What’s Coming Next?

Fifteen years ago, I didn’t believe I had the financial resources to go to college. Instead, I spent my time thinking about a future where I took a few classes at a local community college and worked at a local factory.

Ten years ago, I was a college student. I was working towards a degree in computer science and had dreams of working at Microsoft.

Seven years ago, I was working in a genetics research lab. I was single, living in an apartment, didn’t own a vehicle, and couldn’t imagine being married.

Five years ago, I was working for a nonprofit organization. I was married, living in a different apartment in a different city, and couldn’t imagine having a child. I also couldn’t imagine being debt free.

Three years ago, I had a child. I was also near debt freedom. I was spending most of my spare time writing, but I couldn’t imagine a situation where I would be able to make a full time career out of it. I also couldn’t imagine being able to manage more than one child or live anywhere other than the little apartment we were living in.

Eighteen months ago, I had become a full time writer. I had a second child. We had moved into a house. At that point, I couldn’t imagine writing a book, editing it appropriately, and getting it published – it seemed like an unimaginably huge endeavor. I also couldn’t conceive that we would have a third child, as two seemed to keep our hands full.

Today, I have a book already in print, a second book that’s finished and due out in a few months, and a third child due in just a couple of months.

What can’t I imagine happening next?

Here’s the truth: an awful lot of lives go through the same progression as my own. Not in the sense of the specific things that change, but in that the specifics of their life change so drastically in even a few years. And we don’t see it coming, either.

At each of those times above, I thought my future would go on more or less the same way that it was going right then. I was repeatedly wrong.

The best thing you can do with your money and with your skills is prepare for change. Why? Because things will change.

You’ll lose a job. You’ll change careers. You’ll find a partner. You’ll have a child. You’ll move to another state. You’ll find a new passion. You’ll get sick. You’ll get well. People will leave your life. People will enter your life.

Things will change.

It’s this simple fact of life that leads me towards believing that the best personal finance tool that people can have is a big, fat emergency fund.

With a nice, healthy cash reserve in hand, a person can roll through these changes with ease. A job loss doesn’t mean an apocalyptic disaster in your life. A choice to try a new career becomes exciting and fun instead of scary. Falling in love and moving across the country becomes a whirlwind adventure instead of an exercise in tightrope walking. Opportunities spring up and you can take advantage of them instead of having to run away in fear.

Never, ever let debts and a lack of money on hand keep you from jumping on board with your dreams when the chance comes along. You have the power, right now, to get things under control, eliminate that debt, pick up some new skills, and be ready for the inevitable changes that will come your way.

When that chance comes, you’ll be ready.

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  1. Moneymonk says:

    Very Good post. I need to also go back and track my successes over the years. The best part of life, you have the power to decide your destiny not someone else

  2. Mrs. Frugal says:

    Great post. I tend to think of an Emergency Fund as preparing for the worst. But you are too right, it prepares you, or enables you, to take advantage of the best opportunities that come your way.

    I don’t know who to attribute this quote to, but it’s one of my favorites. “Luck is when preparation and opportunity meet.”

  3. Greg says:

    Trent, this is the best blog post I’ve read in a long time. Thank you.

  4. Ryan says:

    This is probably the best advice I’ve ever seen. I’m going through this right now…

  5. John says:

    So how are you supposed to plan your life out if it keeps changing all the time?

  6. Nathan says:

    Wonderful perspective. Wonderful suggestion. Thanks for making it real with your story.

  7. wanzman says:

    @ John (#3):

    That is precisely the point. You cannot possibly predict what will happen, no need to have everything all perfectly planned out. It probably won’t work out that way.

    The best course of action is develop the best set of tools that you can (either financially, spiritually, or whatever) so that you might be able to handle any event in life as it unfolds.

  8. Robin says:

    Trent – Very good advice! (and by the way I really like the way/style this post was written). Currently my job is a bit precarious – I’m thinking there is a good chance I will need to find another source of income soon. Fortunately I do have an emergency fund that is making this situation much less stressful then it would be if I was buried in debt and living from paycheck to paycheck. John’s comment (#3) just before this asks “how are you supposed to plan your life if it keeps changing all the time?” – I think that is just the point – you can plan all you want – but life has a way of throwing things at you that you didn’t plan on. The best thing is to keep you mind wide open to change – don’t be stuck in a “plan”. Instead of looking at each event like “this fits my plan / this doesn’t fit my plan” – look and see what is happening – can I change my plan (or myself) to somehow work with this (this reality)? Having a big fat emergency fund makes this so much easier!
    Robin

  9. KittyBoarder says:

    LOL.. I was just thinking about the same thing today after reading people’s stores about giving up looking for jobs after 2 years of trying and 700+ mailed resumes.

    Could that be me in 10 years? Doesn’t matter how secure I feel now, one day when my profession goes out of style, I may be the one who can’t find work for years. What should I do now..

    And leads me to think about having a BIG FAT cash reserve as well!!!

    I once quit my job and purposely didn’t go look for a job right away. Instead, I was trying for new things to do. I had a big fat reserve to back me up so I wasn’t scared at all..

    2 months ago when our ski resort real estate dropped significantly, I put all my cash in a condo purchase since I don’t want mortgage on a vacation home. But now I am scared. I don’t have enough cash.. OMG! What will I do if something happens.. Phychological effect is HUGE when you have the cash vs when you DON’T have the cash regardless your total asset.

    So lesson learned – always always have a big fat cash account sitting next to you.

  10. Anne says:

    What a great post! I spend too much time focusing on the things I “should” be doing, or working toward my goals. It’s easy to forget how far I’ve come. One thing I do try to do is pay attention to the things in my life that are really good, right now. I don’t want to be looking back in a couple of years and realize that I forgot to appreciate my life while I was living it.

    More posts like this one, Trent!

  11. Bridget says:

    So true – each five years I’ve looked back, I’ve been amazed at where I am and what I thought I’d be doing the previous five years. Having an emergency or slush fund has made it possible for me to take advantage of opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to – this is my second time living in Europe – I’ve started my own business – I’ve seen many places in the world. By living below my means, I’ve been able to have the security that an emergency fund gives me to take the risks.

  12. ClaireTN says:

    This is a really wonderful post. I needed to hear it too. “Things will change.” Yes, indeed, they will.

  13. SEC Lawyer says:

    The one constant is change, including unexpected change. In my law practice I deal often with corporate financial projections. Most financial professionals say that projections are completely unreliable more than three years out. I agree with that, and my own life has borne it out.

    Being debt-free translates into financial flexibility, which enables one to take advantage of opportunities that otherwise could not be seized. When a well-prepared, debt-free person finds an excellent (if unexpected) opportunity, great things can happen.

  14. Russel G. says:

    Thanks for this, Trent. This reality hit me last month as I recalled my family’s move after losing my job last year.

    I especially like your last paragraph. “Be ready for the inevitable changes that will come your way,” is the best advice I’ve heard in a long time. I have been telling my wife of the cost of our missed opportunities because of our debt. We’re working on increasing our readiness.

  15. @John

    You can still make plans; you just have to give yourself some room for flexibility within those plans. Your short-term objectives might change but you can still fit that within the framework of your overall goal.

    For example, I don’t know how many people here are entrepreneurs who have started a business but oftentimes, you end up coming up with a completely different business model than what you started with based on the demands of the outside world and the demands you put on yourself.

    Hope that helps
    -B

  16. Paula says:

    Let me see. Nineteen years ago, I graduated high school and met my future husband. Eighteen years ago, we moved in together and got our first apartment. Twelve years ago, I got my associates degree in medical assisting. Ten years ago, I got married. Nine years ago, I started working at my current place of employment and started a career as a technician in an ophthalmology practice. Eight years ago, we bought our mobile home. Six and a half years ago, I had my son. Three years ago, we found out our son had autism. Last year, my husband lost his job, started college to finish his bachelors degree, and was diagnosed with diabetes (all within a month and a half!).

    Wow, when I look back it seems incredible the changes that occur in such a short span of time!

  17. erb says:

    I saw this article, and I thought it was a good counterbalance to the usual college “wisdom” that prevails. http://www.marketwatch.com/story/devaluing-a-college-degree-2010-02-04?siteid=nwhpf

  18. SP says:

    I liked this post. I can’t imagine having kids, but I think that someday they will be central to my life.

    I don’t understand how people think they don’t have the financial resources to go to college. I always assumed I’d get scholarships, and student loans would make up the rest. I mean, I didn’t think I was going somewhere expensive, but I always assumed I’d go. My parents didn’t save a penny for me, and I didn’t save a lot myself.

    I just find it interesting — the money isn’t the biggest factor, I think it is the expectations your social environment places on you.

    (sorry for the tangent, i just found the sentiment very interesting)

  19. BirdDog says:

    I work with high school students. One of my favorite pieces of advice to give them is that you never know where life will take you. The institution where I work did not even exist ten years ago. I’m 30 now, if someone had told me what my life was going to look like between 20 and 30, I would have been very surprised.

    For better or for worse, change happens. One of the things I continually work on is becoming more comfortable with it. Enjoy the moment but prepare for the future.

  20. lurker carl says:

    These are not unplanned changes that altered Trent’s path through life, he saw all these changes coming because he purposely caused them. The education, housing, family, financial and career changes he describes were all conscience decisions on his part. These were not the result of random happenings that altered his life, all required forethought and deliberate action on his part in order to occur. His changes amounts a boilerplate description of nearly everyone’s experiences in their early adult life.

    Unexpected catastrophies and blessings are the changes that Trent should have described according to his article’s conclusions. Things that happened suddenly and altered his life dramatically and permanently – these are the type of changes he has yet to encounter.

  21. Henry says:

    You’re right lurker. An unexpectd thing happened to me at Wal-Mart today, at the deli. As you may know, when you order a certain weight of meat or cheese sliced, the deli worker might slice too much. Sometimes it’s like a whole half pound if you’ve ordered a pound. So I ordered a pound of Lorraine Cheese, and she sliced some up, and it weighed 1.55 pounds when she put it on the scale. So the deal is this: She’ll say is xx amount okay? What you say is “no, I wanted only the amount I ordered.” So today she asked me if it was okay, and I told her no, I only wanted the pound. In such an instance, it is standard practice at Wal-Mart to weigh and ticket the amount you ordered, and then throw the excess in your bag anyway since it has been sliced. It really takes the per pound price down when you play it right. I even figured out which deli workers are bad at estimating and try to get them to fill my orders.
    So this old woman is standing next to me and says “I will take the extra.” I was burning mad. She robbed me of my free half pound. I never dreamed anybody would get up in my business like that, it was so unexpected.
    I doubled around a couple aisles and caught her over by the eggs. I thanked her for getting in my business and told her that if she sees me in the store again, to stay the hell away from me and keep her mouth shut! What an unexpected chore she forced on me.

  22. Hope D says:

    I think this is a great post. It really made me think of my life. When I got married 17 years ago, I planned to work forever. I then had my first child. I decided to stay home. We now have six children. I and my husband planned on me being a stay-at home mom and a homeschooling family. My husband is now disabled. We are enrolling are children in public school and I have a job interview in a couple of days. It was not planned. I am not happy about it. That will take time, but I know one day I will be. I have a hope for the future.

    Henry, you sound really mean. You also sound like a cheat. Lurker Carl, you’re really negative. I don’t like reading the comments very much anymore because of the unkind, snarky things that are said.

  23. Leah says:

    Walmart or not, I don’t think anyone actually gives a half pound of cheese out for free, Henry.

    Trent, I agree! Myself of 10 years ago could never predict where I am now. Heck, myself of 4 years ago would be pretty shocked. I do have a hefty emergency savings fund (at least, hefty for my station in life and obligations) My big issue now is this: I am unemployed and haven’t yet found a job in my field. I have free rent where I live now (not my parents’), but I can’t stay here for much longer. When do I cut into the emergency fund? I am sort of making ends meet right now. I could get an any job just to pay my bills, or I could volunteer, be persistent, and get a job in my field. When do I utilize that emergency fund? What should the rules be there?

  24. Henry says:

    Hope, why aren’t you happy about your job interview? Sounds like you should be in line at the welfare office if you don’t want to work. You don’t have to, if you learns the ropes and work the system right.

  25. Henry says:

    Well Leah, they do. What do you think they’re going to do with it? They’ve given it to me several times. You know, they have the platters of presliced on several of the commonly ordered items. Lorraine cheese is not common. What do you think I am going to say to them when I order something sliced (thickness to my specification and they try to give me some presliced stuff that has been sitting around? Not going to fly. Maybe management realized there wasn’t much option as to what to do with the overslice, so they decided to extend to the customer that uses the product, as a gesture of goodwill. Throw it away? Why? Let the employee keep it? Never, that would encourage the employee cutting to cut too much.
    So there you go.

  26. Hope D says:

    Henry, I’m not unhappy about the job interview. I wanted to be what we planned. Sickness came and changed that. I now have to change with the changes. Staying home with six children and homeschooling was a lot of work. I now need to work for a paycheck. I don’t want to eek by on any system or have the stigma. I want to prosper and my family to prosper. My angst wasn’t about having to work. My angst was about change caused by sickness.

  27. halcyone says:

    Well, as a part-time deli worker myself, Henry. Yes, we do throw it out. Or put it in the case and sell it to the next person, if it’s anywhere near the usual slice thickness. The manager where I work would tell you to get lost if you wanted a free half-pound of cheese.

    You were standing at the counter and said clearly “I only wanted what I ordered”. Of course the woman thought you didn’t want that cheese! Your strategy required that you lie (since you did want the extra cheese), and unfortunately there were consequences to that.

    The deli in question did give you the extra previously as a gesture of goodwill, but that doesn’t obligate them to give you more free stuff whenever you like. You were lucky enough to get free stuff the first few times, it just didn’t work today.

    (apologies to Trent for side-tracking the discussion)

  28. Chris says:

    Good post. Be prepared!

  29. I think a big emergency fund is great, as long as it is doing something for you. When I first started mine, I had the mistaken notion that it needed to be just sitting in some 0% earning account, becasue it was my emergency fund.

    I later moved it to a high interest checking account where it is fully accessible, but is gaining some sort of interest.

  30. lurker carl says:

    Hope, your life changed in a way that Trent should have discussed. I’m sorry for your circumstances and pray that you and your family adapts to the situation and prosper in spite of the hardships. If I come across as negative, it’s because I’m being realistic.

    From year 15 to year 5, the life Trent describes was one without long term goals. Nothing unexpected happened there. Hopefully, Trent will not have to experience catastrophies, only blessings.

    Leah, get any job you can for right now. Don’t tap into the emergency fund until you need to. Since rent free is a temporary situation, you’ll need that emergency fund to put food on the table and keep shelter over your head if you remain unemployeed. Continue to actively seek employment in your field of expertise while you work at the other job.

  31. Christine says:

    Henry,

    You crack me up. I never know whether to say good for you or shame on you.

  32. Anna is now Raven says:

    Trent, excellent post. Some commenters think it should be another kind of post than the one you wrote. This happens to writers all the time. Their books get reviewed on the basis of what the reviewer thinks the author should have written, not what the author actually wrote.

    Henry, you remind us all that the world has many kinds of people in it. We need these reminders, whether or not we wish to share our space with all these different folks.

  33. LMoot says:

    I think Henry is hilarious…if he’s joking though. If he’s not *finger wag* Although most of the fun comes from never knowing if he’s joking.

  34. Joshua says:

    Trent, I must say thank you for your reassuring words. Recently, as I am sure many other posters have been going through a rough patch in life. These words helped me to open my eyes and embark out past the horizon.

    Thank you sir.

  35. Boophilus says:

    Henry, did the customer pay for the half pound or was this “extra” portion given to her for free? That makes a big difference in your story.

  36. Henry says:

    She paid for it. But if she didn’t open her mouth, the half pound would have been given to me, since there would have been no one forseeably willing to buy it. She could have kept her mouth shut, I would have got my free cheese, and she still could’ve ordered the same thing after I was gone. Then she might have got free cheese too, but judging by her type, she probably would’ve said the weight was fine if the employee cut too much for her.

  37. hotmar says:

    Congratulations for the message! The Simple Dollar is the best blog I´ve ever read.

    God bless you!

    hotmar (from Brazil)

  38. Daniel says:

    Trent-
    As noted in the other comments, This is some of your finest work that I’ve seen. This post is wonderful.
    If I were writing this post it wouldn’t be as notable as your’s. My life is a train-wreck. However, I am pleased with most of it. I don’t know who wrote this but I remember this quote: “.. a sense of general disorderliness is the true method.” I’m not saying you do this but I do.
    Thank you for the work you do.
    Daniel

  39. SMG says:

    Loved this post..!

  40. SLCCOM says:

    Henry, There is a word for threatening a customer because she wanted the cheese; criminal. I hope she called security on you and you get barred permanently from that store.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing you barred from this site, either. You are either a troll, or the kind of person that most of us would prefer to never encounter: a criminal.

  41. Henry says:

    Who do you think you are? I know what Wal-Mart Security is: a joke. I had a 16 year old kid in there that threatened that he wasn’t leaving unless he was bought a 80 some dollar tent. He went to sporting goods, picked up the tent he wanted and sit down in the middle of the aisle clutching it. Wouldn’t move. I got ‘Security’ and he went over and talked to him. Wouldn’t touch him or anything. Pretty sad. We had to drive home and just leave him there. So effective, heh? He was no help at all. There is a word for someone that gets in your business: interloper. See: Barney Fife. Mind your own business, I have nothing to do with yours when I’m in the store, so you can shut the hell up. Got it?
    No threats, just friendly advice. C’mon around me, I’ll just get you back, waiting you out, and I’ll wait all day to get what I want. How dare you. gigabaud at live dot com c’mon

  42. Kevin says:

    I get the point of Trent’s post, but I think it’s drastically overstated. Of course, life will throw you a few curveballs, and it’s best to be prepared for them, but the truth is that if you have a realistic and deliberate plan, and you stick to it, things will turn out (surprise, surprise) pretty much exactly as you planned.

    10 years ago, my wife and I got married. We couldn’t imagine having kids. So we took steps to prevent it from happening. 10 years later, just as planned, we still don’t have kids.

    A little careful planning can drastically reduce so many of those unexpected “suprises.” Sure, we don’t have the exciting stories that some of our more carefree peers may have, but what we do have is stability a rock-solid financial situation. We didn’t decide to quit our jobs and spend a year traveling on a whim. We didn’t allow ourselves to carelessly become pregnant. We didn’t delude ourselves into thinking the solution to a layoff is more student loans and more time out of the workforce (by going back to school). We got down to the boring business of getting back to work and staying focused on our long-term goals. Consequently, everything is going according to plan.

    Be prepared for the unexpected, but have a plan. Personally, I’d be a little worried about someone having 3 children when just a few years ago, they “couldn’t imagine” being a parent. I’d like to think that they spent at least a LITTLE time thinking about parenthood before they just dove in and created 3 more dependents.

  43. Carmen says:

    Kevin – couldn’t agree more! Sadly people generally don’t think anywhere near long and hard enough about having children; we are definitely made to procreate!

    I enjoyed this article, but agree with LurkerCarl that what was described wasn’t really change in the way that an emergency fund is required. I think Trent’s life pretty much sums up anyone in the 18-30 age group. In the year that my husband and I married, we also moved house, had our first child and both changed jobs.

    SP – couldn’t agree more about expectations based on your environment. I went to university; both my children are not even ten years old and assume they will go to university. Disaster aside, they will be going.

    Henry, I sincerely hope you did not talk to that lovely woman in the store who bought ‘your cheese’. That would be a horrible and inappropriate thing to do, delivered in a very threatening manner based on what you wrote. If I were her, I would have thrown your ‘how dare you’ right back at ya.

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