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“If” is the single most important word in personal finance.
It’s the word that everything hinges on, and it’s also the reason that, in the end, your personal finance success rides on your shoulders, not anyone else’s.
That can be a difficult thing for many to hear, but it’s true. Every situation you’re in is a mix of factors that you control and factors outside of your control. If you take charge of a situation and make the most of the factors you can control, you maximize your chances of success. It’s never a guarantee, of course, but over time it makes all of the difference in the world.
Here are nine examples of “ifs” that show how your choices make the difference between success and failure. Of course, these aren’t the only “ifs” in each situation, but they’re among the biggest ones and they are ones that you control.
You can get a good-paying job if you have marketable skills that an employer wants to pay for. More than anything, employers need specific skills, and they’re willing to pay for those skills, especially if they’re uncommon. However, it’s up to you to build those skills.
You can start a successful side business if you have a good idea and the work ethic to make it happen. Many people have started successful side businesses in their spare time – I’m one of them. However, you can’t just show up and expect magic to happen. You have to have an idea that others are interested in and the willingness to actually work to build that idea into something.
You can retire early if you’re willing to spend significantly less than you earn and save that difference. Retiring early is not a pipe dream. It can be done. I know people who have done it and I’m on the path to doing so. However, simply wanting it isn’t going to make it happen. You have to be willing to spend quite a bit less than what you earn, which means real lifestyle choices, and you also have to save that difference and invest it properly.
You can earn a good long-term return on your investments if you don’t panic when the stock market or the real estate market burps. Investments such as stocks, bonds, and real estate have earned investors a strong return for hundreds of years. However, those investments are volatile, meaning that they can potentially add value or lose value on a daily or weekly or monthly basis. We’ve seen months where a stock investment jumps 10% or more or loses 20% of its value. That’s a scary ride and you have to have the intestinal fortitude to hang on tight.
You can survive a job loss if you have a healthy emergency fund and aren’t in debt up to your ears. For many Americans, a job loss is devastating. When you’re living in a paycheck-to-paycheck style, losing that string of paychecks, even for a very short while, can really hurt. Again, the solution is about you. You can choose to build up an emergency fund. You can choose to avoid debt and improve your monthly cash flow.
You can handle a major unexpected illness or death in the family if you have adequate insurance in place. Sometimes things happen that you just don’t expect, like the loss of a spouse or a truly serious illness. In those events, having things like health insurance and term life insurance are vital. However, when things are good, such things seem unimportant. It’s up to you to have the vision to realize that such things as insurance are really important.
You can send your children to a great college if you help them start saving from an early age. If you start from infancy, you don’t even have to save all that much – just a little each month can make an enormous difference for that child at age 18. Again, though, you have to have the foresight to see that this will be a real issue far down the road and that you should take action now to make the impact of that challenge as small as possible.
You can achieve complete freedom from debt if you’re careful about what debts you acquire and are diligent about paying them off when you do acquire them. Debt freedom seems like a fairy tale for many people, but it’s entirely possible to achieve it. It just requires something that most people in debt are unwilling to give – self control over your spending and a diligence to pay off those debts.
You can get that promotion at work if you demonstrate a strong work ethic in the workplace and put yourself in position to get that promotion with self-directed initiative, good relationships with others, and skills that the new position demands. A recipe for promotion isn’t a complicated one. Anyone can do it should they choose to do so. The problem is that it’s not always an easy path to follow. It requires work, self-discipline, positive relationships, and skill building. Those things are up to you.
With each of those cases, you can easily point out factors that are outside the control of the person involved and point to those factors as the real “reason” for the problem, but that doesn’t change the fact that your chances of having success and failure in anything you do come down to the behavior you choose and the choices you make.
Your If Checklist
One thing that’s hard not to notice with those scenarios is that many of the same personal choices keep popping up again and again. Those choices resonate throughout all aspects of life, from personal spending to professional skills. There are simply a certain set of skills and features that will cause you to be able to fulfill a constant stream of “ifs” throughout your life, enabling you to have many of the things you want.
Here’s a list of some of the things you can possess that will help you fulfill many of the “ifs” in your life, personally, professionally, financially, and otherwise.
A strong work ethic: You have to be willing to use your time effectively, not just when something important and urgent is breathing down your neck. Do you use your time to take care of important things when there’s nothing urgent breathing down your neck? Do you find things to do during the slow periods so that life is more tolerable during the busy ones? Do you find productive things to do when there’s nothing productive to do? Can you turn off distractions and bear down on a hard task? Those are things that come easily to some, but everyone can learn how to do them. They’re also powerful traits to have no matter what you’re hoping to succeed at.
A willingness to look at the long-term future with as much urgency as the short term: As humans, it can sometimes be hard to look beyond the next weekend or the next paycheck. That’s the timeframe that seems “real” to us – beyond that seems fairly nebulous. The challenge is to start looking further down the road – one year, five years, 10 years, and farther – and take the things that are coming down the road seriously. Look for ways to solve those upcoming challenges by applying effort and good choices today. It takes work and forethought, but it’s something that anyone can do and it becomes easier the more you do it.
A willingness and ability to build and maintain marketable skills: What do employers in your field really want from an employee? What do employers in your field want from someone who would fill the position that you want? If you don’t know, it’s time to do homework and find out by looking at job listings and talking to people. Then, it’s time to start acquiring and building those exact skills – and, furthermore, trying to build skills that are going to be “big” in the near future so that you’re ready when those things come up. This is a huge element of the kind of work ethic I mentioned earlier, because successful people use some of their spare time to do exactly this. They keep their resume fresh with fresh skills.
A desire for lifetime learning: People that succeed never stop learning about things that are relevant to where they want to go. Where do you want to be professionally and personally in five or 10 years? What questions are you personally curious about? You should naturally move from those questions to situations where you can learn about those things. Again, it’s much like riding a bicycle – it seems really hard at first and then it becomes easier and easier until it genuinely feels natural.
A consistent pattern of spending less than you earn: You will never get ahead financially if you don’t spend less than you earn. That challenge does come in two parts – it means that your spending needs to be less than your income, so either your income needs to go up or your spending needs to go down. Ideally, both should happen. The real challenge that most people struggle with is doing this consistently. Spending less than you earn for one pay period is easy, but can you do it for lots of pay periods in a row? Can you do it for a month? For a full year? That takes diligence, but that diligence is made up of a long line of individual choices that you make about whether to spend.
A consistent pattern of saving money for the future: No matter where you are in life, there are big financial obstacles looming just down the road. A student has student loans to look forward to. Young adults have things like a first house to look forward to, and retirement even further down the road. Older adults are staring directly at retirement. This doesn’t include the many bumps along the way like replacing old cars, going on trips, and so on. Saving for these future obstacles that you know are coming down the road needs to be a constant part of your life.
A set of strong and positive personal and professional relationships: Do you have people you can rely on in your personal life when things go awry? Do you have strong relationships in the workplace and in your field that you can tap during challenging moments? Having such relationships is vital for pushing you toward success with positive reinforcement and coming through for you in moments of need. As always, this is something that you choose to build or not build based upon how you choose to interact with others.
A plan for the most common major and minor life emergencies: What exactly would you do if your home burned to the ground? What do you do if your spouse suddenly passes away? What would you do if you started your car in the morning and black smoke started rolling out from under the hood? What do you do in those situations? Smart people have considered these situations and have plans in place for responding to them. They have insurance and estate plans already prepared. Do you?
A cool head in volatile times: Sometimes the truly unexpected happens. You can’t predict everything and sometimes unbelievable things can occur. Do you respond by breaking down and being unable to do anything? Do you respond with unhelpful rage? Or do you know how to control your emotions and hold them in check so you can get the necessary things done? This is a skill just like any other – knowing how to control your emotions can seem really difficult, but it is a skill.
This is just a partial list, of course, but if you’re strong with each of those skills, you’re going to be handle almost anything that modern life hands to you.
Building Your ‘If’ Skills
A list of things like those “if” skills can seem strange in that you probably have a few of them naturally, while others seem practically impossible. The interesting thing is that the “easy” and “impossible” things vary from person to person. Why? It’s because people naturally develop many of those “if” skills depending on the situations of their life. Your childhood and early adulthood shapes many of those skills, where you might learn how to smartly use your downtime, how to effectively learn (and the value of doing so), how to build relationships, how to control your emotions, or how to keep your cool in an emergency.
The challenge is that many people become complacent at some point and believe that they’ll just never have those skills. They remain happy with the skills that they have and just assume that it’s their “nature” to not have plans for the future or to not have cool heads or to not have a network of relationships.
You can build any of the things on that list in your spare time. The only thing that matters is you. You’re the one that has to make the choice to try to build those things, to improve your personal toolbox, to build your own answers to the many “ifs” in your life.
How do you do it? Figure out one or two of the things on that list that describe an attribute that you don’t have and invest time bringing those things into your life and making them natural.
Need to build a strong work ethic? Watch yourself carefully for when you’re wasting time. Start using an organization system like Getting Things Done to keep your tasks organized. Take on more work than you were previously doing, a little at a time, and learn how to execute.
Need to build a long-term outlook? Think specifically about where you want to be in five years. Then, ask yourself what you can do today to make that outcome more likely, then do those things today. Ask yourself that same question tomorrow. Every week or two, rethink that long term vision.
Need marketable skills? Find out what skills are needed in your field now and in the near future by talking to people who are hiring. Then, figure out what you need to do to build those skills yourself and do it!
Need lifetime learning? Devote some time each day to a subject you’re curious about and start reading books and articles about that topic that inform you and, eventually, challenge you to think. If you get lost, stop and back up until you’re on firmer ground and then absorb just a little at a time.
Need to spend less than you earn? Build a budget that actually works and then stick to that budget. Put aside the money you’re saving for the future first, then look for ways to make ends meet with what’s left.
Need to save money for the future? Figure out your big savings goals down the road – a down payment, retirement, college education, etc. – and then figure out the best way to save for that – a savings account, a 401(k), a Roth IRA, a 529 college savings plan, etc. Set up an automatic plan for that savings method so that you don’t have to think about it. Then, regularly re-evaluate what you need to be saving for.
Need to build positive relationships? Break out of your shell and go meet people. Go to community events, professional meetings, and special interest group meetings (try checking Meetup). The key thing here is to get out of your shell and talk to people. At such events, you already have something in common – the event itself – so use that as a starting point.
Need to build emergency plans? Think about the situations that worry you the most about your life, then think about how you would handle them if they occurred right now. Also, consider things you could do right now to make those situations easier, such as making an estate plan.
Need a cool head? Think about situations where you’ve lost your cool or just shut down in an emergency. Imagine how things would have gone better if you hadn’t done that. When smaller emergencies occur, take note of how you respond and try to control that emotional surge.
Life is a nonstop series of “if” questions, where opportunities and better outcomes await “if” we can fulfill some requirement.
When you work to improve your own life, you start providing your own answers to the multitude of “ifs” that life throws at you constantly. Improving yourself financially, professionally, and personally is never easy, but it’s the one sure route to being able to answer life’s challenges.
The good part is that, if we choose to do so, we can fulfill those “ifs” and have more success than we ever dreamed of. Doors that previously seemed closed now seem to be open just a bit. Challenging pathways now seem easy.
The future is bright if you choose to do the work to make it bright. The choice is always up to you.