford to delay building up an equity position that will buffer us over the long-term.

  • 14 Sarah October 7, 2011, 12:40 pm

    The £8,502 that I have put in shares over the past 11 years is now worth £7, 302 – how’s that for motivation to save? Buy and hold as route to wealth not working at moment – at least I have 16 years for possible recovery. But BOE quite happy to give incompetent bankers even more money to waste. Screw the poor and the savers and the public sector but god forbid an investment banker should not get a bonus for their incompetence.

  • 15 Ben October 11, 2011, 11:56 am


    assuming you’ve been using index trackers, is that accumulation or income units you’ve been buying?

    Was that a lump sum back in 2000 or pound-cost averaging over the decade?

  • 16 The Shoestring Investor May 11, 2013, 11:56 pm

    It can certainly feel like a long old road at time and your article certainly summarises much of what I feel during the process. It becomes surprising how the little victories can start to become so sweet – an unexpected £50 could often be shrugged off as merely a nice bonus, but in the context of a greater goal it feels like a true triumph and a real motivator!

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