I'm Paying Off Debt Thanks to This Easy Spreadsheet Hack

How am I so confident in my finances during a year of uncertainty? Because of a spreadsheet.

There are many things the coronavirus pandemic has put on hold: travel, holidays, road races, restaurant dining, leaving the house for any reason without a hint of anxiety. Need I go on? It's been a hard year for so many reasons, for so many people. I am definitely one of the lucky ones—I've been able to keep my job and my health. But for me, one of the harder parts of moving through this new normal has been feeling stuck, like I can't move forward. And a lot of that has to do with my finances—and my debt.

I'll admit it: This is probably extra hard on me because I'm a bit of an overachiever. I guess a nice way to put it is that I'm very goal-oriented. In January 2020, I set a big financial goal: to double my freelance income, save for a beach vacation with my family for my baby sister's wedding, and for my dream trip to hike Havasu Falls. But of course, when the pandemic hit, those dreams evaporated. I spent most of the year staring down at my phone in horror (as one does in the middle of a global crisis).

This January, I vowed to make 2021 different. Of course, there's still a lot of uncertainty in the air. But I'm committed to refocusing on my goals: This year, I'm already on the road to doubling my freelance income—and I plan to use that money to actually make it to my baby sister's (much smaller, outdoor) wedding later this year, and to pay off at least half of my car loan.

How am I so confident, especially (as we've all learned this year) when any moment, things can go haywire? I feel convinced I can accomplish these goals because of one thing: a budget spreadsheet. Yep, I made a simple Google spreadsheet, and in addition to making me organized and keeping me on track with my money goals for 2021, this spreadsheet (which you can easily recreate for yourself) works wonders to help me feel in control, for now. And that is priceless.

My finance goals spreadsheet follows a very simple formula. I've got four main columns:

“In 2021, I will…”

In this column, I write out my big-picture goal, like "Pay off at least half of the car loan by end of year."

“How I will do it…”

Here, I lay out my big-picture plan. For example, for my income goal, I've set a monthly target for how many freelance pitches I want to send each month.


In this column, I describe where I'm at in the goal's progress.

“Now, I need to…”

Here, I describe my most immediate next step. Then, I have a column for each month where I can note what I accomplished (or what went wrong). On payday, I check in with my spreadsheet. I update my progress, which I've found to be super motivating.

"It's good to track your goal progress, so that you can see that all the small steps you're taking are adding up over time," says Risa Williams, LMFT, a therapist and productivity coach based in California. "You will find that you start to feel a boost of motivation and confidence with each smaller step you take forward."

My approach lines up with Williams' work with her clients. "I have them break their goals into smaller, micro-goal steps," Williams says. "This reduces the overwhelm that many people feel when they envision a goal."

My spreadsheet is a simple, but powerful tool. But of course, it's not the only way to keep up with goals and be more productive; you could use a journal, the notes app on your phone, whatever works best for you.

"You will find that you start to feel a boost of motivation and confidence with each smaller step you take forward." —Risa Williams

What's even more important than tracking? How you set your goals in the first place, explains La Keita D. Carter, PsyD. "Research shows that when our goals are too vague, we don't accomplish them," she says. Carter recommends the SMART method for goal-setting, which requires that your goal is: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-oriented. The differences between a SMART goal and a, um, not-so-smart one are subtle, but powerful.

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"For example, 'I want to lose weight' is not a goal, it's a dream," Dr. Carter says. In contrast, telling yourself "by joining Weight Watchers, I want to lose 10 pounds in two months" would be a SMART goal. In one sentence it lays out a specific, measurable goal with a deadline and attention to the "how." You can use this approach with your finance goals as well; instead of making it a vague dream to "make more money," try to find a realistic and specific target. Then, think through your obstacles to create an actionable plan.

For me, my biggest obstacle is time. I have to find the time (and energy) to devote to my side hustle, so I can increase my income and ultimately pay down my debt. So I've made it my mission to spend one hour a day (the hour I used to spend commuting) working on ideas and pitches for more business. I'm not always able to accomplish even that one hour. In fact, some weeks I don't do it more days than I do. But no matter what, when payday comes around, I check in with my spreadsheet and I am reminded of my big-picture goals. Once I've tracked what I have been able to accomplish, I'm motivated to do even better next month.

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