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The new year is upon us and that means big change. A 6 day a week gym habit! An all salad diet! Big outcomes require big change, right?
I just finished an interview with Forbes about my recommendations for money management in 2017, and I’d like to expand upon those points here. For folks who are just starting on the journey to financial independence (or those putting off a specific portion of it like learning to invest), the instinctive desire is to kick the new year off with big, dramatic life changes. You want to set a strict budget, kick your savings into high gear, and be “all set” for early retirement in time for supper.
Unfortunately, I don’t know a single person who has achieved early retirement that way.
Sprint vs. Marathon
Getting to financial independence is a marathon, like many of your other big life goals. As someone who has had her fair share of New Year’s resolution failures, I can tell you that the single biggest mistake we make is planning as if a goal is a sprint when it is actually a marathon.
A sprint strategy is deciding you need to lose 10 pounds and going from the couch to a gym routine 4 days a week when the clock strikes midnight.
A sprint strategy is hacking away and setting yourself a budget 40% lower than what you spent last year and praying you stick to it and have a “happily ever after”.
By contrast, planning for a marathon is all about building momentum.
Rather than focusing on what you can accomplish with three weeks of iron discipline (before you give up entirely and return to the couch), you focus on what you can do today to ensure you are excited enough to show up willingly tomorrow. You focus on reducing friction and increasing the positivity of the experience so you want to do what you’re trying to do.
That means instead of setting an insta-perfect schedule of gym visits, you should probably think about repairing the hole in the back of your shoe that causes the plastic to dig into your heel, and find a route for your usual dog walks that takes you past less traffic and more nature. It means adding four blocks to your morning walk. It means taking one flight of stairs and then the elevator the rest of the way. You want to be using 30-50% capacity, not 100%.
But… It’s So Not Cool
I know, I know.
It’s not very sexy.
“I’m going to change the world. Let me start by ensuring I have good arch support,” said no badass superhero ever.
But let me ask you something. You’ve probably used the big dramatic gesture approach before.
How did that work out for you?
Did that same resolution appear on your slate for 2017? Perhaps it’s time to try a new approach.
What That Means For Your Money
So what (unsexy) steps should you take to ensure you’re successful with your money management goals in 2017?
Momentum is about reducing friction and increasing positive experiences so you actually want to show up the next day.
- Get rid of energy draining tasks that don’t require your attention. That means if you haven’t already set up auto-pay on all the bills you possibly can, you should do so now. If you’re not on direct deposit, do this yesterday.
- Clean up any other tasks that make you feel guilty or self-conscious when it comes to money. Return the stuff sitting by the door. Close out the pesky credit card you no longer use. Deal with the 401k still sitting with your old employer’s program and roll it over to a traditional IRA you can control and invest more flexibly. You need to give yourself a clean slate.
When I graduated college, I was so lazy that as a highly paid worker in the financial sector (and thus supposedly savvy with money) I couldn’t be bothered to fill out the direct deposit form and spent 6 months receiving actual checks from my employers. I lost one and spent a bunch of time trying to get them to reissue it. Total life fail and it made me drag my feet with other things. It made it hard to think about improving other parts of my money system when I had all this cluttering up my mental state.
- Start small. Think about how you got into your favorite hobbies and emulate what you did there – start small and slowly immerse yourself. Subscribe to one or two interesting blogs, or visit an active forum to start listening in on other people’s questions on their financial life. You are looking for a casual way to get some financial thinking into your daily life. This is the natural way habits and interests build.
Whatever you do, do not go out and buy an educational textbook on the subject. That’s a great way to kill off any chance of succeeding at your goal. Go for things that are interesting, fairly short, and easily accessible. You want to be able to get a little dose every day or every other day to get you interested. You can’t force yourself to fall in love right away. You can’t manufacture interest no matter how impatient you are to get going. Genuine momentum takes time.
Again, while it might not seem like you’re making a ton of progress immediately, realize that the biggest challenge is showing up every day, and know that what you’re doing is tackling exactly that important problem.
Steady incremental improvements – a Money Habit – will trump everything else and be able to absorb financial mistakes you make along the way. But you have to build that habit.
Take your time and conserve your burst of energy. You can wave goodbye to others in the dust when the extra few weeks you spent building a better engine sends you zooming past the early sprinters.
More tactical changes to be discussed in the coming weeks. Start getting warmed up.