A Real Story about Priorities

Jill writes in:

I don’t earn much and am consequently unable to save much and what little I save is often wiped out by breakdowns (e.g. household stuff), minor illnesses and other emergencies. I am actually quite a frugal person, it’s just that my income is not much and tends to be irregular.

I am very troubled because I wish to save for a big purchase (about USD $3500) that would serve as a basis for a career change but I’m not sure if I have the ability/willpower to do it. I’ll calculated that I’ll take at least a year to do it and in the meantime I would have to be very,very careful with my money and not sink any $$ into my usual hobbies so life will be very dull. My hobbies all cost money e.g. ballet class

How do I deal with this tough waiting period of deprivation and no enjoyment? I do have some weaknessness eg kitchen equipment.I cook most of my meals and I can’t help think how life would be easier if I had a pressure cooker and so on so that I can cook things quickly after work.

Right now, I am considering putting my money in fixed deposits regularly with shorter and shorter maturation periods as I save to prevent myself from touching the money. Do you have any advice?

The problem right now isn’t that Jill doesn’t have enough money to achieve a goal. The problem is that Jill is chasing a lot of goals at once simultaneously and stretching herself too thin in the process.

In this email alone, Jill directly references three different significant life objectives: ballet class, upgrading kitchen equipment, and a career change. Jill also alludes that there are more beyond this in a couple of different places, and notes that each of these goals costs money.

The real issue is priorities. In Jill’s day to day life, she’s telling herself that she has a certain thing as a priority (saving for the career change item, which I’m guessing is a musical instrument), but in her actions, other things are priorities (ballet class, kitchen equipment upgrades, and so on).

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about life over the last three years, it’s this: the more things you try to set as a major priority in your life, the less successful you’ll be at any of these priorities.

For me, my only major priority is my family. Everything else is secondary to that, period. I recognize that in my day to day life, and filter most of my actions and choices through that lens. Is this something that benefits or improves my family or my relationship with members of my family in a direct way?

My other passions – reading, writing, cooking, playing games – take a back seat to this. Obviously, I’m quite happy when they overlap – cooking a dinner in the kitchen while my son and daughter are helping or playing yet another game of Sorry Sliders with my son – and I sometimes devote time to the interests on their own, but if there is any sort of conflict at all, I know exactly where my priority is.

I need to do this because my life – and your lives – deal with several things of which there is a limited quantity. There is only so much money that can easily be spent. There is only so much quality time. There is only so much personal energy. While we can possibly adjust these rules in the short term, in the long term they will balance out.

Jill, what’s your priority?

From this email, I can’t really tell what’s on top. Your mind seems to be leading with an intention to improve your career, but your heart is into the ballet classes and the kitchen improvements (and the other things you don’t mention).

The first thing you need to do is sit down and figure out what’s really important to you. What goal do you most want to fulfill? Is it that career change? Is it becoming a ballerina? Is it becoming a great at-home chef? Is it something else entirely?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this. We all have different talents, different skills, different desires, different resources, and different dreams.

Once you’ve figured out one or two central priorities for your life, focus on those and let the other ones fall back a bit. Let’s say you choose to focus on that career change idea and on ballet and let the other interests slide. That doesn’t mean you can’t cook at home – it just means that your extra time and energy and money shouldn’t be poured into it. You can still look for a pressure cooker, but look on Craigslist instead of Williams-Sonoma. Instead, spend your time and energy figuring out how to make that career change work and how to be the best you can be at ballet.

Here’s a tip: if the thought of focusing so heavily on something seems boring or unexciting to you, it might not be the right thing for you to be focusing on.

Once you figure out the central focus of your time and money and energy, frugal tactics are the fuel that will get you there. Cut everything else – all of those things that don’t really matter to you – to the bone. Snowflake – in other words, when you serendipitously come into money, channel that money towards your big goal.

Before you know it, you’ll find that your goals that you’ve focused on are suddenly coming well within reach – and that’s a happy place to be.