Climb the Stairs Before You Climb the Mountain

It all started with a single day.

The first Saturday after my financial low point, I decided to spend just that one day doing what I could to improve our financial situation. “Today, I won’t spend any money. I’ll spend the day figuring things out and maybe making a bit of cash.”

That morning, I cleaned out my closet and went through our DVD collection (with Sarah’s permission, of course). I found several items to sell and about 100 DVDs. Sarah went through these and chose to save about ten of the DVDs.

With the rest of them, I went to a used media store in a nearby town and sold most of them. I kept three or four DVD box sets, though, to sell on eBay. I made about $200 in cash, as the store paid me about $2 or so apiece for them.

After that, I went to the library and checked out about ten personal finance books. I stopped by the ATM, deposited the cash, and went back home to do some reading and to spend some time with my infant son.

At the end of that day, I remember laying in bed reading an early part of Your Money or Your Life and thinking to myself that I could do this.

One day. It’s pretty easy to push change into your life for just one day.

It wasn’t long before our family was experimenting with things like “money free weekends” and “money free weeks.” We turned it into a challenge to see how far we could stretch out our shopping trips and how carefully we could plan them.

We never made it a truly bad thing to spend, but instead we kept focusing on periods of “good” behavior that had a positive impact on our personal finances.

The focus was on spending less, sure, but part of it was also about self-discovery. We wanted to try new things – particularly things that didn’t involve our credit card balances going upwards. We also wanted to incorporate the new things that worked into our old routines.

If you chain a few “good” days together, you have a nice little run of positive behavior and you begin to actually see the impact of that change in a larger scale.

Over the course of a few years, we began to see the impact of longer and longer chains of “good” days. We bought a house. We are completely free of all debt. We are building up savings for all of the things that we dream of in the future.

If I were to look at where I am now from the vantage point of 2006, it looks impossible. I would not have believed this progress was achievable. I would have turned away from the images of constant sacrifice and pain that I believed it would take to get here.

In reality, though, the journey was all about one day. Once I could see that I could behave in a financially responsible manner for one single day, it wasn’t too much harder to chain a few of those days together. Once it became easier to chain a few of those days together, it wasn’t too much harder to simply adopt some of those better habits as permanent life changes – the ones that were actually relatively painless to me. Once I had adopted some better habits and truly stuck with them, the outcome of financial success was a foregone conclusion.

The mountain looks impossible when you’re just starting out, but a single step does not. Climb a step before you climb the stairs. Climb the stairs before you climb the hill. Climb the hill before you climb the mountain.

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