Think Expansively: It’s Key to Getting and Staying Out of Debt

By Jackie Beck   Updated 02/14/2022 at 2:49 pm

Developing the ability to think expansively is key to a debt-free life.

Why? Because life doesn’t move along a strictly defined path. Things happen that you don’t expect. (Both good and bad.)

Being able to think expansively about a situation opens up the possibilities. It gives you a way to power through the bad times without making them worse — and to plan ahead during the good times.

What is expansive thinking?

Expansive thinking is a way of seeing multiple ways to reach a goal, solve a problem, or improve a situation. It enables you to roll with the punches and come out standing.

There’s a Yiddish proverb that says “Man plans, and God laughs.”

So have a plan (or 3) for when God laughs. That’s right. Plan ahead right now for what you’re going to do when things go wrong. And then for what you’re going to do if that goes wrong too. While you’re at it, plan ahead for what you’re going to do when things go right.

Expansive thinking is about being creative, and finding ways to get to where you want to be despite the obstacles you encounter, and to stay there (or go somewhere better) as you move through life.

“But I’m not creative.”

As an artist, it bothers me when people say they’re not creative. I believe everyone is creative about at least some things. They just need to see it.

My mom used to swear she wasn’t creative, because she “couldn’t draw”. Yet she created beautiful handmade cards and loved decorating her home. That’s creative in my book.

Creativity doesn’t have to mean you’re Leonardo da Vinci. It just needs to mean you can come up with more than one idea when presented with a challenge. That’s expansive thinking, and you can learn that.

Changing the way you see things

You have the ability to change your beliefs, and to open yourself up to other possibilities. Really.

Think back to when you were a child, and you believed something that later turned out not to be true at all. Maybe you thought that ATMs gave out free cash, or that your parents had eyes in the back of their heads.

We all know those things aren’t true (or at least I hope we do!), yet at one time we may have firmly believed them. Why? Because we made assumptions based on the information we currently had, or we believed what people told us.

As we went through life, we learned more about the world and modified our beliefs. This is especially important when it comes to getting out of debt.

Things won’t always be the way they are now. You don’t have to be trapped by your context. Learning to think expansively will help with that.

Start small

There are more possibilities out there than whatever you can easily see right now. Let’s take a small example.

Look up from your computer or phone, and think about what’s in front of you right now. What do you see?

Let’s say you see a blank white wall, and don’t really like white walls. The default solution might be to paint it a different color. But there’s almost always more than one solution to any given situation.

So come up with 3 more ideas.

Could you wallpaper it instead of painting? Add beadboard? Stenciling? Could you add a window? Hang a picture on it? Could you turn your head so you don’t see the wall any longer? Could you decide that maybe the white wall is something you can live with right now after all, because you have more important priorities?

All possibilities. (Some probably more appealing to you than others.)

Now, what do you want for the wall? Do you even want a wall at all?

Maybe it could be knocked down by a sledgehammer without any long-term negative effects, after you made sure it wasn’t load-bearing. Sure, you’d have to put in some effort and clean up the mess, but in the end it would be gone. (Which, by the way, is how it works with debt.)

Plan out what you’d like to do with the wall, and then what you could do if that choice doesn’t work out the way you’d hoped. Now, before you feel forced to do something with the wall.

Practice expansive thinking

Practicing this kind of thinking on small, literal things like a plain white wall will help you when it comes to solving problems like your car needing new tires when you forgot to budget for them, for example.

Expansive thinking helps you get creative, and look for alternatives to your old go-to “solution” of debt.

Because there are alternatives to taking out loans. You just have to get creative about them sometimes, or be willing to make hard choices.

A typical situation

Suppose your car has a major issue, and you can no longer drive it. But you don’t have the money to get it repaired. The typical reaction is either to borrow the money for the repair, or to go out and buy a new car (using debt, of course).

But if you don’t even have the cash to get it repaired, you’re going to be putting yourself in even worse financial shape by borrowing money. That’s how the vicious cycle starts (or continues) — and you’ll tell yourself and others that you “had” to borrow the money because of the problem with your car.

Except you don’t have to, if you’re willing to explore other options and then not discard them. It just takes practice to think expansively.

An example of expansive thinking

Years ago when I was in the middle of a divorce, I worked about 22 miles from home. My car broke down (and by “broke down” I mean “I blew the engine on it”). I had to figure out how to get to and from work. There was no one I could get a ride from, at least not long-term. The closest bus stop to my house was about a mile away, and the closest bus stop to my work was about 3 miles away.

In order to get even close to work using public transportation, I would have had to walk a mile, take the bus completely out of the way for about 45 minutes so I could connect to a different bus going the way I need to go, and then walk 3 miles. Basically, it would have taken me nearly 3 hours to get to work, and of course the same to get home. Yet my son could only be at school and then after-school care from about 6:30-6. You can’t fit a a 15 hour day into less than 12 hours.

Most people would agree that I “had” to borrow money. I “needed” a new car. I would “have no choice” because I lived in a city without good public transportation. No one would have thought anything of it if I’d taken out a loan.

Finding other options

The truth is though, there were other options. And if you refuse the obvious choice of debt and brainstorm to explore other options, they will appear.

Here are the possibilities I came up with:

  • Change jobs
  • See if I could work at home temporarily
  • Move right next to where I worked.
  • Borrow a car until I could repair mine. (From who, I didn’t know, but it was surely a possibility.)
  • Sell stuff in order to get enough money to buy a beater or repair my car.
  • Find someone to take care of my son longer, and taken on extra temporary work or ridden the bus for hours.

What I actually did was ask my boss for a big raise. And he gave me one, along with the money for my car repair. (I later repaid him, but it truly was a gift.)

Instead of ending up deeper in debt, I ended up with more money long-term and a working car.

How to accept the other options

The problem is, most of us hear this little voice that says “well but I can’t do that because ____” or “well that might work for other people, but it wouldn’t work for me because ____”. If you really want to open yourself up to choices that will put you in better shape long-term, you’ve got to silence that voice. Follow up your own objections with:

But how could I, if I really had to?

Because you can, if you’re willing to. After all, what if you got turned down for the loan that seemed like the solution to your problem? You’d do something else instead then, right? Because you’d have to. You’d find another choice. Go ahead and find it now, and drag yourself up by your bootstraps.

You can get out of debt, and stay out of debt.

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