Paying Off Debt With Gazelle Intensity Isn’t Enough


Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid /

I’ve seen it happen to friends and family. It’s even happened to me. A person loses a large amount of weight very quickly through the use of a very restrictive diet. Unfortunately, as time passes the weight begins to return because the restrictive diet is abandoned. The question commonly asked is why would a person who had so much weight loss success just give up and go back to their old habits, reversing all their progress?

To me, the answer is simple: being on a restrictive diet is not real life.

Such a program teaches people one thing, to unconditionally say, “No.” In every situation that may lead them astray from their diet, they simply shake their head back and forth. They pretend that it doesn’t matter, that they’re content drinking water at happy hour, or popping their frozen meal into the microwave while everyone else enjoys a mouth watering steak. They pretend until they’ve simply had enough of depriving themselves and throw their diet out the window for good. Or they reach their goal, start to ease their way back into the world of social gatherings and the occasional meal at a restaurant only to find out that they haven’t learned the skills to handle such situations.

This is why I’m skeptical when someone throws around the term “Gazelle Intensity.” If you’re not familiar with the term, the literal comparison is to the manner in which a Gazelle reacts to being chased by a cheetah.  In the practical application of debt repayment it means reducing and eliminating as many expenses as possible and living on as little as you can in order to pay off your debt as quickly as possible.

Gazelle intensity reminds me a lot of a restrictive diet.

People that pay off debt with gazelle intensity learn how to be very good at saying, “No.” You don’t have to pick and choose what to spend your discretionary funds on, because by the definition of gazelle intensity there is no such thing. Your money either goes to absolute necessities, or to paying off debt.

It’s also not real life. Long term deprivation from anything that makes life enjoyable would be extremely hard. If someone successfully achieves their goal, other difficulties may be revealed. Once the debt is gone, I can’t help but envision a couple sitting at the kitchen table staring at each other wondering how to discuss what to do with the extra funds now available. How would they resolve differences regarding how to use those funds? This could be new ground for them as suddenly they don’t have to say  “No” to everything.

The best diets, with your food or your finances, are lifestyle changes that are sustainable forever.

There are diet programs available that teach nutrition facts, portion control, and the importance of physical activity. It won’t result in the extreme calorie deficit of a restrictive diet, thus the results will not be as dramatic and the process may take a little longer.  However,  such a program will teach the proper way to eat and be active such that a healthy lifestyle is developed that can be maintained forever.

You can also pay off your debt without gazelle intensity.  If you want to get a better handle on your finances and eliminate your debt you will have to make changes to your spending habits, cut expenses, and even increase your income. But do so in a way that builds a financial framework that extends past the end of your debt repayment.  Allow yourself some ability to reward yourself for your hard work and enjoy life.  One of my favorite quotes comes from fellow blogger Paula Pant, “You can afford everything, just not everything.” You have to learn how to prioritize your wants and make conscious choices about what is most important to you and what you can afford.  Gazelle intensity focuses on always saying, “No,” but real life is also about learning when the appropriate time is to say “Yes.”

Have you, or anyone you know paid off their debt using gazelle intensity?  How did it work out?

About Travis

30 Responses to “Paying Off Debt With Gazelle Intensity Isn’t Enough”

Read below or add a comment...

  1. dojo says:

    Well, one can be ‘gazelle intense’ and still not be too frustrated. There’s a balance one can have between a fulfilling life and paying off debt faster. You don’t need to eat from the garbage, but you should learn how to cut the costs in this area (don’t eat out too much – the food is crap anyway – and cook at home, don’t buy pre-made meals – they’re again bad and cost too much etc), you can spend less on clothing, not buy the latest gadget when the ones you own are still working etc.

    We’re ourselves living a more ‘restricted’ life than others (we don’t care for fancy clothes, eating out and the latest gadgets, or changing the car every 2 years) and we’re not actually in debt. But we hate the idea of wasting money and not saving the surplus to invest in our future or just a nice vacation (which is our ‘passion’ and something we always find money for).

    Most of the people who are seriously in debt have made some bad calls and need to start ‘dieting’. Even if they do focus most of their strength on paying off debt, there’s still a lot to be done to enjoy life.

    Since you compared it with weight loss .. I don’t believe in the ‘do sports all day / eat salad only’ mantra. You cannot live like that. Yes, working out is a great thing and there are many amazing options. Not that you’ll lose weight, but you’ll feel invigorated and happy. I don’t believe in the ‘eat salads only’ system either. We do eat healthy and I actually struggled to put on weight even after getting pregnant, but we do eat the occasional burger/pizza. This means eating this maybe once every 2-3 months, not daily. There’s the issue with many people who need to lose weight: they don’t eat the ‘junk’ once a trimester, they eat it maybe once a day (or even more often)

    You can lose weight by still enjoying some of the stuff you love, but you do need to learn how to cook your own proper meals and not eat junk every day.

    Balance is the key I think in most we do 😉

    • Travis says:

      Exactly, Dojo – Life is all about balance….anytime you go to an extreme it’s not sustainable. When I read the literal definition of what Gazelle Intense is supposed to be, I just don’t think it can be sustainable. It has to be sustainable not only for the period in which someone is paying off debt….but *forever!*

      • Jeremiah says:

        It’s not supposed to be forever, just until you’re out of debt. You have the added bonus of now having control of your money and being able to say “no” when it needs to be said forever.

        • Travis says:

          Except you don’t have any practice at selectively saying “no.” If you’ve never had to really figure out “when it needs to be said,” what’s to stop you from going right back into debt?

  2. I think your message is we need to first get educated–whether about nutrition or personal finance–to stick with a plan. Once the education part is done, we better understand the short and long-term benefits of our plan. The cool thing about knowing those benefits is we get motivation to stick with your plan. The trick–though it’s not really a trick; let’s say the key–I think is displacing the very temporary reward of going ‘off plan’ with a big ice cream cone or a new flat screen TV with knowledge of the more meaningful reward, with respect to quality of life, of making choices consistent with physical and financial fitness.

    Example: I started a new ‘diet’ in August 2012. I like the results so well–dropped about 13% of my body weight, feel fantastic, mentally and physically–that I have no desire to eat poorly and have easily stuck with it. My newest hobby is learning about nutrition. My newest characteristic that my friends are getting sick of is doling out unsolicited nutrition advice! 🙂

    • Travis says:

      Almost, Kurt – being informed is certainly a key….but what I’m really trying to drive home can best be summed up by what my son’s baseball coach said during a practice in which the kids were not exactly focused.

      “How you practice is how you play.”

      How you lose weight should be exactly how you will approach food and exercise forever. You won’t sustain a diet of bread, water, and grapefruits for the rest of your life. You have to learn how to maintain a healthy weight and fitness level even by working in some of those things you like but aren’t all that healthy.

      How you get out of debt should be how you are going to manage your finances for the rest of your life. I personally cannot possibly think of an existence where I have absolutely zero discretionary spending. Over the last 4.5 years we’ve learned to cut things out of our lives that give us no value, but to retain those extras that do – provided we can afford them.

      Could we have gotten out of debt faster by going “full frugal” and cutting everything to the bone? Sure….but it’s not sustainable, and I wouldn’t want it to be. I want to “practice how I’m going to play.” By being able to say “yes” every now and then. Now, I may be able to say “yes” more often once the debt is gone, but I allow myself the ability to say Yes even now.

  3. Great post, Travis, and you’re right: anything that is too restrictive for the individual person’s personality is bound to backfire sooner or later. We tend to go through phases: we’ll go gazelle intense on not spending for a week or two or four, then relax and do just our normal debt reduction process. Short-term sprints work well for us, as long as they’re occasionally during moments of extra strength, but long-term, I know that’d drain us real quick .

    • Travis says:

      If it works for you, that’s great, Laurie – for me, I’m not much of a “up and down” kind of guy – I personally would rather be even, and have everything the same all the time. Can you tell I’m not much of a fan of change??? 🙂

  4. Kathy says:

    So very true!

  5. I guess I wouldn’t say we’re paying with Gazelle intensity because we still go out to eat and do things we enjoy, just not big big things. We’ll have significantly more money after the debt is gone, but we’ve built a framework while aggressively paying off our debt. I think you can do well with gazelle intensity, because as long as you still intensely focus on your finances you’ll be doing well.

    • Travis says:

      You and I have similar perspectives, Lance. By definition, that’s not gazelle intensity. It’s a focused, methodical plan to get rid of our debt….and by golly it works, AND we get to enjoy life a little, too! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  6. BN says:

    I suspect that the more descretionary spending you were doing to begin with, the less likely you’ll be able to maintain gazelle intensity for the long term. If cutting to only the basics is a radical lifestyle alteration then yes you’d have to learn how to enjoy time with family and friends without spending money, revise how you shop, rethink your idea of how often your wardrobe/phone/car needs replacing, and so on.
    If you are very successful in finding alternatives and adapt well to cost cutting measures then the change would be less painful. I suspect having the right mindset is also critical. Like dieting, if you are making changes because you want a different outcome for yourself, it’s much easier to accept than if you are doing it because you have to or feel it’s the right thing to do even if your heart isn’t in it.
    A layoff years ago forced us to make immediate changes the we wouldn’t otherwise have made. After the job situation was resolved we could have gone back to our old ways, but had discovered that the things we’d given up actually weren’t important to us at all, and we would enjoy directing the excess to other goals far more (savings and travel).
    Perhaps when attempting to adopt a gazelle intensity, rather than viewing it as a long list of things you can no longer do, instead, for every item that will be cut you must find a free alternative with which to replace it. Making a swap might seem far less restrictive than just seeing the absence of an activity or product.

    • Travis says:

      I like your idea of making a list of alternative activities, BN….it would help ease the transition to a new lifestyle for sure – whether it’s “gazelle intense” or not!

  7. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    I do think there are emergency situations where gazelle intensity is necessary, but it shouldn’t be expected to last forever.

    • Travis says:

      True enough, Lisa – there’s a big difference between being forced to cut everything but the bare necessities, and doing so willingly for the sake of paying your debt off faster. The later teaches you nothing about how you will live after the debt is gone. As I mentioned above, I’m an even keeled kind of guy. Let’s get in a rhythm of budgeting, saving, paying down our debt AND being able to say “yes” to ourselves. when the “paying down debt” part is gone, we’re removing something something from the equation, not adding. Thanks for stopping by Lisa!

  8. Matt says:

    I think it’s important to remember that Gazelle Intense (a Dave Ramsey phrase) doesn’t mean blindly cutting and slashing. I think for any married couple to work together, or for anything intense to happen at all their has to be a goal and a plan ahead of time. If the point of getting out of debt is simply to get out of debt, it’s pointless.

    Just like dieting for the sake of eating less makes no sense.

    But if you diet to be healthier, more active, provide better food for your kids, etc. then there is a reason behind all that.

    When you made the comment about a couple sitting down at the table after the debt was gone, I think that’s where you went off course a bit. I think your point is very valid but I would suspect that is the minority.

    My wife and I plan to get intense next year (not now because I’m relocating with the military soon) but not just for the sake of intensity. We already know what we’re going to do with out extra money when the debt is gone! When the car is paid! When the student loans get kicked out!

    So to assume that everyone gets out of debt just to do it is silly, but I can tell you that will a goal in mind (starting a family, saving for college, saving for car/home, being able to give more, etc.) then Gazelle Intensity is just a means to an end, not the end itself. Then it’s really not too bad. I’d rather be intense for a short time to have freedom than bound for a long time just because it’s more convenient for my immediate desires.

    • Travis says:

      Fantastic comment, Matt….I admit I hadn’t thought of that angle. If someone (or a couple) sits down and decides to wage all out war on their debt, because when it’s gone they’re going to use the money to X or Y then I can definitely see a smoother transition. It would be very interesting to throw 100 people trying to get out of debt into a room and find out how many of them have a plan, or have even thought seriously about how life will change once the debt is gone. I’ve read many threads by people (and quite honestly I used to be one of them) who’s sole purpose to pay off debt was because they had no choice but to do something with their finances because they were on the brink of disaster. They picture the day of being out of debt as coming out of this fog where everything will be better, but they’re not quite sure what that means, and plan to figure it out when they get there. I *hope* there are a lot more people out there as you describe, Matt – awesome comment – thank you so much for sharing your perspective!

  9. When I think of “gazelle intensity”, I think of Matt’s definition above. It means focused planning. And that planning can involve the odd treat or purchase of a “want” rather than a “need”. The “want” isn’t purchased on a whim of spontaneity. It’s purchased after there has been consideration, discussion, and saving. I agree that financial stability can’t be built upon deprivation. I’ve known a couple of people who have scrimped and saved for the sake of scrimping and saving, and it’s not appealing. In fact, I had to overcome that image of frugality before starting on a journey out of debt.

    • Travis says:

      You have to have that carrot hanging in front of you, right, Prudence? If you don’t know what you’re working for, nothing to chase – well, you may just stop running. That goes back to Matt’s comment again – if you have a clear goal for *why* you are getting out of debt, and *what* you’re doing to do once you get there it’s a whole different ballgame. Thanks for reading, Prudence – always nice to hear from you!

  10. Danny Vah says:

    Great post, Travis. And I don’t think Gazelle intensity is a healthy approach to anything in life. And I agree with your analogy here- paying off debts with gazelle intensity is indeed like being a on a seriously restrictive diet and then falling off the wagon. Getting out of debt- and staying out- requires lifestyle changes and a frugal living- not complete restriction.

  11. Fitz says:

    I think it’s interesting that you don’t mention Dave Ramsey or FPU at all in your article, but it seems as if you are calling him out. I agree with your analogy that financial fitness and physical fitness have no shortage of commonalities, but it’s still not 1:1. I think for some people they need to take control and start the change. Things that go along with gazelle intensity such as having a garage sale, temporarily taking on some overtime, or turning down the 401k are not necessarily unhealthy, and they can help people see some success on their journey. Dave repeatedly talks about making changes that can be maintained long term and not living a life that is unhealthy or unsustainable.

    • Travis says:

      Great comment, Fitz…the reason I didn’t mention Dave Ramsey specifically is because I see people mention the term “gazelle intense” in context with paying off their debt outside of any kind of Ramsey framework (even though that’s where it seems to have originated). I also do not mention him because I have not taken FPU, nor am I “in the know” as to everything that Dave says or recommends in his course.

      I have read about, and even know personally, many people that have found success with FPU and kudos to them. From what I know, it certainly holds people accountable for their debt and their financial behaviors and puts people on a path to recovery.

      That being said, my point is that from what I know, the concept of Gazelle intensity just doesn’t resonate with me. Living on as little as you can doesn’t sound sustainable to me – now, if people go into it knowing that they are sacrificing as much as they can in order to live a better life later and are OK with that, then more power to them. I’ve also seen a quote attributed to Dave that says something to the effect of – Live like nobody now, so you can live like nobody later. Essentially saying if you live very frugally now, you will have a huge nest egg later much larger than most to allow you to live much better later.

      The problem with that theory is that you have to get to “later.”

      I don’t identify with deprivation now, to have riches later. I may not have the physical ability to travel and run marathons in cool locations later – which is something I really want to do.

      The concept of “You can afford anything, just not everything” resonates much more with me. Cut out the things from your life that don’t bring you value. Pick and chose the things that you can afford that brings the most value and enjoyment. Save for retirement, but don’t deprive yourself of all life enjoyment now.

      Gazelle intensity may resonate and work for some people, it just doesn’t with me.

      • I actually believe that you and Dave Ramsey are more on the same page than you might think : )
        He doesn’t advocate for unsustainable deprivation – just steady, unrelenting focus.

        • Travis says:

          Hmmm, interesting…that seems to contradict what I’ve hears about Gazelle intensity. I think I may have to check into his FPU a little more closely just for my own education. But steady unrelenting focus certainly sounds like a great plan to me. 🙂

  12. Michele says:

    Thanks for this article. I have heard about gazelle intensity before and can say that I am nowhere near there. Slow and steady is my pace but it is still moving forward and getting me closer to my personal goal of being out of debt.

    Congratulations that you will soon have your 100K of debt paid off. Thanks for your personal story and helping others stay motivated.

    • Travis says:

      Slow and steady is great, Michele – as long as you keep making positive progress towards your goal. Thanks for your support – hope to hear from you from time to time as to how you’re doing as well!

  13. ParkRanger says:

    Why are you assuming that attacking debt with gazelle intensity means you don’t have a plan for after? After the debt is paid off, you keep that same intensity to save money until you have 3-6 months of expenses set aside as an emergency fund. After that’s done, you simultaneously begin saving 15% of your income toward retirement, begin saving for your kids’ college (if you have them), and work to pay off your mortgage (if you have one). Once all three are done, the final step is to invest even more, build wealth like crazy, and live and give to the fullest. There IS a plan. Gazelle intensity is an excellent approach to all the steps but the last one, where the money takes care of itself.

    Disparaging the idea of attacking debt with gazelle intensity was foolish for two reasons. One, you’re disparaging a phrase coined by an extremely competent financial advisor who has a proven plan, and you seem to not even be aware of it. Well, you may be aware of it, but you certainly don’t understand it or you would never claim that gazelle intensity somehow leads to having no plan. Gazelle intensity is PART of a plan! Two (and this is the worst part), you’re essentially saying that God is wrong. The idea of gazelle intensity when it comes to paying off debt comes from Proverbs 6, which talks about delivering yourself from surety (debt) like a deer from the hand of the hunter and a bird from the hand of the fowler. The gazelles sense danger and they get out FAST and with INTENSITY . I might be wrong. Dave Ramsey might be wrong. But God IS NOT wrong! Dave and I agree with God.

    Sorry if this is coming off confrontational or hostile. That is not my intention. I feel compelled to point these things out because I believe your article (opinion) is unwittingly encouraging people to continue to deny the danger they are truly in. Proverbs says the borrower is slave to the lender. Encouraging people to take a more moderate, laid-back, less intense (or “sustainable” as you call it) approach to debt is tantamount to encouraging someone to stay in slavery longer, all because you’re not sure whether or not they’re “ready” for freedom. The proven plan for financial success is outlined above. Don’t settle for good enough. Go! Push harder! Get debt free with gazelle intensity, and them keep it up through the rest of the steps. Anything less is slavery and continual bondage.

    • Travis says:

      No Worries, Park Ranger… hostility taken. I appreciate your perspective….but I turn your question around on you: Why do you assume someone has a plan for after debt has been paid off? I’ve read about a lot of people that concentrate on paying of debt….and ONLY on paying off debt. Once they get to the end they talk about feeling a bit lost about what to do next. If you read the title again, notice it’s “Paying Off Debt With Gazelle Intensity is NOT enough.” Getting people to think about the future is the exact point of the post – if someone pays off debt with that kind of intensity, AND has a plan for afterward – in my opinion they’re one step ahead of the game.

      Thanks again for reading, and for your thoughts!

Leave a Comment...


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.