How I paid off more than $26,000 in debt by coloring this in

How I paid off more than $26,000 in debt by coloring this in

I take great joy in telling people that I paid off my credit cards. All 5 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 extra 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: 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, right? 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. 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. I assure you it’s not. 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 that 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. This was an annual win for our entire family.

Decades later, Steve’s pep-talk echoing in my head, I decided that it just might work for me too. So I grabbed a Sharpie and started drawing the same doodle pattern of swirls that I’ve been drawing for years in notebooks 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.

Though I never finished it, actually. I had meant to have the swirls go all the way to the edges. But 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 told me it was really cool. This meant a lot coming from her because she's really cool. That’s all the validation I needed to share that sucker on Facebook. But first, I wanted to color in some of those swirls.

I chose for each swirl to represent $100, because it was easy to count. I committed to coloring in a swirl each $100 increment I paid toward my credit cards. It looked like an awfully big canvas and I honestly didn’t know how many swirls were on it, but it seemed good enough. I figured I could always add more if I needed them.

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

So I pulled out the smelly pens and got to coloring: One, because I wanted to finally own up to my debt and two, because I just wanted to color in the damn swirls. And three so I could eventually brag to Steve and everyone else I know.

Here’s what went up on Facebook that day:


I expected my friends would think it cool too, but I was genuinely surprised at how enthusiastic their response was and even more so when some friends suggested I start making more drawings and selling them. I chuckled to myself in the gracious way that often accompanies, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly!” I had a full time consulting gig, was launching my online sanctuary (SanctuWhereWe), trying to train my puppy, and keep 38 tomato plants alive (didn't go so well for the tomatoes, I'm afraid). Just when would I do this? And would this 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 such a casual understatement of how I will obsessively consider the possibilities of this."

Which is pretty much what I did. I quickly ruled out drawing them by hand on canvas. Too time intensive, not easily scalable, and tough to ship. Then I thought I’d just create the designs, scan them, and sell them as digital downloads.

I was gently reminded by friends and yes, my Mom, that most people just want the finished product—for it to be as easy as possible to get started. Right.

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

After more months of test runs, research, and finding the right printer/fulfillment partner, I find myself here. I’ve created this site. I’ve drawn 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 because I needed to know some basic html and CSS to create page layouts by myself. I’ve come up with 15 designs so far and have a notebook full of more ideas. Lots more maps. And now these blog posts.

If it sounds like I’m a wee bit bewildered about the whole thing, it’s because I am. This isn’t 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. Because 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 I as lay awake at night trying to figure my life out). I come back to this one truth.

My map worked for me. It really, truly helped motivate me and get my debt paid off.


Coloring in those swirls month after month helped me feel like I was doing something. It helped me see that I was making progress toward my goal of zeroing out my credit cards. It felt good to color in those little guys with smelly pens (which I no longer recommend for mapping, by the way). With my map on display in my living room, I could see it every day and stare at the art I was creating. I joke that it’s the most expensive piece of art I own, because of how much money it represents to me. Money that has been paid off. Boom.

So, here’s the finished map. You’ll note there are swirls not colored in. That’s because I wasn’t counting when I drew this one and I’m taking it as a great sign of recovery (former/sometimes perfectionist that I am) that I’ve chosen to let it be. That’s 264 swirls in color and I am damn proud of every one of them.


The 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 now here for you to use as I did. Or in whatever way works for you. Yes, they are black and white drawings. But they are also tools, and hope, and your own work of art the second you color in that first swirl.

They stand for something that matters to you. Something great. And I cannot wait to see what y’all do with them.

Hopefully, you will soon. Because I got back taxes to tackle next.

Happy Mapping,


My gift to you

You can be progress mapping in mere minutes, my friend! While I wish I could sit across from you and teach you how to get started straight away, using this technique, I've come up with the next best thing. 

Check out Progress Mapping 101, my free mini-course that gives you a 10-Swirl Heart map download and a series of short videos where I walk you through all you need to know to start making progress.

Devour it in one sitting or take it one wee video at a time!