I still have a big pile of my old journals, dating all the way back to junior high. Those things are literally more than half a lifetime old and, at this point, they’re probably more relatable to my oldest son than they are to me, though I can still see big glimmers of myself in those writings.
The ones I really find interesting are the journals from when I really started to step into adulthood, during the last year or so of college and during the first year or two of my professional life. It was at that point that I began to actually have viewpoints that were backed up by life observations and informative sources rather than just parroting what my parents or a teacher had told me or whatever the fresh new idea of the moment was.
At that time, I had a negative net worth. In fact, my net worth was so far in the hole that I couldn’t see the “break even point” arriving within the next few years.
I was financially struggling.
Today, obviously, I’m not financially struggling. I managed to turn my financial direction around and today I’m in pretty good financial shape.
The interesting thing is that this transformation has really altered some of my most deeply held views about money.
When I read those earlier entries, I can see a lot of money and career perspectives peeking out at me that just don’t stand up to the experiences I’ve had over the last few years. I attributed a lot of my difficulties to the wrong things and often had the wrong perspectives about what would happen when I did solve my problems.
In fact, here are six viewpoints that I held when I was financially struggling that I no longer hold. In fact, in some cases, I hold almost the exact opposite viewpoint.
Financially Struggling Viewpoint #1: Money Will Solve All My Problems
During my years of financial struggle, I believed that if I simply had a big enough wad of cash dropped on my lap to pay off all of my student loans and my car loan and my credit cards and perhaps pay for a down payment on a house, everything would be good. I would be on financial easy street.
My idea then was that my debts were the primary things that were holding me back. It was the immense amount of money that I owed to various companies that was holding me in place more than anything else.
My own lack of control over my day to day spending? Nope, didn’t really matter. My relatively small salary? Nope, didn’t mean too much since I believed I would earn more in the future.
I believed that the path out of my current financial situation required a big chunk of money falling into my lap.
Financially Successful Counterpoint #1: Nothing Will Solve All My Problems, But Good Behaviors Help More Than Anything Else
Eventually, I learned that even if a big chunk of money fell on my lap, I’d still be stuck with the same problems if I didn’t get my daily behaviors in check.
You can have a million dollars in the bank, but if you spend recklessly and without forethought, that million dollars will go away quicker than you can imagine if you don’t have a good grip on your spending and good relationships to rely on.
If you want to get ahead, start by mastering good decisions regarding how you spend the money you do have. Don’t spend your money thoughtlessly. If you want to have a little “pocket money,” budget for it, but spend the rest of your money carefully and wisely. This becomes a great habit over time.
Another good approach is to surround yourself with good people who have positive career aspirations and are making positive financial moves. Build a social network of people who are moving in a positive direction and you’ll move in a positive direction. Build a social circle of people making positive choices each day and you’ll make positive choices each day.
Every single bit of financial success you might have will follow from those things, not from some magical wad of cash falling into your lap from the sky.
Financially Struggling Viewpoint #2: Rich People Are Greedy
Once upon a time, I believed that the only way a person could accumulate any sort of significant financial wealth is if they were greedy and spent their time doing unethical things. If an ethical person were able to earn a lot of money in some fashion, then that ethical person would give it to those more in need than themselves.
In other words, I believed that accumulation of wealth was a sign of an unethical person. I did not see how a person with a conscience could become wealthy.
That didn’t mean that a person shouldn’t be compensated well for their work, but I did believe that many people received far too much pay.
Financially Successful Counterpoint #2: Rich People Have More on Their Plate Than You Realize
Then I had children. After that, I started a small business. Both of those experiences radically changed my perspective on a lot of things.
Before I had children and before I ran my own business, I essentially didn’t have any responsibility for anyone but myself. If I messed up, I was the only person facing any real consequences from that mistake. Sure, I might cause some secondary ramifications for my boss or my parents or for Sarah, but those were minor – it wasn’t going to radically alter their life.
When I became a parent, that changed. My missteps would radically alter the lives of my children.
When I started a small business that grew beyond a part time gig, that changed even more. My missteps would radically alter the lives of the people I employed.
Once I had that perspective, it wasn’t hard to see how it scaled up from there. The larger my business grew, the more people I became responsible for. The same thing would be true of my personal life, to a smaller extent.
The thing is, people who accumulate wealth are often responsible for a lot more people than just themselves. If they look at that responsibility with a strong sense of making sure that those people and those things are well cared for, then they have a much stronger desire to accumulate wealth.
While I think there is definitely a role for charity in the world, I also understand why people accumulate wealth to a certain extent. If nothing else, it is insurance against what the world may do to you, your family, and the things you’ve put your life energy into.
Financially Struggling Viewpoint #3: I Might As Well Live It Up, Because My Financial Life Isn’t Getting Better
Each month, I’d look at my debts and realize that their overall balance was barely going down, if at all. I still owed thousands on my car loan. I still owed tens of thousands on my student loans. I still owed thousands on my credit cards. I was simply not making any noteworthy financial progress.
Given that I seemed to be heading nowhere in terms of paying off my debts and moving toward my goals, what was the point of really trying? Those obstacles were essentially permanent, so why not live it up?
This became a regular mantra for me. I’d look at my bills, realize that my debts were just about as big as they were the month before, and convince myself that I was never getting out of debt. Since escaping debt was something that was “never” going to happen anyway, there was no reason not to spend money on fun things, right?
Financially Successful Counterpoint #3: Your Financial Life Is Guaranteed to Never Get Better If You ‘Live It Up’ a Lot
The catch was that it was all of that money spent on “living it up” that was keeping me from making any progress on my debts. It created a cycle that was pretty hard to break, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
Because I would waste a bunch of money each month on “living it up,” my credit cards never had a chance to go down in balance and I never gave myself a window to make extra payments on my other debts. I spent that money on short-term pleasures instead.
A much better approach is to be very selective about your hobby and entertainment and “eating out” expenses. Don’t cut them out entirely, but instead focus on the ones that actually matter and that you have actually desired for a while instead of the things that are fleeting. Then, take the money you previously spent on fleeting things and apply it toward your debts.
Not only is that really the only recipe there is for escaping from debt, it also doesn’t cause you to lose anything from your life that really matters. The stuff you really enjoy sticks around. The debt doesn’t.
Except for people who are exceptionally impoverished, debt is a choice. You choose to stay in debt based on what you choose to do with your money.
Financially Struggling Viewpoint #4: Society’s Deck Is Stacked Against Me
I really bought into the idea that the only real route to success for me was through my job. Sure, I could earn a little bit in my spare time doing things like collecting nickel refund cans, but it really wasn’t worth the time invested.
In order to build up a business or a freelancing career, I told myself, you needed either a big healthy chunk of startup money or a network of connections you’ve built over many many years at work. Without at least one of those things, your only route to financial success in life was by working at a job that made someone else more money off of your labor.
I believed that if you weren’t born on third base, society’s deck was completely stacked against you.
Financially Successful Counterpoint #4: You Are Surrounded By a Flood of Opportunity – It Just Takes Work
I started a business in my living room in 2006. I didn’t have anyone’s help, just an interesting idea of being very open about my financial state and how difficult it was to turn things around. By 2008, it was generating more annual income for me than my steady, stable job was. By 2010, I was employing a handful of assistants and needed serious accounting help. By 2011, I chose to sell the business.
I didn’t have a lot of money to invest. I didn’t have secret inside connections.
What I had was time that I was willing to rip away from my hobbies and the willingness to work. A lot.
My typical weekday involved getting up at about 5 AM to write for an hour and a half or so, taking my son to child care at about 7 AM, working from 7:30 AM to about noon, taking an hourlong lunch where I did some more writing while eating lunch, worked from about 1 to about 4:30 PM, went home to write for another hour or two before making supper and spending just a bit of evening time with my family, and then handling the deluge of emails and other things from 8:30 PM or so until I fell asleep in bed around 11 PM.
This was what every single weekday was like for me for two years or so. On the weekends, I often did more writing and other tasks that I couldn’t finish during the week, like incremental site redesign and so on.
I worked a lot. I gave up tons of “free time,” relegating what little I had mostly to Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
Right now, I see a ton of chances to throw a lot of work into something and turn it into something profitable. Those chances are everywhere. The only ingredient I really need for many of those chances are a lot of work and a willingness to invest most of my spare time into it for a significant period.
That’s the magic ingredient. Work.
Financially Struggling Viewpoint #5: You Need a Good Degree from a Good School to Get a Good Job – or Your Financial Future Will Be a Disaster
When I graduated, I felt I was really lucky. I had a degree in a hot field (computer science) from a fairly reputable school and I was able to use that to secure a job during the 2000-2002 economic downturn.
At that same time, I had friends in other majors that struggled to find work. I also had friends at other schools, even in my same area of study, that struggled to find work.
In my mind, that translated into the recipe for success. Unless you have a degree in a field with some demand and it was from a school of at least some repute, you were destined to be serving fries at Burger King.
Financially Successful Counterpoint #5: You Need a Degree – But a Professional Network and Other Traits Are Just as Important
Yet, when I look back on things, I see how important many other factors were. Most of the other factors were at least as important as the good degree from the good school.
For starters, I built a really strong professional network when I was in school. I knew most of the professors in my department really well, some of them on a first name basis. I wound up working as an undergraduate for three different professors at different times during my career and I left the employment of the first two under positive terms.
I also knew some people in industry in my field. These weren’t pre-existing contacts that my parents made – I made them. I took the time to meet professors and people in industry and try to get to know them and become useful to them.
I also engaged in a ton of career-oriented extracurricular activities. I became the president of a community organization directly related to my field of study and participated in a few others.
I also completed some really noteworthy projects, none of them class-related. Two of them originated from my final job working for that professor, but others were done in my spare time. It was one of those projects that really helped me cinch my first job after college.
If I did not have these extra things, I would not have been able to find employment so easily. The degree helped, don’t get me wrong, but that degree just helped me get by the first pass of the hiring process. It was the other things – the professional network and letters of recommendation, the career-oriented groups and activities I spent my time on, the relevant projects I managed to complete and participated in – that made the difference.
You can add those things to your resume no matter where you went to school, no matter what you studied, and no matter where you are in your career. Those things are the things that set you apart in the hiring process.
Financially Successful Viewpoint #6: My ‘Future Self’ Will Bail Me Out
No matter how screwed up my financial and professional life was, I never really worried about it too much. Why? I believed in my magical imaginary friend that I called my “future self.”
My “future self” would be earning a lot more than me. My “future self” will solve all of my problems. My “future self” will make all of these mistakes go away.
My “future self” allowed me to make horrendous financial mistakes.
Financially Successful Counterpoint #6: There Is No ‘Future Self’ – There Is Only You
Eventually, I realized the truth. There was no “future self.” There was only me.
The only way I was ever going to escape from my financial problems was through my own actions and choices. There was never going to be some magical “me” from the future that would just fix everything. There was only the real me – the present me.
If I wanted a better future, I had to change how I acted. I had to change the choices I was making. I had to behave better.
So, yes, in a way, my “future self” did bail me out, but the truth was that my “future self” was the person I could have been all along. It was just the same old me, except that I was figuring out how to make better choices that would build up to a better future for myself rather than the same old choices that led to the same old future.
The opportunity to become that better “future self” was on the table all the time. All I had to do was make the decision to pick it up and become that better person.
The biggest difference between my financially troubled self and my financially disastrous self is actually a pretty simple one.
My financially troubled self always looked for someone else to blame for his troubles. It was society’s fault. It was the luck of rich people. It was this. It was that.
My financially successful self realized that virtually everything I have in life is up to me. It doesn’t matter if society makes things a little harder for me. I can overcome it. It doesn’t matter if someone else is born with more than me. I can overcome it.
All I have to do is make better choices than the average person. I need to work hard and not spend my money on stuff that is fleeting.
As I write this, it’s six in the morning and there’s a birthday to celebrate in my family. Because I’m willing to work hard, I’m up really early to get my work out of the way first so that I can spend time celebrating that birthday. Because I’m spending my money smarter, the person is going to only open a few gifts, but those gifts are going to matter.
If I compare that to how my financially disastrous self would have spent today, I would have slept in, filled the day with work, and had a ramshackle birthday celebration compressed into a really short timeframe, and it would have involved a bunch of forgettable presents that cost far more than what I spent on today’s actual gifts.
Instead, I chose to work harder. I chose to make better choices.
And that has made all the difference.