I tend to view life as being something like a high wire act at the circus.
We balance ourselves on that high wire and attempt to walk through life. We’re carrying a lot of weight to make the balancing act even trickier – children, marriage, and other responsibilities.
Eventually, something happens and we fall. Something interfered with our walk – a personal failing, a job loss, or something else entirely.
When we fall, there’s a safety net there to catch us. Some of us have family wealth or personally accumulated wealth. Others are surrounded by family and close friends for support. Still others have built up a long history of professional contacts. Skills and personal attributes also make up a part of that safety net.
Not everyone can draw upon all of those threads to weave their safety net, though. For some of us, the threads are much stronger. For others, they’re weaker, and for still others, there’s nothing there at all.
So, what does all that mean?
Some people can afford acrobatics on the high wire, while others cannot. The person who isn’t burdened by responsibilities and has an extremely strong net to fall onto can manage things in life that the person who is carrying a great deal of responsibility with a weak safety net cannot.
A single, healthy child of a supportive and wealthy family can easily dive into career paths and education without any sort of short-term return without having to worry too much about it.
On the other hand, I know of at least one older sibling who is barely twenty and is caring for her two younger siblings. There is no money for them and no functional family. That person has a great deal of burden and no safety net. That person cannot afford to take many risks at all on the high wire, so that person is consigned to getting the best possible paying job now and living with whatever it is.
It is completely unreasonable to think that the same financial and career plans would apply to these two people. They simply live in different worlds. Even things that they could both utilize, like being very frugal with their money, applies much more strongly to one than the other.
Whenever you read about personal finance tactics and you recognize that some of them don’t apply to you, remember that they do apply to people carrying different burdens and to people with a stronger – or weaker – safety net than you have.
This all leads to a pretty straightforward question: what can a person do to improve their safety net? There are several steps anyone can take.
First, build up an emergency fund. Try to get to at least $1,000 in cash in a savings account and just let it sit there. When an emergency happens in your life, you have the cash to deal with it.
Beyond that, focus on paying off debts and not acquiring new ones. If you don’t have a safety net, minimizing your bills and maximizing the amount of money you can save each month is your best path.
Second, build a strong social circle and be there for the people in it. The best thing you can do is identify people that seem reliable and, when they need a hand in their life, step up and give them a hand without expecting anything in return. Do that enough to other reliable people and you begin to build a relationship with them, one that will be there for you when you stumble and fall.
When a person loses a job, help them find another one. When a person is moving, help them to move. When a person needs help with something, just step up and help, even if they don’t ask for it. There is no better way to build a lasting and valuable relationship with someone than actually helping them when they need it.
Third, take your work seriously, even when it seems trivial. Yes, sweeping the floor is a very simple task and it’s boring, but do it with focus and strive to do it well. If you have a task to do, don’t just do the minimum to get it “done.” Try to get it done as well as you can within the alloted time (or within reasonable time). If you’re standing around with nothing to do, look for something to do.
Sure, some of the stuff you do will be overlooked, but it won’t be long before you begin to establish a pattern of excellence and the people who rely on you in the workplace will notice. When your chips are down, that pattern of excellence will be the thing that sets you apart and gives you the help you need.
Finally, stop wasting time and energy on things you can’t control. Sure, someone else might have a wealthy and supportive family while you do not. Don’t waste a second being jealous of them or wishing you were in their shoes. Instead, focus on what you can control, including the things above.
We’re all walking the tightrope, but the journey is a little different for each of us.