Finding the Path Again

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Every so often, I hit what I call a “valley” on my road to financial freedom.

It’s usually during a period where I’m between two goals. I achieved something a while ago and the glow from that has worn off, but the next milestone is still pretty far off.

It’s also usually when I’m going through a challenging time in some other area of my life. I might have writer’s block and be facing professional challenges. I might have had a disagreement with my wife. I might be going through a period with a very packed schedule, with houseguests or travel every weekend for two straight months (bookending work weeks).

Whenever I hit one of these “valleys,” I start to feel pretty disillusioned about the idea of complete financial freedom.

For those who don’t know, my goal is to reach a point where Sarah and I no longer have to work at all for income because we have enough savings and investments that we can live off of the income those generate. This is our very long-term goal, and we have milestones along the way as we push toward it.

I start telling myself that the goal isn’t realistic and that I’m not going to make it any time soon. I start lamenting that I don’t buy myself every little thing that I might want.

Those feelings begin to cycle, building upon each other and the other stresses in my life.

Eventually, they reach a point where I end up making a stupid financial move. Usually, I buy an item or two that I didn’t really need, items that far exceed the amount I’ve set out for myself to spend freely each month.

I receive the item… and then I feel guilty. I feel stupid and ashamed that I have a complete lack of self-control. I resolve to do better.

But I don’t. I usually end up repeating those mistakes a few times. I start to adopt some worse spending habits. I feel horrible about it, but it ends up just reinforcing the negative feelings I already have.

What gets me out of such a downward spiral isn’t personal promises to do better. What gets me out of that spiral is addressing the stresses in my life that are bothering me.

If it’s professional stress, I go into a period of lockdown where I focus intensely on my work until I make headway. I turn off all distractions and just bear down on my work until I make the headway that I want. It usually takes a week or two of very intense focus on work.

If it’s relationship stress, I spend some time focusing on that. I ask myself what mistakes I made along the way and look at how I can correct them. I talk it over with Sarah, and because she’s a rational and wonderful person, she usually has similar reflections about herself, because no relationship problem is entirely due to one person. We work through it together and the wound heals.

If it’s due to an overpacked schedule, I look for ways to give myself little bubbles of “me” time in there. I’ll arrange things so I can take a day off during the week just to do whatever I feel like, which usually ends up involving some reading and some errands. Doing that takes much of the pressure off.

When I feel that non-financial stress going away, that’s when I start focusing on the financial issues and the spending issues. Almost always, the financial problems are one of the effects of the real problem, not the cause of it.

Financial success is an outgrowth of having the other elements of my life in good shape. When things are going well, keeping my spending down and being frugal is both easy and fun. When things aren’t going well in other aspects of my life, it becomes much harder.

If you’re struggling with keeping to your financial plans, consider for a moment what else is stressing you out in your life and spend some time focusing on that instead of focusing directly on your money. Make a sincere attempt to solve the things that ail you and you might just find the financial focus you need.

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