In 2009, Heidi Ifland Nash and her husband were paying off $38,000 of debt.
They’d been working on it for several years. At one point, Nash wanted to see tangible progress, so she decided to track their payments on paper with a chart she could color in as they inched toward their goal.
“The very first chart I made was just a big square with lines,” she said, laughing. “I said, ‘This is so boring! I’m gonna put some words on it.’”
She typed the words “debt free” in white text over a black box and added evenly spaced lines from top to bottom. She divided her debt by the number of lines and added the increments to the side. It was the first official Debt Free Chart.
“I was looking for something more inspiring than just the big ugly square that I’d made, and the thermometers just didn’t do it for me,” she said. “[They] just felt like a guilt-based fundraiser.”
Then, she uploaded her chart in the Living Like No One Else forum for people paying off debt. Soon, people started asking for personalized charts.
“I was custom-making everyone’s numbers,” she said. “It didn’t occur to me for months to make ones with just lines and no numbers on the side.”
From there, people asked for different words. First was “car loan.” Other types of loans followed. The first 16 to 20 designs came from requests from the forum.
Nash wanted to make them available to anyone, so she uploaded them to a Blogspot blog in 2010. Then, she forgot about them.
Over the next seven years, Nash had no idea that word of her charts was spreading on social media and Pinterest. People were downloading them constantly.
Why Coloring Can Help You Reach Your Goals
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder.
Studies have shown that envisioning yourself doing something can help you actually accomplish it.
People often make vision boards with pictures of trips they’ll take or the car they’ll upgrade to once their debt is gone. But a vision board celebrates future achievements. It’s just as important during the journey to remind yourself of what you’ve already accomplished.
That’s what Debt Free Charts offer. They make the stale process of paying off debt interactive. Every payment is a celebration of moving one step closer to that vision board goal.
Now, almost a decade after Nash uploaded her first chart, when you search through the #debtfreecommunity on Instagram, it won’t take you long to find photos of brightly colored pages with the words “credit card,” “student loan” or “emergency fund.”
“It’s a great visual motivator to keep going,” said Michelle Brady, who’s using the car fund, credit cards and savings challenge charts.
How Debt Free Charts Got a New Life
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder.
In December 2017, Nash got a chart request. It was the first in a while.
She had become debt-free and gone on to home-school her kids while trying various entrepreneurial ventures in the years since she’d uploaded the charts.
After checking her blog, Nash realized the file storage system and a lot of the links to charts weren’t working. So she moved the charts their own website.
She got the idea to post pictures of people with their charts. She knew some YouTubers had filled out the charts, but she didn’t know what to expect beyond that.
What she found were hundreds of pictures on Instagram with the hashtag #debtfreecharts.
“It’s kinda taken on a life of its own,” Nash said. “It’s doing things I never expected it to do.”
Nash never expected her first Debt Free Chart would turn into the more than 80 she has on her website now. Most cost $1, but 20 are free.
At $1 each, she isn’t looking to get rich on chart sales. She wants to break even for the cost of running the website. She’d rather use the popularity of the charts to give more away for free.
Nash’s goal is to give out 150,000 free charts in 2018 — and she’s already 50,000 charts toward her goal.
Which ones are her favorites? She loves seeing people post their finished starter emergency fund charts.
“It’s such a ‘Wow, I can do this’ moment for people when they fill that one out,” she said.
Another favorite is the adoption fund chart.
She’s also starting to run challenges to help people meet their savings goals faster. She wants to create a sense of community among those paying off debt.
“You see their joy and relief, and you see the pride in the work that they’ve done to pay off the debt,” Nash said. “It’s something I never expected to feel.”
Jen Smith is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She gives money-saving and debt-payoff tips on Instagram at @savingwithspunk.
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