Updated on 03.08.12

Breaking Through the Frustration Barrier

Trent Hamm

Personal finance can be really frustrating at times.

For starters, money success can take a long time to achieve. If you’re in a big hole of debt, you’re looking at years of digging just to get back to zero. People are often encouraged to start saving for retirement in their twenties, even though most won’t actually retire until their seventies. The time frame for most personal finance moves is measured in years and decades, not weeks and months.

Another frustration is that every financial move you make costs you in some other regard. If you put away $50 a week for retirement, you’re now bringing home less money, and that means less money to spend on the things you need and the things you want. You’re probably giving up something like a dinner out with your partner or something else you’d like to have every single week in order to make that savings plan work.

I’m often frustrated by both of these things.

Whenever I look at my account balances, I really want them to be higher. I have big goals in mind and although I’m moving towards those goals, the progress is slow. The little devil on my shoulder will start agitating and whisper in my ear, “You’ll never make it to that goal. It will take forever.”

Each month, when I look at how much went into savings for various goals, I can’t help but get a twinge in my stomach thinking of some of the more immediately enjoyable things I could be doing with that money. Again, that little devil pops up and tells me that I could trim back on those savings plans just a bit and enjoy some things I’ve wanted.

When I mix those two feelings together, frustration is the result. I feel like I’m saving for something I’ll “never” reach, and that saving is keeping me from making some choices in the here and now that I’d like to make.

That moment of frustration is the point when I’m most likely to make a big financial blunder. I’ll listen to that devil on my shoulder a bit too much and before I know it I’m ordering something online that I shouldn’t be buying or planning some event that I shouldn’t be planning.

So, what do I do to make sure that the little devil on my shoulder doesn’t come out on top?

I keep a big visual reminder of my long term goals front and center. Right at my workstation, I have a large picture of a house in the country. It’s a nice house with a new looking barn behind it. It has a bunch of trees nearby and a small open field. There are two children in the yard playing catch.

Not only is this a picture at my desk, it’s also the desktop wallpaper on my computer and the start page on my web browser.

Whenever I’m at that temptation point, my eye will hit upon one of those three pictures, and I’ll remember, just for a second, what the big picture is. It causes me to stop and rethink what I’m doing and that little pause is enough to break down the mistake I’m about to make.

I spend as much time with my family as I realistically can. When I look at the long-term goals I have in my life, all of them revolve around my family. I want Sarah to have the country home she’s always dreamed of. I want to show my children some of the beauty of the world and, later, make sure that they can follow whatever career path they want. I want to be able to retire with Sarah and enjoy some healthy and happy years together in retirement.

Sarah and our three children are a living reminder of all of that. When I spend time with them, those goals feel real and alive and urgent.

When I’m alone running numbers through a spreadsheet or checking account balances, those goals feel less urgent, which leaves me more prone to giving into frustration.

My solution, then, is to spend as much time with my family as I possibly can. When I do that, the larger goals I have in my life become so natural and essential that when I’m doing that financial work, the reinforcement of those goals carries over and keeps me on the right path.

I focus a lot on the experience of day-to-day life. In other words, I simply try not to think about what may yet come and instead focus on the things my life holds for me today.

Even in the most dull of days, there are countless things worth enjoying and remembering. My one year old will come racing into my office and insist on a hug before returning to his play. I’ll play a board game with my wife and my friends, and the intellectual enjoyment of figuring out a good strategy pairs wonderfully with the social enjoyment of the people I’m with. Sarah and I will work together to make a really good supper and that first bite – loaded with fresh ingredients and spices – is absolutely delicious. My daughter and I will spend two hours sitting at the kitchen table creating a giant drawing of a warm summer day at the park.

Those are little everyday things, sure, but I make a conscious effort to reflect on and focus on those things. I keep a journal and each evening I try to write down the best little experiences of that given day.

What this does is it builds and perpetuates a strong sense that my life is really good right now.

It’s harder to get frustrated with what you don’t have when you know how much you really do have.

Don’t give in to frustration and impatience. Instead, spend some time each day focused on your goals and why you have them, and pair that with a constant reflection on how much you have right now. It goes a long way toward making the frustration of not reaching your goals quickly that much easier to handle.

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  1. Tracy says:

    I think the key here is to NOT obsess over things – in this case, personal finance. If you make smart decisions – develop a plan (how much you apply to any debt, how much you add to savings every month) and STICK TO IT and then … mentally let it go, you’ll be far better off. I don’t *THINK* about the money I transfer into savings accounts as ‘mine’ or available.

    I treat the money as another bill – you wouldn’t think “Oh, if I only sent 40 dollars to the electric company this month, I’d be able to buy xyz” – you just pay your electric bill. Treat your savings as another bill (debt repayment already is another bill) – not just in terms of doing it, but in how you THINK about it.

    I mean, I question the picture of the house in the country – per your own words, isn’t that one of the *causes* of your frustration? How long it feels it’s going to take to get there? Doesn’t that give rise to more tension? Why not just automate everything and then enjoy your life as it is? (On it’s own, without ‘forcing’ it.) Daydreaming about Sarah in the country … is it actually helping, or making you more unhappy that that day still isn’t now?

  2. Steven says:

    You can’t always defer your happiness to sometime in the future. It’s alright to enjoy life now. There should be no guilt in that.

  3. Adam P says:

    Imagine how frustrated you’d feel if you hadn’t sold your blog for some 6 figure+ windfall?

  4. Hannah says:

    It is a slow process. For me, it’s been helpful to track my financial progress over time, which I started doing 4 years ago. Then I see how far I’ve come in terms of debt repayment and long-term savings. It does help on the days that I get frustrated by how slow it takes.

  5. Riki says:

    I think it’s really important to find a balance between living for today and saving for tomorrow. I’m alive today and I deserve to live a happy and comfortable life today. Balance is the key so I don’t have to trick myself into being happy with my life as it currently is.

  6. Izabelle says:

    I wonder how Trent reconciles his big house goal with his previous musings on not burdening his future self.

    Goals are indeed nice to have, but if you focus too much on them, you may handcuff your future self into doing what matters to you *now*. That could be fine, but people grow and change. If I evaluated my life right now based on the plans I laid 5 or 10 years ago, I’d be severely depressed. But I learned and grew during these years. My needs changed. I may not have what I thought I would back then, but I still giddily happy.

  7. Izabelle says:

    … so giddy I forgot the word “am” (!).

  8. Adam P says:

    My goal is home-ownership I guess, although the Toronto housing market is so in a bloated bubble that buying is out of the question, so I just continually save $1-2k a month towards my downpayment and wait. And then the prices go up another 5%. Eventually I’ll have $300k in my downpayment and say eff it and move to another part of the country where I can buy a house with no mortgage.

    I have no other long term savings goals outside of retirement, and it’s a struggle to think what I should save for in the medium term. Travel seems to be the panacea of the PF blog world, except Trent (one of his redeeming qualities is he doesn’t over emphasize travel as the be all end all).

    Original art? Paul Smith suits? A Mercedes? (I barely drive my car now, once or twice a month)

    Guess I’ll just save more, even though the housing market where I live makes the only goal I have more out of reach every day.

  9. Riki says:

    Adam P – the housing market in Toronto is bananas. I’m continually happy that I live in the Maritimes and housing prices here are so realistic. Move to the East Coast and I guarantee that $300K will buy you more house than you want or need.

  10. Johanna says:

    @Adam P: If the example of your neighbors to the south isn’t enough to convince you that buying overpriced housing in the midst of a bubble is a terrible idea, consider it a blessing that the bubble has already inflated beyond your reach so that you don’t have a choice.

  11. Izabelle says:

    Another way to figure out if the path leading to achieving your goal is worth it: let’s say tomorrow, you are struck by a car. You may not survive, or even just be too handicapped to enjoy the fruits of your original goal. Would the path so far still be worth it? It’s important to enjoy the process as much as the goal. In some cases, that process is all you’ll ever get.

  12. Adam P says:

    Thanks Riki and Johanna – I agree with you that buying now is not an option for me, I am waiting to see what happens when interest rates rise. If that doesn’t begin the bubble burst I don’t know what will. A G&M article today (#1 popular today I think) is about a tiny gross bungalow that sold for $42k ABOVE asking price, for 1.1mil. Bought by a Chinese student with her father’s money. That sort of thing is so disgusting for a first time young buyer like myself to read. I wouldn’t want to rent that house, never mind buy it.

    But my downpayment can’t really ever be big enough, so I do feel frustrated because I could save huge amounts of my take home pay towards it for years and years and never have a stopping point.

    I need a new savings goal for the medium term, but I’m at a loss. I made a list of interesting things that cost $1000-$10,000 to save for, but I can easily talk myself out of any of them.

  13. Adam P says:

    oops..that’s $421k above asking price, not $42k above asking. I’d link the article but moderation purgatory would await.

  14. Johanna says:

    @Adam P: Why does it need to be a savings goal, and why does it need to be medium term? You could find some way to use your extra money right now (either on things/experiences for yourself or to help others). Or you could give yourself the option of a very early retirement.

  15. Adam P says:

    I guess I am looking at short or medium term goals because, like others have said, it’s frustrating constantly saving for the far off long term (including early retirement). I travel quite a bit now, am taking night classes, and have monthly donations for two charities I believe in (recently started volunteering my time at a community center).

    Guess I need to do some soul searching on what purchases would give me the best happiness/dollar spent ratios. Thanks for your input as always.

  16. Riki says:

    Adam, you’ve spoken of this concern before – a situation that I haven’t really found myself in as I am surely one who has too many goals and not quite enough money to go around. So I prioritize.

    Does it mean you need to find something that you’re passionate about?

  17. Johanna says:

    Another thought: Could working toward a medium-term goal that’s not necessarily financial fill the same psychological niche for you?

  18. Adam P says:

    Johanna- I’m working towards a Chartered Insurance Professional (CIP) desigantion (on course 5 of 10 now, should be done in 2013); I’ve started volunteering my time (previously just money) to help people. I have some non-financial medium goals, though they feel like chores.

    Riki – you’ve got it 100% right; finding a place where I am passionate saving up and spending money (other than a home or retirement) is a challenge for me. I think I’ve read too many pf books/blogs . I can splurge in the 2 or low 3 digits on myself and like my purchases, find value in them. Beyond that, I can think of some things I would like to buy but talk myself out of it. And then I get frustrated seeing the house market rising so much when I’m saving endlessly to buy in, or an article on frustration pops up. :)

    Thanks again both of you for responding.

  19. Riki says:

    You should take up photography! That is definitely a hobby that will kill a few (or many) thousands of dollars.


  20. butterandjelly213 says:

    Adam P, I struggle with the same question.

    When my goal was paying off student loans, it was so easy (and almost fun) to find new ways to free up cash and watch that balance drop. Yet I can’t seem to apply the same enthusiasm to saving. I probably put aside 1/3 of my gross income at this point while at the same time indulging my hobbies (reading, running, travel, cooking). I know I could save more, I just struggle to define the reason why I don’t want to spend $20 on happy hour with a friend this week.

    Financial freedom is a great goal but sometimes, it’s hard to see how $20 is going to speed that up significantly. And then I wonder what I’m going to do when I get there, though that’s a whole other topic :)

  21. Adam P says:

    Thanks for posting butterandjelly213, makes me feel less like a crazy person to know others struggle with it.

    Admittedly, as far as problems go, it’s not a very bad one. I can’t say I’m unhappy in life and keep myself occupied and maintain strong social connections.

    I’m sure once I finally buy a house I’ll have *TONS* of things to save up for and spend money on. Furniture, re-modelling, artwork, etc.

  22. Kacie says:

    #20 — it was way easier for me to stay motivated in paying off debt than it was for me to stay the course building up savings. So backward! But that’s how it was. I had to automate things more so I’d still do it without grumbling or being tired of it.

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