When I first went through my financial meltdown, I was almost obsessive about my various accounts. I checked my credit card and bank balances on a daily basis, kept careful notes on every penny I spent, and planned and plotted every single tiny expense. The giant budgets and debt snowballs and investing plans I created were amazing in their detail – I spent hours with Excel open, calculating my financial life and seeing the implications of every little move I might make.
Over time, though, something fascinating happened. I stopped checking my balances every day. I slowed down my use of Excel, often only opening it to answer some specific question I’d come up with or to model something for The Simple Dollar. I didn’t sweat every penny on every receipt any more.
In short, I began to trust myself. I had seen the results time and time again of my good financial behaviors – my account balances went up and my debts went down. Eventually, I began to trust these principles, and that trust led directly to a reduced need to keep running the numbers and micromanaging everything.
From my perspective, the transition was much like taking the training wheels off of a bicycle. Back in the “bad old days” of crazy spending, I was like a child who couldn’t balance a bicycle at all. Eventually, I realized what I needed to do, but I needed some help learning the right balance – the training wheels. Then, after some practice, I took the training wheels off – I knew intuitively what behaviors I needed to use to keep my balance and the constant reinforcement wasn’t really worth the time any more.
I’m not saying that the “training wheels” of budgeting and careful planning are wastes of time – they’re not. The experience of carefully tracking my balances and creating various debt snowball models brought me a deep understanding of what the “good” and “bad” life behaviors are.
For me, budgeting tools were more useful in teaching me good behaviors than revealing any deep financial truths. I already knew I was in a lot of debt and wasn’t in a very good financial shape. The planning and daily effort mostly just translated my day to day lifestyle into a bigger scope. It showed me that making wise shopping decisions resulted in more money in my checking account at the end of the month, and that many months of this behavior resulted in breathing room if bad things happened.
I encourage everyone who is in debt trouble to gather as much data as they can and pay attention to everything very carefully at first. Riding the bicycle of financial freedom can be hard and if you find yourself continually crashing, it’s worthwhile to strap on the training wheels for a while.
But if you find yourself continually spending far less than you earn and budgeting begins to feel like a less effective use of your time, don’t be afraid to back off a bit and unhook those training wheels. Once you’ve really incorporated the principles that work for you into your life, you’ll find that you can go along just fine without those supports, riding into your future with the wind at your back.