Celebrating Your Achievement Without Undoing Your Progress

At one point, Sarah and I had almost $200,000 in total debt. Several years later, after a ton of hard work, we sent in the last check to pay off our final debt. We had achieved debt freedom.

It was really tempting to celebrate that achievement. We had worked so hard for so many years to get ourselves out of debt and it really felt worthy of some sort of reward.

What did we do? A neighbor watched our kids for several hours and we made a really nice romantic dinner at home. We dimmed the lights, set the table, lit some candles, put out a few flowers, and ate an amazing meal together. We then went out in the backyard and watched the stars come out while we talked about what comes next.

That was clearly a “good” celebration. It was meaningful and deeply enjoyable, but it didn’t cause us to make a financial mis-step after all of our effort to get our finances in a good place.

On the other hand, a few years ago, I hit a personal weight loss goal. I had been working very hard on losing weight mostly through better dietary choices (mostly smaller portions), but also an increase in exercise. I was thrilled to step on a scale and see a lower weight.

The next day, we left on a pre-planned family trip. When I got back home nine days later, I had gained several pounds.

Obviously, that’s a “bad” celebration. It undid some of the progress I had worked so hard to achieve.

When you look at these kinds of celebrations from a distance, the difference between the two is starkly clear. If your celebration causes you to do something that goes against the spirit of your achievement, you’re making a mistake.

Yet people often do this. They “splurge” at the end of a diet. They spend on a celebration after achieving a financial or professional goal. They “take a break” after having worked so hard to establish a winning routine in their life.

In those cases, the very act of celebrating undoes part of the very thing that is being celebrated. Not only does it push you back in terms of your progress, it also runs the risk of undoing positive routines that you’ve established (for example, completely destroying your diet routine).

I really enjoy celebrating achievements in my life and in the lives of people important to me, but I also want to be sure that those celebrations make sense.

Rules for Sensible Celebrations

1. Any celebration that undoes any of the progress I’ve made on my goal is a mistake and I should find another way to celebrate.

This is the obvious rule. If you’re celebrating losing weight, don’t celebrate by eating an entire large pizza. If you’re celebrating paying off debt, don’t go sign up for a car loan. If your celebration forces you to disrupt a new habit or routine, don’t do it.

2. Any celebration that causes a setback on other goals in my life is a mistake and I should find another way to celebrate.

For example, let’s say I decided to celebrate my weight loss success with a new high-end blender. That’s a good idea, as it’s a gift that’s in line with the changes I’m making in my life in terms of health. However, it’s still possibly a bad idea if I’m trying really hard to achieve debt freedom. I should seek out a celebration for my achievement that doesn’t involve going into debt (or slowing down my debt repayment progress).

3. If I can envision myself regretting this celebration (or an effect of this celebration) in a week, I should find another way to celebrate.

This is true for any spontaneous act or celebration. I try to imagine my life in a week and ask myself whether or not I’ll have significant regret for what I’m about to do – or if there’s even a significant chance for that regret. Most of the time, this is caught by the first two rules, but sometimes it will reveal things that I’m not thinking about, like making a poor choice regarding commitments to others.

If a celebration of your achievement survives those three simple tests, then it’s time to celebrate! You should be proud of the things you’ve achieved and you should enjoy that pride and share it with others.

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.