I often work with clients who come to me frustrated, lamenting their lack of ability to stick to a budget or savings plan. Perhaps they’ve been trying for years to build up emergency savings or retirement funds, only to find themselves continuing to live paycheck to paycheck or building up debt to cover their expenses.
They share years of best-laid-plans, and they’ve even tried incorporating tools like budgeting software or spreadsheets. Perhaps they are not in real financial trouble yet, but they might be one unexpected expense away from it.
Do they simply lack will-power, grit, or the financial savvy to make it work? Generally, I think there are actually more significant factors at work. The two I see the most often are a repeated cycle of getting stuck in the planning phase, and people trying to force themselves into extremely rigid financial plans that leave no room for the flexibility required to approach an ever-changing life.
I went to college with a woman who would consolidate all of her assignments from every class she was in each semester into one massive, Pinterest-worthy, color-coded calendar. She seemed exceptionally well prepared for the semester, while I spent the semester shuffling through syllabi trying to figure out what was due that week. But as the semester wore on, I noticed that she rarely did any of the reading required for class, and frequently turned in assignments late. She spent hours planning and organizing the perfect semester, but the work never got done.
Planning has a certain allure. We can envision how awesome we are going to be at something without actually having to do it. It’s often more fun to plan and fantasize than it is to actually do the work our plan entails. Planning feels productive (and to a certain extent it can be), but it’s also a tactic we use to delay actually starting what’s likely to be a tough, habit-changing venture.
Lack of Flexibility
I’m a casual budgeter—the type who occasionally jots down my income and expenses on the back of a used envelope as I’m paying bills or planning for a big expenditure and trying to see what it would take to swing it financially. Sure, I’ve tried apps that track my spending, but it’s just not really my thing. I’ve actually never had a spreadsheet that shows down to the last detail what I’m going to spend and where because that’s never been very helpful for me. But I could also tell you how much money I have, where it’s coming from, and where it’s going because I interact with it and pay attention to it regularly.
Really rigid structures work well for some people, but they aren’t for everyone, and they don’t work well for me. Typically, the more rigid a plan is, the more likely it is to make me feel like a failure, and the end result is that I lose my momentum to keep going. In fact, the more spreadsheet-oriented and rule-bound my finances become, the more likely I am to work against, rather than towards my goals.
Is There Another Way?
For me, the most impactful thing I ever did for myself financially was developing an question that forced me to evaluate the trade offs I was making in even the smallest decisions. It also keeps me present in my financial goals, creating a reason for me to think about them multiple times each day. “Is _____________ more important than ___________?” I push myself to ask this question before making any decision about how to spend my time, my money, or my energy.
- Is ordering pizza tonight more important than taking a vacation this spring?
- Is checking Facebook more important than getting 7 hours of sleep tonight?
- Is financial security more important than flexibility and freedom in the work that I do?
- Is taking a nap more important than going for a walk?
- Is owning a luxury car today more important than being able to retire at 55?
There isn’t necessarily a right answer to these questions. In fact, depending on the day, the answer to the same question might be different. If I feel like I might be coming down with the flu or I only got a few hours of sleep the night before, a nap might be way more important than going for a walk. But if I’m just feeling a little worn out from a long day at work, a walk is going to win out for me.
It’s not about being right, it’s about evaluating, every time you make a decision, what you’re giving up by making that decision. Is it worth it?
Your time, your energy, and your money aren’t things that are happening around you or to you. Instead, they are things you are actively making decisions about all the time. It doesn’t require a spreadsheet or a color-coded calendar telling you when your assignments are due, but it does put you in the thick of it, on good days and bad, and forces you to replace the auto pilot of old habits with a conscious choice-making activity about where you are spending your most valuable resources.