During my second and third years in college, I made some poor decisions regarding which classes to take. Those poor choices, during a period when I was no longer sure about my major, ended up tacking an extra year onto my college experience.
My response should have been to talk to advisors and figure out a way to minimize that extra year, cutting it to perhaps a semester or so. Instead, I just made up excuses, convincing myself that I really did need that extra semester or two and I hadn’t really messed up at all.
When that extra year rolled around, I didn’t have enough money to pay for my education, so I took out student loans. I took out a big enough loan to cover tuition, but then I found myself at a crossroads. How much more do I need?
My response should have been to get the smallest loan possible. Instead, I got myself a rather hefty one. I excused this, arguing that it would somehow cost me more to move to a smaller apartment.
I was extremely lucky to get a job directly out of college during the 2000-2002 recession. Many of my classmates were not so lucky.
When those first hefty paychecks started rolling in, I could have made the choice to whack away at those student loans right off the bat. Instead, I had excuses. I had many other things that I “needed,” like a bigger television set and some new gadgets and some new books and a new computer. The student loans received minimum payments and the interest on them continued nibbling away at my financial situation.
I started hanging out with a high-spending crowd shortly after I got that job. Some of my new coworkers invited me into their social circle of young professionals and it seemed like they went out every night. They would play golf on the weekends and constantly talk about and compare the things they were buying. They compared themselves to each other constantly and looked down on other young professionals who weren’t in that groove.
“These are my friends,” I told myself. “I need to buy this stuff to keep up.” So I opened my wallet for evenings on the town. I opened my wallet for golf clubs and rounds of golf. I opened my wallet for the latest gadgets. The excuse was simple – all my friends were doing it, so I should do it, too.
At the same time, I desperately wanted to show my family that I was successful, and the only way I could think of doing this was by being as financially generous as possible with them. I bought everyone expensive Christmas gifts. I took everyone out for meals when they would visit me. I’d buy groceries for my parents when I visited them.
I didn’t need to buy all of this stuff to show them that I was successful. The clearest sign of a growing maturity is in the person that you are, not the stuff you buy for them (or for yourself). I didn’t understand that, so I used the idea of impressing them as an excuse to spend more and more and more.
We got married in 2003 and I wanted it to be a memorable one. Although we planned and executed a pretty modest wedding, we splurged big time on our honeymoon.
The thing is, we could have traveled to the United Kingdom on a reasonable budget and still had virtually every great memory from that trip, but instead we threw money into a black hole on that trip. We stayed in great hotels, ate like kings and queens, and did all kinds of extravagant things. Our excuse was that it was our honeymoon and thus it needed to be special, all the while denying the fact that it would have been special if we had kept our spending under a bit of control.
In 2004 and 2005, we racked up a lot of credit card debt. We ate at nice restaurants, bought gadgets, indulged in our collections, went golfing, went on nice trips… and on and on and on.
Unsurprisingly, we ended up putting a fair amount of that expense onto our credit cards. We had a ton of credit available and with the ease of using a card, we just went for it.
Our excuse here was the grandaddy of them all: our future selves will pay for those bills. We’ll be making more in the future, right? Well, then, our future selves will be able to pay these bills. This excuses us from thinking about it right now.
It’s just easier to do it this way. Excuse.
I’d rather not bother making any changes. Excuse.
All of my friends are doing it. Excuse.
I am a success and I need to show it by opening my wallet. Excuse.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, so it’s fine to open our wallets as wide as possible. Excuse.
Our future selves will pay for it. Excuse.
Our financial disaster was built on a mountain of excuses.
In fact, our reliance on excuses became a vicious cycle. We were used to spending money on stuff we didn’t need and finding reasons to excuse that unnecessary spending.
Finding an excuse that would make us feel less guilty about spending far more than we were earning became the norm, and unsurprisingly this led us to our financial meltdown.
It turned out that breaking that cycle of excuses was one of the hardest parts of our financial turnaround. We were simply so accustomed to making excuses for our terrible financial behavior that excuses were our normal course of doing things.
We had to break that cycle.
So, how did we do it? During our financial turnaround, we tried a lot of things, but we found that some things clearly stood out from the pack in terms of pulling us away from the temptation of relying on excuses. Here are seven things that we did that seemed to make a clear difference in terms of eliminating financial excuses from our life.
#1: Set Clear Goals
Prior to our financial turnaround, we didn’t really have clear long-term goals. We had vague pictures of a better financial life with things like owning a home in the country and so on, but the ideas were very nebulous and unclear. We didn’t even know exactly what we wanted, let alone have a timeline for it.
One of the first things we did during our financial turnaround was to set a number of very clear goals. Our main one was to achieve complete debt freedom, something we achieved in 2011. Right now, our goal is what we like to call “financial independence,” which is the state in which neither one of us has to work for income.
Goals like this are incredibly clear. There is no ambiguity as to what debt freedom means. The things to be done to get there are also really clear. There is no ambiguity as to how to eliminate debt – just pay off your debts, right?
A big central goal like that shines like a beacon through your life. It has an impact on almost everything you do and almost every decision you make.
#2: Build a Habit of Comparing Your Actions to That Goal
The problem with a big goal is that it often doesn’t feel relevant to your day-to-day choices. The key to unlocking the real power of a goal in your day-to-day life is to adopt a routine of comparing your ordinary daily actions to that big overall goal.
For example, during our debt recovery goal, I would constantly ask myself whether or not this particular action I was about to take would help me move toward eliminating debt. At the same time, I’d ask myself what I could be doing instead that would be in line both with our big goal and whatever it was that I hoped to be achieving at that moment.
Will buying this item help us move toward eliminating our debt? What can I do instead?
Will going out to eat help us move toward eliminating our debt? What can we do instead?
This question needs to become a routine. It is such a direct and effective tool for eliminating excuses, but it only works if you use it over and over and over again at every single opportunity.
Today, this question is practically unconscious. It’s an integral part of how I approach every buying decision. However, it took a lot of work to transform this type of questioning into such a deep habit.
#3: Build Better Daily Routines
Another valuable approach to changing your reliance on excuses is to give yourself fewer opportunities to make such excuses.
There’s an interesting psychological phenomenon called “decision fatigue” that affects all of us. Basically, the more decisions you make in a day, the more “fatigued” you get and the lower the quality of your later decisions. If you burn up your “decision energy” earlier in the day, you’ll find yourself making worse decisions late because, frankly, you’re mentally worn out.
With stronger daily routines, you take away many of the decisions you make during the day, meaning that you’ll have the mental energy to make poor decisions later on.
I’ve found a lot of value in the ideas expressed in Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto. Basically, I have a checklist of tasks that I need to take care of each day. Doing these tasks ensures that most of the important things in my life are just taken care of.
For example, I have an evening checklist that defines about fifteen little things I need to do to set the stage for a very smooth morning the next day. I’ll sit out clothes, have stuff ready to go for the children’s breakfast, and so on.
Because I followed that checklist the night before, so many things are automatic the next morning because all of the pieces are sitting out. I don’t have to think about what to wear – I just put on the clothes that are sitting there. I don’t have to plot out breakfast – it’s already sitting out and ready to go.
Doing this leaves me with more “decision energy” for the rest of my day.
Obviously, you don’t have to adopt something as formal as this, but if you can come up with ways to make the ordinary parts of your day a little more automatic so that you’re not making as many decisions, you will be able to make better decisions during other parts of your day.
#4: Admit That You’ve Made Mistakes – and Are Still Making Them
You’re going to mess up. That’s just a fact of life. No one is perfect in their spending choices.
Do not believe that you’re always going to do perfect. Do not believe that you’re always going to make the best choice. You won’t.
Having that kind of false confidence enables you to buy into the idea that the excuses you are making are somehow “right,” that because you are a “perfect” decision maker you are always going to be making the right call in many situations.
I believed that for a long time. I bought into the idea that the choices I made were in fact the right ones and that I had really thought everything out. Looking back, it’s laughable – obviously, I wasn’t.
However, just because I’m better at making decisions without excuses now doesn’t mean I won’t ever make an excuse to make a poor decision. I am not a perfect decision maker. In fact, I’m nowhere close to it.
I don’t even try to be a perfect decision maker.
Instead, each day I resolve to do better than I’ve done before. Nothing really matters except for the decision that’s coming up. Can I make the right decision? Is this decision I’m making a good one? That’s what matters.
Sure, I’m going to sometimes fail at it, but I go into each decision with a desire to make the best decision. I don’t expect perfection from myself and I’m not going to hate myself because I made a poor choice. Instead, I’m going to look at it and ask myself how I can do better next time.
Over time, this becomes a process of sorts, one where you continually become less and less reliant on excuses and capable of making better and better decisions. You never reach perfection, of course, but you get better. That’s all that really matters in the end.
You’re not perfect, but you can certainly be better than you were.
#5: Make Positive Daily Plans
Another additional tactic that really helped with eliminating excuses was to make a lot of positive daily plans each day.
I usually have a to-do list running and at the bottom of each day’s list, I have several things that aren’t particularly urgent or vital, but are positive things that will work in concert with whatever my big goals are at the moment. It might be something like learning the rules for a game I want to teach to my friends this weekend or going for a walk in the woods or checking on my geocache or simply spending some time reading an enriching book.
All of those things are in line with my personal and financial goals. They don’t cost anything (or, if they do, they don’t cost much). They’re in line with my existing interests. They also fill up “down time” when I might find myself tempted to spend money or make other decisions that aren’t in line with my goals.
You can also include tasks that are non-essential but truly productive toward your goals, such as making batches of homemade burritos, air-sealing the entryway, or changing over a bunch of lightbulbs to LEDs.
I found that by constantly brainstorming and having an abundance of free or very low cost activities always ready to go and on my to-do list (so I didn’t have to try to think of something to do), I was able to further remove myself from situations where I would excuse poor behavior. The “good” options just came more and more naturally.
#6: Build Friendships With People Who Won’t Accept Your Careless Behavior
When you surround yourself with people that excuse the kinds of behavior that you’re trying to avoid, it becomes incredibly easy to excuse it yourself. When everyone in your social circle just shrugs off financial responsibility because they want to spend, or shrugs off social responsibility because they want to drink, or shrugs off healthiness because they want to eat or overconsume, or shrugs off other responsibilities because they want to burn time, you’re going to find it very easy to make the same excuses yourself.
The best kind of friend is the friend that is confused when you make excuses, not annoyed when you make the responsible choice. You want friends who are striving for the same things you are and don’t make excuses for themselves to allow for poor behaviors.
If you want to stop excusing your poor financial behavior, hang out with people who are naturally frugal and are building toward their financial goals. Seek them out in your community and start building friendships with them. You’ll often find them at community meetings or at the library or at free public events. Look for the people who are making smart choices and have at least something in common with you and start getting to know those people. Invite them over to have dinner. Find something inexpensive or free to do together.
This doesn’t mean that you have to abandon old friends, but it does give you the comfort to start ducking out on activities that are going to require you to make financial excuses in order to “fit in.” You won’t have to open your wallet just to hang out with friends any more, which makes it far easier to trim away bad decisions and awful excuses.
#7: Don’t Look Back
If you’re in a financial pit, you probably made some poor money choices in the past. Yes, you’re dealing with the consequences of those choices now. It can be tempting to dream of the “what ifs” and think about what you should have done back then.
Don’t waste your time. As my daughter constantly reminds me in her singing voice, “the past is in the past.”
No matter how much you daydream, you can’t undo the mistakes of the past. They’re set in stone now. All you can do is look at the situation you’re in right now and do what you can to make the best of it. Focus on putting yourself on a better track going forward. Don’t worry for a second about the track that you used to be on.
The only useful thing that comes from looking back is that you can evaluate specific decisions you made back then to see how you can make them better now. In other words, use the past solely to learn how to do things better in the present and the future.
Do not look back at the past as a sad series of mistakes. Don’t reflect on the rollercoaster of luxurious events – they were inevitably followed by painful bills anyway. Don’t give a second of your thoughts to how things might have been.
Look forward. Don’t look back. The present and the future are what matters. The past is already written and cannot be changed, but your present and especially your future can be changed. Focus on what you can change and abide by what you cannot.
Once you get used to excusing bad financial behavior, it’s incredibly easy to keep doing it. It becomes a cycle, and unless you’re willing to step up to the plate to break that cycle, it’s going to last forever.
Are you willing to break the cycle of financial excuses in your life? The tools are in your hands. It’s your choice whether or not you use them.