Financial Choices and Personal Growth in a Time of Change

This week has unquestionably been a week for the history books in America. People will be thinking about and living with the consequences of this election for a very, very long time.

Regardless of your personal feelings on the issue, I think we can all agree on two key things.

First, there are many people out there who are having a deep emotional response to the events of the last week. Some people are extremely scared and worried. Some people are celebratory. Some people are relieved. Some people are angry. Some people are just simply uncertain about what is to come. Again, regardless of your own personal views on the changes beginning in America right now, it’s undeniably true that emotions and tensions are running high and they run the gamut.

Second, we are entering a time of change. Whenever you see a major political shift in a country, not only do you see changes in the laws of the land, you see changes in the culture of the land. Although speculation is running wild and we have seen a few knee-jerk responses, we do not yet know what those changes are going to look like.

Those two factors combined can lead people to feel incredibly uncertain, and that leads people to make some pretty poor choices. They’re likely to react emotionally and take actions that they might not otherwise take. Their words might be intense. They might do things that go beyond what might normally be within their character.

Those things may have some real long term consequences. Relationships can be damaged. Reputations can be damaged. Careers can be damaged. If your emotions are running high, you’re very prone to making really poor financial decisions, reacting quickly and emotionally (which is always a mistake).

When change comes in your life and in the world at large, there are some principles that you can always follow to avoid making regrettable moves in the face of that change. These principles apply to everyone, regardless of where you stand on the changes at hand.

Lock down your finances and make no major investment, career, or spending decisions for a while. You should never, ever make a major financial move in immediate response to a major event. Investment goals and spending decisions should be made based upon what you are planning for your personal future, and your plan for your personal future should be considered over a period of time. It should not be radically and suddenly changed by any life event.

Yes, there are life changing events. They happen. The events of this week might be such a life changing event for you. The thing is that even though a major event has happened, you have not given that major event enough time to really think through how it changes the long term plans of your life in a calm and unemotional fashion.

Your best immediate response is to avoid making any major moves with your money for a while. Give yourself some time to process the changes that have happened and, more importantly, give some serious thought to whether or not they really have affected your long term life plans.

Do this with any move in your life that involves significant sums of money, whether it’s making a purchase, selling something, making a career change, or making a financial move. Let all of it rest for a while and process the changes.

Whenever you make a major move in your life, it needs to come from an internal place unless it is absolutely forced by an external change. As big as the changes might seem at the moment, they’re still external changes that aren’t really applying significant force to your life as of yet. That means you should rely on internal changes in terms of what you want out of life, and that takes time. Give it time. Don’t make major decisions right now.

Practice low-cost stress reduction practices in your life. For many people, periods of change (like this appears to be) are stressful, whether that change is beneficial for you or not. People are creatures of habit, and when change happens, that means routines and habits and ways of thinking are going to be altered. That brings stress, period.

If you add to that the fact that many adults lead stressful lives simply due to the time crunch that they’re almost constantly under (myself included), it’s easy to see how a major event like this can take a simmering pot and move it to the boiling point.

Stress is harmful. It causes you to make poor decisions. It has disastrous consequences for your long term health. It rips away your ability to focus. It has a negative effect on your mood. Those negative effects can have disastrous financial, professional, and personal consequences – poor money choices, poor health, poor communication and relationships, you name it. When you lower your stress level, you reduce all of those negative effects.

My own life is almost constantly stressful, but I only feel those effects if I let them get to me. I have a routine of several de-stressing strategies that really help with this and as long as I stick with those strategies, life can hand me a lot and I’ll roll through it without the negative effects of stress. Here are the five key strategies I use.

I meditate or pray. This is something I mention fairly frequently, but I mention it because it really works well for me. It’s reduced my stress and improved my focus a great deal since it became a daily part of my life several months ago. It’s really simple, too. I just sit in a chair, close my eyes, and concentrate on my breathing for five or ten minutes. I breathe in. I breathe out. I focus on just that. If I find my attention wandering, I notice it and don’t berate myself over it, because it is going to happen. Instead, I just guide myself back to concentrating on my breathing. To me, prayer is the exact same thing, except with a focus on a spiritual target instead of one’s breathing. When I’m done, it feels like I gave my mental state a thorough cleaning, and it’s had many longer-term benefits on my stress management and particularly on my focus level.

I go on walks, particularly in nature. When I’m thinking through something, whether it’s how to write about a particular topic on The Simple Dollar or a personal problem or anything else, it’s easy to just sit at my desk and let the gears turn, but I’ve found it’s much more effective in terms of coming to a good solution and feeling better about myself and the world if I go take a walk instead, preferably outside in a more natural setting. I often go to parks and walk around on a trail for half an hour or so, looking around and trying not to think about anything other than the problem I want to resolve and the beauty of the situation I’m in. I almost always leave with a refreshed mind and body and a plan for what I’m going to do.

I try to eat healthy foods. That mostly just means eating plenty of fruits and vegetables. When I’m hungry for a snack, I’m better off if I just grab some fruit or a handful of nuts with minimal seasoning. At meal time, I try to make room on my plate for as many vegetables as possible. While fast food and heavy meals are definitely tasty and can be convenient, they also often leave me feeling bloated and feeling as though something is holding my mood down, so I’m trying to make those things rare in my life.

I exercise. Basically, I just try to do something every day that elevates my heart rate and gets me breathing heavy to the point where I can’t quite talk in complete sentences, and then I try to stay there for a bit. It doesn’t matter so much what I’m doing, but I usually try to alternate between cardio (running, jumping, etc.) and stressing a muscle group (planks, squats, push-ups, etc.). There’s this peak where I’m pushing myself but not too hard that leaves me feeling great at the end. A good place to start for free daily exercises is Darebee.

I try to achieve meaningful things or meaningful progress on big things. The biggest stresses in my life are usually things that I feel are important but that I’m not actually doing or making meaningful progress on. I’m a big believer that everything you do in life falls into four groups: important and urgent, important but not urgent, not important but urgent, and neither important nor urgent. I’m pretty good at immediately addressing the important and urgent things and discarding the neither important nor urgent things, but I often spend more time on the urgent but not important things than I should. That means I leave behind things that are important but not urgent, and when those build up, they cause stress. Simply addressing those things head on is a powerful stress reducer.

Try to avoid expressing controversial opinions – or even political opinions of any kind – in the company of those outside of your inner circle and particularly avoid it in the workplace. This is simply good practice in terms of building and maintaining professional relationships. Like it or not, you’re going to have to work with people you don’t agree with politically. You’re going to have to associate with them in your community, at least a little bit.

No matter how “on fire” you are with your political thoughts right now, whether you’re in despair or jubilant, you are failing your future by bringing those thoughts up in professional company or non-intimate personal company. You are poisoning the well of future relationships with no real benefit.

The truth is that you don’t know the political beliefs of the people in your office or the people you casually associate with in your community. They may completely disagree with you, find what you are saying to be repugnant, and walk away with a severely diminished view of your character, even if you find such character judgments based on political and current affairs viewpoints to be ridiculous. It doesn’t matter what you think in terms of how other people draw judgments about you. They’re going to draw judgments based on their own criteria, and many people do so due to political commentary.

If you feel a strong urge to unleash your political views, simply save it for another forum. Post about it online (preferably anonymously). Go join a political group. Talk about it to your close circle of friends. Find people that are openly willing to have discussions on those topics. Just keep the thoughts to yourself in mixed company.

Learn as much as you can about the changes on the horizon. Whenever something unexpected happens, whenever your sense of how the world works changes, it is very tempting to respond emotionally and “demand” in some way that the world not change, particularly if you don’t like that change.

The truth is that when a major change happens outside of your control, you’re going to have to live with it, at least for now. All of the anger and pain and jubilation in the world won’t change that.

Instead, if you’re that invested in the change, learn about the change. Study the change.

By that, I don’t mean turning to the talking heads on cable news or talk radio who are employed to give highly opinionated “hot takes” on current events. Those things are complete garbage in terms of actually informing yourself.

Instead, sit down and read well-researched and well-considered books and articles on the world from a lot of perspectives. For example, I think that one of the best books about the most recent election has already been written: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I read it in the months before the election and it actually had a significant role in changing and growing my perspective on why things had happened.

Regardless of my own feelings on the events of the day, I know that there are real reasons for why those changes happened and not simple negative knee-jerk reactions pulled from emotion. Situations never, ever break down into simply thinking that some specific group of people is wholly bad or wholly good. They’re neither bad nor good. They’re just operating on principles that you may not be seeing because you haven’t yet bothered to look.

Look. If you don’t see the principles of what’s happening due to change caused by humans or find the ones you see wholly negative, you’re not looking hard enough. Keep looking. Keep learning. Understanding is the source of healing. Understanding is the source of knowing what the next step is, not just to fix the immediate problem you see, but the things that lie underneath that are actually causing the problems.

Try to understand those changes through the eyes of others. Whenever something unexpected happens in the world, one of the most powerful ways of understanding it is to simply try to see that change through the eyes of others. How does someone else see that change?

How does someone whose future has been destroyed by a factory leaving their small town see this change? How does someone who is a first generation immigrant see this change? How does someone who feels that their life concerns have been completely ignored for the last few decades by state and national leaders feel about this change? How does someone who has finally been able to marry someone that they love after decades of waiting feel about this change?

When you do that, two things happen. One, you begin to see other people as much more human, even if they’re doing things and expressing views that you don’t understand. Two, you begin to see that the changes aren’t as one-dimensional as you may have initially thought.

This process works for any change that occurs that’s out of your individual control and large enough to affect a significant number of people. By simply stepping back and considering how the change affects others, not only do you humanize the other people, you often begin to see the change more clearly.

So, how does that help you and your finances and your career? The more clearly you understand and see the changes happening in your life and in the world, the more likely it is that when you do take action in response to that change, it’s going to be a positive action that’s beneficial for you.

For example, some people panicked and immediately yanked money out of stocks as soon as they heard of an unexpected result. Those people almost immediately lost money in terms of brokerage fees and in terms of the fact that the markets didn’t react quite like they expected. They didn’t spend the time to try to understand the changes that were happening, and they paid for it.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” This is a well known quote, but it’s absolutely true. Whenever you feel very emotionally invested in and affected by change, your heart is telling you to get involved.

Channel your energies in a positive direction. Take all of those feelings and use them positively to bring about the world you want to see. If you’re invigorated by the sense that perhaps America will finally address some of the economic problems it’s been ignoring, see what you can do to help and to hasten those solutions. If you’re scared that America is stepping back from the promises of its founding documents, go find an organization dedicated to that cause and get involved.

When something shakes you to your core, take that not as a sign to retreat, but as a sign to engage. Turn that energy into something positive. Don’t sit at home and let it fester into something negative. Find a way to channel that passion into building the results you want to see.

When you’re out in public, think to yourself about the type of person you want to be present in your community and then be that person. There’s no better way to bring about the people you want to have in your community than by being that person by example.

Remember we’re not as different as we sometimes think we are. It is very, very easy in moments of change to see people on the other side of that change as being incredibly different than you. It’s easy to see them as something “other,” something unrelatable.

That is basically never true.

To buy into that idea that people on the other side of change are unrelatable does nothing but damage your personal and professional relationships going forward. It puts you into a situation where you’re restricting yourself to interacting and dealing with only a subset of people, which is going to chop down your opportunity.

Instead, you should be looking at what we all have in common, even across divides. We all love our families. We all love our friends. We all want a better life for ourselves. We all want better economic outcomes for the people around us. We all want to experience happiness in life.

We agree on those core things almost universally. The difference between us is solely on the path to those identical goals. The events of our lives cause us to follow different routes to those end goals than other people. Those differing events causes us to look at dilemmas in life differently because we’re simply at different places in our own journey, not because the person who sees it differently is evil.

It’s simply not true.

Whenever you see someone expressing views different than your own, take a moment to realize how much you really have in common with that person. You both have people that you deeply love. You both want to see a better world, though you may differ in some of the specifics. You both want to build a better life for yourself and for the people you care the most about. All you really differ on are the details, and they’re small by comparison and often shaped just by different life experiences.

Don’t get caught up in the little details. If you do, you throw away wonderful relationships and awesome opportunities, and for what? Very little.

The old Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times,” is meant as an insult, because to live in “interesting” times meant that you were likely living in dangerous and unfortunate times. Let’s do our best to make these times a little less interesting.

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