When Stranded In A Forest Of Debt, Just Keep Chopping

Since I was a teenager, I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from sports. For me, the life-lessons learned through sports are so relevant to many of the same struggles we face in real life. Little did I know that something I picked up from following college football would help me stay motivated on my plan to become debt free.

In 2006 the Rutgers football team made a big splash in the world of college football. They even knocked off Lousville that year, who at the time was ranked as the #3 football team in the country. It was a huge win for the Rutgers program, and their new coach, who began to draw national media attention.

I noticed during the game that players were making a “chopping” motion after big plays, and a number of coaches joined in. I didn’t understand the celebration, because it looked to me like they were simulating the referee’s call for a personal foul. After searching around the web, I discovered they were “chopping wood,” which was the visual representation of a mantra the coach had brought to Rutgers.

An AP story from that year describes the motivation behind the phrase “keep chopping wood.” Apparently, the idea was developed by a sport psychologist, and adopted by a number of coaches as a battle cry for teams trying to rally from behind. I like how Rutgers coach Greg Schiano summed it up:

“Right now we’re in a bad spot, we’re in the middle of the forest, it’s all dark, we can’t see. Get an ax and just start chopping away.”

That’s the approach we have taken to debt repayment. Some trees (debts) were taller than others; some bigger around. It didn’t matter, we just kept chopping, and eventually those trees began to fall. To most people, it might seem like it would be easier to borrow a chainsaw-it’s more efficient than an old ax. But swinging that ax hurts, and that pain is an important part of the process because it is a constant reminder of why you’ll never venture out into the forest again.

Some months you’ll chop more wood than others. Illnesses, emergencies, and other unforeseen events will inevitably slow you down. Just keep chopping! One word of caution. After a few months of swinging your ax you’ll start to create a little space. Don’t get comfortable. Complacency is the enemy of progress. If you decide to put down the ax and take a little nap, you might wake up to find things overgrown again. Now you’re tired, sore, and once again surrounded by debt.

How do you psyche yourself up to face similar challenges?


  1. I agree that this is an important concept. With our debt we did that. And I’m doing it now with my weight. It’s amazing, but if you just put your head down and keep going, it seems as though you suddenly look around one day and progress has been made.

  2. As an RU Alum, I’m also fond of the phrase, “chopping wood.” I use it not only as a philosophy, but also as an ichat status!

  3. That is similar to a quote I use when I feel like I’m getting nowhere or feeling overwhelmed by work, debt, etc. It’s from “Finding Nemo” (I have kids, so we watch a few movies like this). Dory, a fish in the movie, says: “When life gets you down do you wanna know what you’ve gotta do? Just keep swimming.” The kids can relate to this quote also when they’re having a tough time like at school. Just keep moving forward, just keep doing what needs to be done. You may not move fast, but as long as you keep going you will get to where you want to be.

  4. I love the quote. I hadn’t heard that story, but I connected with it in a personal way. I envision my debts, my problems, and all the things that interfere with my goals as kudzu, the vine that runs rampant through most of the southern states. My mantra has been “Keep hacking away at it” and it has helped me pay off four of my credit cards and lose 15 pounds over the last 8 months.

  5. I’ve been rallying around the debt reduction flag for quite a while and am making progress. But sometimes i GET TIRED! I mean like so exhausted I can’t think about it anymore!

    That’s when most people might turn to something decidedly NOT frugal (shopping, spending) to give themselves a bit of comfort.

    That’s a big no no. Fortunately, I have the library instead of Barnes and Noble and Netflix and the thrift mart instead of the mall!