Living With Debt

How I Paid Off $26k Of Debt By Making A Color Map

By | Monday, December 21, 2015


I take great joy in telling people that I paid off my credit cards. All five of ‘em. In half the time I thought I would. It feels really, really good after dragging around that debt for most of my adult life. And to be really honest—it’s also quite fun to share how I did it.

It involved a Sharpie, a random piece of framed canvas, and smelly pens (yes, these sweet scented little loves).

Here’s how it began: in April of 2014, my financial planner/tax guy (Steve) had a very kind-yet-firm talk with me about how I needed to deal with my shit. Not that Steve said it that way, but the message was clear: I needed to face my credit card debt. I’d been in denial for some time about paying it off in earnest — it just seemed overwhelming. So I kept putting it off—just making minimum payments and pretending like it would get paid off at some point.

The bummer was, unicorns saddled with cash were not coming. I needed a new approach to pay it off. I also had this piece of framed canvas sitting around (as ridiculous as that sounds) and wanted to do something with it. One night, as I surrendered to the fact that it was time to be a grown woman, inspiration struck.

I wish I could say that this was my own original idea, but I assure you it wasn’t. I grew up watching my Mom employ the same strategy when she was working toward her sales incentive trips. Her company would provide a simple drawing, which represented the recruiting/sales goals, and she would color in the corresponding shapes as she made her numbers. It hung up next to her desk where she could see it often. So could I. My Mom won nearly every single trip, and it was an annual win for our entire family.

Decades later, with Steve’s pep-talk echoing in my head, I decided that the same strategy just might work for me too. I grabbed a Sharpie and started drawing the same doodle pattern of swirls I’ve been drawing in notebooks for years whilst on conference calls. I wasn’t paying too much attention to how it looked, what shape it ended up being, or how many swirls were on it. I eventually got tired and went to bed without finishing it (I never finished it and meant to have the swirls go all the way to the edges). The next day, a lovely 17-year-old assistant came over, looked at the canvas, and asked me about it. I told her my intention and she thought it was a really cool idea. That was all the validation I needed to share that sucker on Facebook. But first, I wanted to actually color in some of those swirls.

I decided that each swirl would represent $100 (because it was easy to count). I committed to coloring in a swirl every time I paid $100 toward my credit card debt. It looked like an awfully big canvas, and I honestly didn’t know how many swirls were on it, but it seemed like the right time to get started. I figured I could always add more on if I needed.

I had some money I’d been very proudly saving in an “emergency fund,” and I decided it was time to take a chunk of it to pay down my credit card with the highest APR. It stung just a little when I did because I’d really enjoyed seeing my savings account grow. In fact, I had felt so responsible that I almost forgot I had a mountain of debt on my credit cards. Sigh.

So, I proceeded to pull out the smelly pens and got to coloring. I wanted to finally own up to my debt, start coloring in the damn swirls, and start bragging to Steve and everyone else I know.

Here’s what went up on Facebook that day:


I expected my friends would think it was cool too, but I was genuinely surprised at how enthusiastic their response was. What was even more surprising was when some friends suggested I start making more drawings and selling them. I chuckled to myself in a gracious way and followed with, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly!” I had a full-time consulting gig, was launching my online sanctuary (SanctuWhereWe), trying to train my puppy, and trying to keep 38 tomato plants alive (it didn’t go so well for the tomatoes I’m afraid). When exactly would I fit that in? Could that actually work?

Setting my fears aside, I responded to the encouragement from my Facebook friends with, “OK, I’ll have a think about it! Which, as you all know, is a very casual understatement of how I will obsessively consider the possibilities of this.”

That’s pretty much just what I did. I quickly ruled out drawing them by hand on canvas as it was too time intensive, not easily scalable, and difficult to ship. Then, I thought I would just create the designs, scan them, and sell them as digital downloads. I was gently reminded by friends and yes, my Mom too, that most people just want the finished product. They want it to be as easy as possible to get started right away.

Months went by, circumstances changed, and I started to believe that I could actually make a go of it—selling my doodle drawings. I started calling them Creative Progress Maps (I do love double meanings), and I intended for the proceeds to financially support of the growth of SanctuWhereWe. I didn’t realize at the time that one day I’d aim even higher.

After months of test runs, research, and finding the right printer/fulfillment partner, I found myself here. I’ve created this site. I drew the logo by hand because I don’t have the cash at present to hire a designer to do it for me. I’ve taken courses on Treehouse to learn basic HTML and CSS to create page layouts by myself. I’ve come up with 15 designs so far, and I have a notebook full of more ideas, lots more maps, and now these blog posts as well.

If it sounds like I’m a wee bit bewildered about the whole thing, it’s because I am. This is never what I thought I’d be doing. Only recently did I start believing in myself enough to take this leap, believing enough in my maps to let go of my consulting work, and do this full time. Despite how scared I am to stake my livelihood on people wanting to buy my maps, I keep coming back to the same thought (usually as I lay awake at night trying to figure my life out). I come back to this one truth — my map worked for me. It truly helped to motivate me and to get my debt paid off.



My invitation is this: No matter what goal you have, be it financial, fitness-related, a big life event, or a desire to form healthier habits, Creative Progress Maps are here for you to use as I did. Yes, they are black and white drawings, but they are also tools, hope, and eventually your own work of art. It starts the second you color in that first swirl. They can stand for something that matters to you, something great. I cannot wait to see what y’all do with them!


Hopefully, you will soon because I’ve got back taxes to tackle next. Happy Mapping!


P.S. I still intend for a portion of the sales from Creative Progress Maps to support SanctuWhereWe. That’s my heart. This is my art.

Update from June 23rd:

On June 12th, I posted this on the Map Your Progress Facebook page and on my own personal page without knowing what to expect. I paid $99 to boost the post on the MYP FB page. It was just an experiment, and I thought I’d promote to women in the United States who enjoy Suze Orman or Dave Ramsey. It’s been shared 348 times to date, and Tthe version I posted on my personal page was shared 253 times to date.

Between the two shares, it jumped to Australia and went wild. I had no idea Australian women would love the maps so much! I feel so encouraged, excited, humbled, and pumped for what’s to come next. Despite having a decent understanding of the Internet, I had no idea that this post would reach as far as it has. I had no idea I’d receive orders from people in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Norway, and Israel. So many have reached out to share their struggles with debt, and I’m reminded I’m not alone. We’re all just human people with the same issues — it really doesn’t matter where you live or what currency you use.

I’ve heard from those of you who wish to pay off credit cards, student loans, and debt from divorces. I’ve heard from so many who wish to shed the weight they don’t need. From writers who want to get down 1,000 words a day to an adorable wife who is saving up for a car to surprise her husband (that’s a secret by the way). I can’t tell you how many times my left hand has reflexively clapped over my heart and I’ve made some unintelligible noise that mean “Oh, how I love this.” It’s amazing and inspiring. Yes, so much YES! My eyes are also exceptionally well hydrated as of late because I keep tearing up multiple times a day when I think how much alike we all are. We all just want to feel better and to do better.

I cannot wait until these maps start getting in the hands of other people like me with hopes and dreams and the belief that we can all grow. I delight in your photos, stories, and ideas. We’re up to great things and it is my honor and great joy to share in the adventure with all y’all. Cheers to more beauty, less shame, and lots more color!

Image via Pexels


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