Heavy Debt: One Shovelful At A Time

  • DH = Dear Husband (who was out snowboarding while I shoveled)
  • DD3 = Dear Third Daughter


Where I live, we got 20 inches (51 cm) of snow Tuesday. “I’m going snowboarding with Phil tonight. I’ll be leaving before you get home,” DH told me over the phone when I was still at work. DH loves snowboarding on freshly fallen powder, and conditions were too ideal to pass up. He sounded a bit tentative though, and I wanted to reassure him. “Great! Have fun!” I said. He told me that he had already shoveled the driveway twice and that he would again before he left . . . “but the plow hasn’t come by yet.”

Light snow vs. plowed snow at the end of the driveway 

If you live in a place where snow happens, you know what that means. Snow that falls on your driveway is easy to shovel. It’s light and fluffy. But the snow that a plow leaves at the end of your driveway after clearing the street is a different thing altogether. It’s compressed. Hard. Heavy. It takes way longer to shovel this strip of plowed snow than it takes to shovel all of the rest of the driveway. “That’s OK,” I reassured him. “I can shovel when I get home.” By the time our street was plowed, 18 inches (46 cm) of snow had fallen. DH had left for his evening of snowboarding, and the “strip” of compressed, hard, heavy snow at the end of our driveway was more like a mini-mountain range – something I had never had to deal with before.

DD3 and I got to work shoveling. “I’ll do the end,” I said to her. “You do the rest of the driveway and the walkway.” Everyone on our street seemed to be outside, shovel in hand, and friendly, gloved waves went back and forth among our neighbours. The noise of snowblowers could be heard, and the odd privately contracted snow plow came along to service particular driveways. I felt a big smug with my shovel. I was toughing it out – not taking the easy way. I got a rush of wintry solidarity with the other shovelers, and away I went – working against the concentrated snowy mass.


The plowed snow was so dense, I had to scrape it loose first before scooping it up. Progress was barely discernible at the end of our driveway, but our snowbanks were definitely getting higher. One and a half hours in, I still had two-thirds of the way to go. “Mom, I’m finished,” said DD3. And it was true. “Can I take a break?” I asked her to come back outside in 30 minutes to help me with the rest of the plowed snow.

It was dark out by this point, and most of my neighbours had gone inside. Shoveling was lonely work all of a sudden, and any winter-wonderland high had been drained out of me – along with my energy. There was just so much snow! How was I ever going to get to the end of it?!

When debt gets heavy . . .

I don’t know about you, but when DH and I started out on our journey out of debt, I was psyched! I was high on the challenge, tasting victory right from the get-go. And I knew that we weren’t alone. Millions of people were in too much debt. Thousands of people – hundreds of thousands – were getting their wake-up calls to get out of debt, and we would all cheer each other on.

Soon after we started, we realized that our trek to debt-freedom wouldn’t be easy. That first month, we had a van repair and a property tax bill not accounted for. A bit later, DH had a gallstone attack while on business in the U.S. – and we faced the possibility of no coverage for a huge medical bill. There were episodes of very encouraging progress – when overcoming debt was like shoveling light, fluffy snow – but every few months, something major would come our way to make it onerous – like shoveling the dense stuff left by the plow at the end of the driveway. Slow business and low income for DH. Huge expected expenses like our roof. Huge unexpected expenses like our dog’s bladder stones. Ugh!

What do you do when there’s no more adrenaline? What do you do when the rush of the start has gone? You keep on paying off debt, one shovelful at a time. You might feel tired. It might seem that everyone else has finished up – because they’re smarter or stronger or luckier or have higher incomes that act as debt-plows – and that you’re left alone – in the dark. And each shovelful is so heavy. And progress is so small – so out of proportion to the effort.

To the rescue!

After two and a half hours had gone by (and DD3 still hadn’t come back out after having her “break” – hmmm…), I heard a familiar noise growing louder behind me. A neighbour I had never met was crossing the street towards me – with his snow-blower. It was too loud to allow for conversation, so he gestured and I yelled “THANK YOU!” and  put my shovel down. Within 20 minutes, the rest of the dense mass of plowed snow had been removed from the end of our driveway. My neighbour – Simon was his name – had just saved me from about two more hours of grunt work.

Sometimes, I find myself wishing that DH would get such a whopping amount of business that we could pay off the rest of our debt in one fell swoop. Or that my colleagues and I would win the lottery. But I don’t think it’s going to be like that. I don’t think we’re going to be rescued from years of debt-repayment in the way that I was rescued from hours shoveling. Still, I can imagine . . .

Do you find that your debt feels heavier at times? Would you rather shovel your own way out of debt? or be “rescued”? Your comments are welcome.



30 comments on “Heavy Debt: One Shovelful At A Time

  1. Awesome analogy, Ruth!!! We totally feel like that this year – like all that we’re working toward is this big, hard pile of snow. But as the old saying goes, you remove a mountain by carrying away the small stones first. One foot in front of the other, my friend. We WILL get there – both of our families. 🙂

  2. The end of the driveway snow is the worst. Neighbors always ask me why I don’t have a snowblower and I respond I have three children so I own one. 🙂 There were certainly times along they way that our debt felt heavy. Just when we thought we had it all figured out something would pop up and knock us back a bit. Kinda like that plow making another pass after the driveway was clear.

    1. The plow DID make another pass after all of that. But only two more inches of snow had fallen, so the plowed bit wasn’t much. I just drove over it the next day : )

  3. What a perfect analogy!!! And I know exactly what you mean about the end of the driveway. We have a snowblower, which helps, at least with the snow. 🙂

    While I would love to have Simon come rescue my debt repayment, I know it’s important to learn the lessons and habits from doing the work ourselves.

    1. Good attitude, Amy. Sometimes I think, “Well, I’ve learned all of those lessons I needed to learn. The rescue is welcome any time now.” But it looks like more lessons are needed : )

  4. Well, we don’t have debt at this point (minus the mortgage), but the sheer weight of our expenses feel very heavy sometimes. When I think about the fact that the money for Tim’s dental implants would pay off 1/3 of our mortgage or be a down payment on a rental property… I get very discouraged.

    But once this is over, our goals will mainly be positive. I guess that’d be the snowblower in this metaphor.

    1. “the money for Tim’s dental implants would pay off 1/3 of our mortgage” – Oh wow! That is a tough one. But you’re looking at it the right way. Barring other high expenses creeping in, you’ll be able to make great headway after these implants are taken care of. I wish you speed in getting to the “snowblower” stage.

  5. Hi Ruth! I feel for you sweetie, a lot. An ex-Michigander, I can totally relate to the heaviness of snow – especially the plowed stuff. Love the analogy to debt, also a heavy burden. Excellent post as always. Stay warm 🙂

  6. I’m suddenly very happy to live in Raleigh and will remember that in Mid July when we have a couple of weeks in July with lows in the 80s.
    But it’s a great analogy. Debt gets heavy and lonely after a while. I know it’s easy to wish for a snowblower to come by and help, but that seldom happens with debt. You just have to keep shoveling, and hope no more snow falls for a while.

    1. If “more snow” means “more debt”, you are absolutely right, Emily! And you’re right about the need to just keep on shoveling. I can shovel with my hands and dream of a debt-blower in my mind though : )

  7. I’m so happy your neighbour came by. That amount of heavy lifting can reek havoc with the back! As debt repayment doesn’ t need to happen overnight it’s important to play and rest (except after record snowfalls!) after work – which will hopefully infuse some joy into our labours.

    1. My back didn’t seem to mind the shoveling. I’ve learned to use my legs to help lift : ) For the first half hour or so, the shoveling did feel like the “play” you refer to. The next two hours . . . not so much. Thanks, Shirley!

  8. That heavy snow reminds me of a lot of goals in life where you start off super guns-ho but it’s hard to keep up that energy. I think like anything you want to try and conserver your energy by just doing one little things at a time and trying to stay focused on what is in front of you, as opposed to the whole driveway. 🙂

    1. Very wise, Tonya. When it comes to most goals, best to conserve energy and keep a steady effort for the long term. In the case of the driveway, it was more time-sensitive – so I was very grateful for my neighbour’s help : )

  9. “Sometimes, I find myself wishing that DH would get such a whopping amount of business that we could pay off the rest of our debt in one fell swoop.” And then you could buy a snowblower. :p KIDDING!

    This is a great analogy. And I agree with Tonya. It’s so hard to do, but just working at what’s in front of you is huge. That, and not getting discouraged when circumstances set you back a little bit. It might take longer to get to the finish line, but you NEVER get there if you give up!

    1. No giving up! (And I don’t know why you’re “kidding” about the snowblower idea. It seems like a pretty good idea to me right about now : )

  10. Three thoughts:

    1) I love the analogy between snow and debt. Great correlation that I think many can see!
    2) Usually my snowblower will work OK at the bottom but there was one snowfall where it was too much and the small blower just kept stalling. My neighbor came to the rescue just like yours did. Always nice to have good neighbors.
    3) One thing I’ve learned is that if you can get out in front of the plow, you can minimize the amount of snow they’ll leave behind. Essentially, clear the street in front of your driveway as well as the 20-30′ before the driveway, making sure to know from which direction the plow comes. The area before will effectively give them spot to dump off what’s on their blade, and by the time they hit your drive, it’s much emptier. It’s not perfect but this has helped tremendously. Again, you have to be able to beat the plow!

    1. So if we ever get a snowblower, we’ll get a big one! And does that advice in #3 count if you’re using a shovel? Actually, why not? Thanks, Mr. Money Beagle : )

  11. I agree debt feels heavier at times. There is a psychological component of how worried or burdened the debt feels in a given situation. But also there is the cultural component as some debt is reputed to better than others types. And there is the math of interest rates.

    We’ve had friends whose student loans were “rescued” by a gift from a relative. In the end, I think at first we felt a little jealous, but then remembered how many advantages we’ve had, and the fact that we have been blessed with enough income to pay off our debts in a reasonable amount of time. Then we just felt happy for our friends.

    1. I was “rescued” from student debt, and I don’t think it served me well. You, on the other hand, have had the benefit in a debt lesson early on. Kalie, you might find that over the years, you end up being admired or even envied by your “rescued” (possibly enabled?) friends.

  12. Debt does feel heavy at times, and I love your analogy by comparing it with the snow. Also, your story made me happy to be in Southern California where we have mild winters 😉

  13. The heavy/light snow analogy is perfect. It fell from the sky the same way every other snowflake fell, but it was compacted by another force, the snow plow, causing the original problem to compound on itself. It’s so easy to wander into debt, but then the interest and sloppy spending compound the problem and we’re attacking heavy debt with a shovel (while someone else gets to go snowboarding…there’s always someone else out there having fun). Great post, Ruth.

    1. I love the way you have expanded upon the analogy, Laura. It’s true that debt can seem as harmless as a snowflake, and that what is not so apparent are the compounding factors that make it a heavy burden for so many people. Good insight : )

  14. This story reminded me of the winter I lived in Minneapolis with a bunch of roommates. It snowed every day all of December, January and February. The only time I could use my car all winter was when one of the neighbors took pity on my car and snowblowed it out.

    This story is also a great and gentle reminder of the importance of generosity. Could you have done it yourself? Of course, but when someone is able and willing to help it is a beautiful thing.

    1. I hope that you’re exaggerating when you say that it snowed every day for 3 months! I’m glad that you were offered the same generosity that I was lucky enough to have received. I know that some owners of snowblowers have experienced an unfair expectation on the part of their snowblower-less neighbours. I agree with what you say about a willingness to help being “a beautiful thing”. At the same time, it’s unwise (and sometimes unfair) to expect to receive it. It’s most beautiful when it comes as a surprise – as you and I both experienced with our respective snowblower-to-the-rescue stories.

      1. Sadly, it was no exaggeration. Though thankfully, we only had 3-4 big snowstorms, but my car was usually trapped by packed snow from the plows, and by the time I needed the car, the snow was so iced over that the bus seemed a better option. Honestly, I didn’t need a car at the time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *