Applying Routine and Discipline to Finances

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become a regular listener of Jocko Willink’s podcast and I’ve enjoyed a couple of books written by him, most notably Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual and Extreme Ownership. Today, I wanted to talk about a few of the core ideas that he shares on his podcast and books and how they apply to one’s finances and life.

So, let’s back up here. Who is Jocko Willink? Wikipedia offers a nice summary:

Lieutenant Commander John Gretton “Jocko” Willink (born September 8, 1971) is an American retired officer in the United States Navy, who served in the Navy SEAL teams, podcaster, and author. His military service saw combat actions in the war in Iraq, eventually commanding the SEAL Team 3’s Task Unit Bruiser that fought in the bloody battle against the Iraqi insurgents in Ramadi, and was honored with the Silver Star and Bronze Star for his service. Willink co-authored the books Extreme Ownership and The Dichotomy of Leadership (with fellow retired SEAL Leif Babin) and co-founded the management consulting firm Echelon Front, LLC.[3] Willink hosts a weekly podcast with Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioner Echo Charles, called the Jocko Podcast.

Jocko’s podcast covers a wide range of topics and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ll often skip portions of episodes and even full episodes when he delves deeply into topics for which I don’t have a whole lot of interest. Rather, I tune in for those episodes and segments where he delves into something near and dear to my heart: how to make yourself and your life better. In that, he offers a few refreshing perspectives that I want to delve into here.

Day-in day-out discipline is the most effective tool we all have for achieving our goals and becoming better people.

The core message that Jocko presents in terms of personal improvement is that daily practice is the key to building a better life. Even if you really don’t want to do it, even if you just go through the motions of that daily practice, it’s the sheer grind of that daily practice that will build the kind of life you want.

This idea is perhaps most easily applied to physical fitness. If you spend a block of time every single day working to make your body stronger and more fit, you will gradually have a healthier body that’s more capable of doing all of the things you want to do.

I’ll use an actual example from my own life. In early 2017, Sarah and I planned out a vacation to Yellowstone that was going to involve a ton of hiking, particularly some long day hikes that involved a fair amount of altitude change, certainly more than I was used to living in Iowa. Furthermore, all of Yellowstone was at a notably higher altitude than Iowa, which meant thinner air.

I didn’t want to be miserable for that entire vacation. I wanted to be able to take on some of those hikes with relish.

What did I do? I committed to a daily practice of trail hiking in the hilliest areas near me that I could find. During the spring of 2017, I went on a daily long trail hike, at least a few miles in length, usually with a backpack with some weight in it. Whenever I could scrape out the time, which was usually a few days a week, I instead went to Ledges State Park for those hikes because that’s the hilliest place for hiking anywhere near me.

Some days I woke up excited to go on those hikes. Other days, not so much. Still, for something like 70 straight days, I went on a hike of at least two miles in length with a loaded backpack on a trail somewhere, and many days the hike was much longer.

By the time we went to Yellowstone, I was in so much better shape than when I started that routine. We went on a hike around the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that lasted most of a day that would have been extremely miserable if not impossible for me before I started that routine, but by the time we went there, I was more than keeping up with my kids and was often leading the hike (along with my oldest son, who is pretty fit).

I’ll use another example, that of The Simple Dollar itself. I’ve had at least one fresh article on the site every Monday through Saturday for the last dozen years. During the first several years, I did it while working at a separate, full-time job.

How did I do that? I established a day-in, day-out routine of writing something for the site. Every single day (save Sundays) I either write or outline a post, brainstorm some post ideas, or do some meaningful reading. Day in, day out, even when we’re on vacation. (I’ll usually get up an hour or two before anyone else and read while taking notes until others wake up.)

Some days, I’m excited to do it. Other days, I don’t want to do it and basically have to push myself to go through with it. Yet, without that effort, The Simple Dollar wouldn’t exist today, and because of that effort, it gets more than a million visitors a month last I checked.

It is that day-in, day-out effort that makes the difference in almost everything we do. It isn’t easy. Sometimes, it’s not fun at all. People do it because it gets the results we want.

If you want to be healthy, you’ve got to commit to day-in, day-out effort to do it. It doesn’t have to be an insane effort, just real, consistent effort. If you want financial success, the same is true. If you want to build a business, the same is true.

Applying day-in, day-out discipline to one’s health, finances, and skills results in an abundance of personal freedom.

Let’s step back and look at those two examples.

In the first example, where I prepared for hiking in Yellowstone with my family, my effort in getting into better hiking shape resulted in the freedom I needed to take on pretty much any hike that my family chose to take on at Yellowstone. My own fitness wasn’t a concern; rather, the primary criteria for choosing hikes was considering what our youngest child could easily handle. I had the freedom to choose from a very wide range of hikes and could choose the ones that looked the most interesting, and I’m glad I did because we wound up seeing some amazing landscapes in the backcountry of Yellowstone. The day we went way out in the backcountry and got to see a bunch of amazing fumaroles was the most memorable day of the trip, and it was that daily preparation that gave me the freedom to do it.

In the second example, where I built up The Simple Dollar with daily writing effort, it was that daily effort that created a large backlog of posts and a lot of Google links and search results, and that gradually built up the readership of the site to the point that it began to provide a lot of career freedom for me and financial freedom for my family. I had the freedom to make career choices that were unimaginable to me before that because of the new career options available and the income boost that the site provided on top of my full-time job at that time.

In both of those cases, I invested day-in, day-out effort toward improving myself and building something new, and in both cases, that daily effort vastly increased the life options available to me. They gave me freedom.

Applying discipline to personal finance is more straightforward than you might think.

This all applies quite well to personal finance, actually.

During the same timeframe that I was building The Simple Dollar, I began to change a lot of my day-in, day-out practices when it comes to spending money. For the most part, these were individually very small, but collectively, they required a fair amount of day-in, day-out discipline, especially at first. Here’s a list of 15 of them.

1. I stopped visiting coffee shops multiple times a week and cut it back to a monthly visit and started making more coffee at home.

2. I stopped eating out for lunch every day at work and switched to eating out once a week, and even then it was mostly for professional connection.

3. I replaced a twice-weekly bookstore visit with a weekly library visit.

4. I started making all meals at home on normal weeknights, when there wasn’t something exceptional going on.

5. I stopped golfing. At first, this was just a cutback, but I haven’t gone in several years.

6. I started shopping for groceries exclusively at a discount grocer after shopping around for a good grocery store for a while.

7. I started buying almost entirely store brand items, except for ones that demonstrated through use that they didn’t work how I wanted.

8. I started cutting my own hair using clippers. I have a very simple haircut, so this wasn’t hard.

9. I unsubscribed from almost all of my magazine subscriptions. The only one I get now is a gift.

10. I dropped the premium channels from our cable subscription and then, later, dropped cable entirely. Here are some notes on that experience.

11. I started participating in a lot of community organizations and free community events for entertainment.

12. I started contributing automatically to a Roth IRA.

13. I cut my wardrobe down significantly, to fewer than 50 items (outside of undergarments).

14. I switched to owning used cars and driving them to the point of unreliability and significant repairs.

15. I started being far more conscientious about properly using and maintaining our major home appliances and our home energy systems.

I could actually list a lot more of these things, but you get the idea.

Each of these changes ended up amounting to some sort of real change in my day-in, day-out behavior. I changed what I did during my day at work, my daily commute, grocery shopping, normal housework, my leisure time and my planning-for-the-future time.

Those changes all took discipline. There were often temptations.

Just as I might have tried to talk myself out of going on a hike, I would sometimes try to talk myself into going out for lunch more than once a week.

Just as I might have tried to convince myself to skip a day of writing, I would sometimes try to convince myself to make extra visits to the bookstore.

I eventually learned that the surest way to financial stability is to stick to reasonable, livable patterns day-in and day-out, even if you just go through the motions some days. Obviously, I might get more momentary pleasures if I went to the coffee shop each day, but the coffee at home is pretty good and far cheaper. Most days I love that coffee at home; on the other days, when coffee shops are tempting, I just go through the motion of saying “no.” My life is not derailed or made worse by not giving in to that temptation. It just takes a little discipline to say no.

But what does all of those little disciplines, all of those day-in and day-out choices, really add up to? They add up to freedom. It’s not about money in the bank. It’s about living a life of freedom.

I don’t feel worried or scared about opening up an envelope in the mail.

I don’t feel background stress about my financial state.

I don’t have to worry about whether or not I can afford a particular purchase or not. I’m not going to overdraft. I’m not going to hit a credit limit. I just get to decide the merits of that purchase.

I’m not worried about retiring. In fact, I can retire early provided no major roadblocks fall in the path.

I’m not worried about my children going to college.

When a major unexpected event occurs, it’s not a crisis.

When I’m making a major purchase, I don’t have to focus wholly on the sticker price and can instead compare options based on their overall value.

If I want to make a career change, I can do so without worrying about bankrupting my family.

Most of the nightmare scenarios I used to worry about, like someone getting sick, don’t have that additional layer of financial disaster anymore. Rather, these are human, personal worries, and not financial ones.

We could move to a different home with ease if we wanted to. We could move to a different place if we wanted to. We could just pick up and go, without worrying about loans or mortgages.

Speaking of loans, we don’t have a big pile of bills coming in every month. We have utilities and that’s about it.

What does all of that (and more) add up to? Freedom. I am free from a lot of sources of stress. I have a far wider range of personal life choices than I could have ever imagined.

The discipline of day-in day-out good financial behavior gives me the freedom from stress and freedom of choice that financial success provides.

Discipline equals freedom.

When you don’t want to, just “go through the motions.”

There are days when you don’t want to be responsible, you want to just go spend money on something stupid, you want to go out for lunch, whatever. For me — and for a lot of people — those are the really hard days of self-discipline.

There are really two things that keep me on track.

One is that I’ve learned the value in just “going through the motions.” This is a really strange thing to get used to, but it works.

Basically, if you don’t want to do something but you know it’s the better way to go in the big scheme of things, just go through the motions with it. I usually look at things like this from a “I just need to get this done and out of the way” perspective.

If I’m driving somewhere and I spot a coffee shop and I really want to stop, I think to myself, “I just need to get where I’m going.” I’m not all excited about skipping the coffee shop, that’s for sure, but I go through the motions of it and before you know it, I’m past the coffee shop and at the place I originally intended to go.

That type of thinking repeats itself all throughout my spending choices. Most of the time, I’m pretty happy not to spend money. Sometimes, it’s really tempting to spend in ways that are outside of my plans. In those moments of temptation, I don’t enthusiastically become Mr. Frugal. Rather, I go through the motions. Sure, I’m tempted to do something, but I know that the freedoms I deeply value and enjoy are only gained by going through the motions.

The second is that discipline doesn’t demand perfection, but it does demand moving in a positive direction. If the only route to success was complete perfection, everyone would fail at everything.

I spend money on hobbies. I give myself an amount that I can spend each month, and spending within that amount is completely fine. The habit isn’t zero hobby spending, it’s hobby spending beyond my budget.

The habit isn’t never eating out, it’s never eating out beyond special social occasions.

The habit isn’t never stopping at a coffee shop, it’s selectively stopping once a month.

Furthermore, if I fail at my discipline today, then it becomes super important that I pick it up again tomorrow. After I make a mistake, I don’t beat myself up and give up. Rather, I become super-focused on re-establishing the pattern over the next several days. A mistake doesn’t mean failure. It means a misstep, and like a misstep on a bumpy trail, it’s a sign that you need to carefully watch the trail ahead for a while.

Maybe I gave into temptation and ate out at a restaurant for no special reason. If I do that, I focus extra hard for a while on avoiding repeating that situation, and I look really carefully at why I did it. Very likely, I’ll do something like replenishing my “emergency snacks” in the van.

Go through the motions when it’s tough. Don’t destroy yourself over a misstep, but instead just focus on the next day with much more intensity. That’s the path.

If you want financial success, it will take discipline, but that discipline brings freedom.

Here’s the truth: a big part of financial success is simply saying no to some of the temptations that you can easily afford.

I could afford to go to the local coffee shop every day. I don’t. As much as I might enjoy it for a few moments, it doesn’t bring me the lasting value, low stress and financial freedom that discipline does.

That same thing repeats itself throughout my life, with various daily habits and temptations and the freedoms that consistently making the disciplined choice gives me.

It’s not easy. Nothing worth doing ever is. If it were easy, we’d all look like world-class athletes and have millions of dollars in our pockets.

To get the freedom you want, you have to take it one day at a time and do what you need to do today. Yeah, some days it won’t be fun. On those days, just go through the motions. If you do slip up, don’t destroy yourself. Focus intensely on doing it right tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.

Discipline leads to freedom. Going through the motions is a part of discipline, getting you through the times when you don’t feel like it. It adds up to the life you want.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.