Updated on 06.23.16

Sometimes

Trent Hamm
child in grocery cart

Sometimes, you need to take a young child shopping, and it might throw off your list and your meal plan. But overspending by $20 doesn’t mean you’re a financial failure – it means you’re human. Photo: Quinn Dombrowski

Most of the time, I have my financial house in pretty good shape.

I follow my well-planned grocery list at the grocery store.

I don’t spend much money on stuff I don’t need.

I keep us on track with our family’s budget.

I don’t spoil my children with expensive stuff or experiences.

I save plenty for an early retirement and maybe for a new house in the country.

I enjoy the free things in the community and in my home.

I take care of maintenance tasks and plan ahead for them.

I make wonderful meals at home.

I stay content with what I have and the abundance that my life gives me.

Sometimes, though… sometimes, I don’t.

I’ll find my day completely disrupted by a series of unfortunate events and find myself at the grocery store trying to plan three or four days’ worth of meals on the fly with a five-year-old following me around asking me to add Chocolate Frosted Mini Wheats and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish to the cart – and in a frazzled state, I do.

I’ll click “Submit My Order” on the shopping cart at an online store at eleven o’clock at night because I just saw that they had a board game that I really wanted on discount. Three days later, the box arrives on my doorstep and I honestly don’t remember at all what I ordered, but when I open the box, I wonder what on earth I was thinking.

I’ll buy a bunch of Kindle books and then completely forget that I ordered them, causing me to go way over my personal “free spending” budget for the month. (I actually wrote about this in detail not long ago.) The next day, I’ll be standing at the library looking at the cover of that very book just sitting there waiting to be checked out for free in the “New Releases” section.

I’ll completely mess up my tracking of our family’s budget using You Need a Budget, get really frustrated with myself, not enter things for a week, then spend two or three hours fixing everything (more or less).

I’ll try to talk myself into dialing back my savings pace a little. Why? I’ll have this vague and unsubstantiated feeling in my head that we’re “saving too much” and not “living for today,” even though I’m happy with things the vast majority of the time.

I’ll go into Des Moines and do something fun and needlessly expensive with some friends, even though I know of plenty of free and fun things to do that very same day closer to home.

I’ll accidentally leave a bag of groceries in the car because I was in a hurry while unloading things. The next day, something will smell odd in my vehicle and I’ll discover a disturbingly leaky package of some sort of dairy product. The sludge has escaped all over the back seat and $20 worth of groceries are ruined, along with a meal plan completely disrupted.

I’ll find myself on a road trip when the maintenance light turns on and I remember that I forgot to change my oil several hundred miles ago because I didn’t add it to my calendar, so I’m stuck at a Jiffy Lube at seven o’clock at night in an unfamiliar town because it’s still a better option than buying an oil pan and dealing with that mess in a parking lot somewhere. All because I couldn’t remember to add a single simple task to my calendar.

I’ll hear my friend talking about the movie he just saw or the restaurant he just ate at and I’ll suddenly have this huge burning desire to see that movie or eat at that restaurant even though I had absolutely no desire to see a movie or eat out prior to this conversation. Even worse, I’ll sometimes go ahead and do it.

I’ll stand there trying to figure out what went wrong with this pan of lasagna, then I realize that I accidentally set the oven to 450 F instead of 350 F, and as I drop the crispy remnants of a once-delicious meal into the trash, I find myself stuck between the expensive options of getting some restaurant food or making yet another meal this evening.

As well intentioned as I might be, I make pretty big personal finance mistakes on a frighteningly regular basis. Even though I know incredibly well what I should be doing with my money at every turn, that doesn’t mean that I actually pull off those good moves.

The truth is, I’m not perfect.

At the same time, the truth is that if I expected perfection, I would only guarantee myself failure.

Why? I’m a human being. Human beings make mistakes and sometimes they fail even with the best of intentions.

My goal is not perfection. My goal is to wake up tomorrow and do better than I did today. My goal is for May to be better than April. My goal is for 2015 to be better than 2014.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize one key secret of success. The difference between me and a person more succesful than me is that the successful person manages to be on point just a little bit more often than I am. That’s it. It’s not a giant chasm of difference, but it’s enough so that if it’s repeated each and every day, it’s going to add up to a lot.

I might make the right financial choice 90% of the time, but the guy who makes the right choice 91% of the time is going to be just a little bit more successful today… and a little more successful tomorrow, too. The difference is tiny – maybe just a few cents or a dollar or two.

But those dollars and pennies add up, little by little. A few dollars a day, over the course of a month, adds up to $100. Over 10 years, that’s tens of thousands of dollars. That other guy who gets it right just a little more than I do ends up far, far ahead of me.

That’s the motivation. My goal isn’t perfection. My goal is to move from the 90% guy to the 91% guy.

What does that mean?

It means not beating myself up when I fail. Yes, I didn’t do things right. It does not mean I am a failure. It means I made a mistake.

It is really, really tempting to look at a mistake and let it define me as a complete failure in what I’m trying to achieve in a broader sense. If I can’t, say, follow a grocery list, then I’ll extrapolate that into saying that I can’t possibly spend less than I earn, which I can then carry into believing that my big financial goals are hopeless… and use that all as an excuse to just stop trying.

That’s foolish. I made a mistake, but I am not a failure. I’m like a runner who got my toe stuck on a sidewalk crack. That doesn’t mean that I give up running. It just means that I avoid that sidewalk in the future or perhaps get a better pair of shoes. I still get right back out there and keep running.

A mistake does not define me as a failure. It defines me as human.

It means looking for the reasons for that mistake. Why did I make that mistake? What conditions caused it to happen? For example, did I allow myself to use my credit card when I was tired? Maybe I made the poor choice of taking my five-year-old to the store with me when I wasn’t prepared to turn that grocery shopping trip into a teaching experience.

Every mistake I make happens for a reason. Mistakes aren’t a matter of personal failure. They’re due to my inability to address a situation well. The mistakes I make are correctable if I’m willing to sit back, study them, and find a better way of doing things.

Answering “why did I do this?” doesn’t expose me as a fundamentally flawed person. Instead, it exposes something in my life that I can strive to correct.

It means finding ways to not replicate that mistake the next time. Yes, I messed up today. That doesn’t mean I need to mess up in the same way tomorrow… or next week… or next month… or ever again. If I recognize that mistake and what caused it, I can figure out a way to not have that mistake ever darken my door again in the future.

I might not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean I have to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. Instead of mixing mistakes old and new, I’d rather just have new ones.

And with each little day that passes, I hope to slowly move from Mr. 90% to Mr. 91%. I don’t expect to – or even want to – be Mr. 100%.

Mr. 91% will do.

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