I Want to Improve My Finances, But I Just Don’t Have the Time…

I’ve written in the past about the “sandwich generation” – the group of people who are “sandwiched” between their children (the younger generation, or the lower crust of the “sandwich”) and the cost needed to raise them and their parents (the older generation, or the upper crust of the “sandwich”) and the costs and effort needed to help them in their later years. I’ve also offered some direct financial advice for people in that situation.

However, as I’ve noticed in my own life and in the lives of quite a few of my friends who also find themselves in this “sandwich generation,” one of the biggest issues working against us is time. Our careers need time and attention. Our children need time and attention. Our parents need time and attention. We need to give time and attention to our own basic needs – personal health, mental self-care, basic physiology like sleep and eating. That can lead many in the sandwich generation to often feel like they don’t have time for anything, because all of those things listed – career, children, marriage, parents, and basic self care – can easily grow to eat up all available time, leaving you with almost nothing.

The Two Elements for Taking Care of What Matters

Time and time again, I’ve found that if there is something truly important in your life that you really want or need to make room for, you need two key ingredients to make that happen: commitment and willpower.

Commitment is simply a recognition that the thing that you truly want or need is more deserving of your time than some of the other ways you’re using your time. What are you committed to that’s more important to you than your financial future? If there are things you are committing time to that are less important to you than stable finances, then cut enough of those things so that you have time to devote to patching up your finances. If you can’t find anything, then you should accept that finances simply aren’t important enough to you to make a commitment to them.

Willpower is the ability to stick to your commitments. You might commit to something in concept or on paper, but actually making it happen in your life is hard. What are you spending your money on that’s more important to you than your financial future? What are you actually spending your time on that’s more important to you than your financial future?

So, how do you actually do this?

My practice, as I’ve mentioned before, is to block off time for things I care about and stick to that schedule. If something is important to me, I block off time for it.

I have a block of time for work each day, but when that block is done, I don’t let it bleed into the rest of my life. I usually leave an untouched block in the evening and I’ll pick up work in the evening if something else needs to be done. I block off time for my kids. I block off time for my wife. I block off time for my hobbies and a bit of self-care. I block off time for household chores and for managing my finances and for doing frugal tasks.

Those things are all important to me, so I literally schedule them each day and stick to that schedule. When “work time” ends at about 3:30 on a given day, I stop working and I do whatever’s next on my schedule (usually time with my kids). At 4:30 or whatever, I move to the next thing I have scheduled (usually making dinner). I sit down each Sunday and roughly block out the week, then I sit down a couple times each day and smooth out any rough edges. That’s literally how I enforce my commitments to myself – I trust my schedule and live by it, with time blocked out for the things I’m committed to.

Other systems might work well for you, but it’s that system that works for me. It helps me make sure that I’m making time for the things that are really important and I don’t let them slack off over time.

It is through commitment to something that’s important to me (personal finance, in this example) and the willpower to stick to a schedule that provides time for it, that I find time to improve my financial state.

This might sound reasonable on paper, but how does it actually work in practice? Let’s run through five actual examples of how this works in my life – and I’m sure that many of these will feel similar to your life, too.

Example #1: Meal Time!

There are times when it is extremely difficult to come up with a meal for everyone in the family. Our daily schedules are sometimes nightmarish – we often can’t fit a single week’s schedule on a full sized whiteboard. The easy solution here is for each parent to just grab takeout food when there’s an opportunity in the schedule and let each person eat when they can. The problem, of course, is that’s an expensive proposition.

Commitment Sarah and I made a commitment very early on in our parenting adventure that we would have a nightly family dinner if at all possible, and if not, we would have two family dinners in the evening, each one with whichever kid was available. We achieve this almost every night, as we find a block or two of time during which we can all eat together at home. Eating a meal at home saves us money, particularly when that meal is prepared at home – there is financial value in the family dinner as well.

This, of course, doesn’t solve the issue of actually getting that meal prepared in that narrow window. In order to do that, we have to tap a repertoire of tricks. We often have a bunch of frozen homemade meals in the freezer that we move to the refrigerator a day or two beforehand which can be easily cooked in the oven. We use our slow cooker a lot and our rice cooker a lot, as those can be set in advance and provide ready to eat food when we need it. We have a repertoire of simple meals that we know how to cook almost on autopilot, with the ingredients always on hand (spaghetti night is very popular here, for instance).

Willpower The challenge, of course, is actually doing this. One technique we’ve found that really helps is taking some of the steps for the meal in the morning as everyone’s getting ready for the day. The kids are often eating breakfast and watching me fill up the slow cooker, or else helping me find ingredients in the pantry, or something like that.

Often, many of the basic steps are done before the day begins – pots and utensils are out on the table, the table is often set for dinner, sometimes food is in the slow cooker or rice is in the rice cooker already, a meal might be thawing somewhere. The point is that by doing these tasks in the morning, I’ve already reduced the workload of that evening, plus I’ve already invested effort in the meal, which means I don’t want that effort to be wasted and so I’m likely to just follow through with it.

Another piece of this puzzle is that I’ll sometimes spend lazy Sundays making some meals in advance to store in the freezer. I’ll cook four simultaneous pans of lasagna, for example, and freeze three of them, having the fourth for dinner that evening. The other three are pulled from the freezer when a convenient meal is needed.

Another part of maintaining willpower is having an easy meal plan to follow. I can just glance at it and see what we’re having for meals each day and when things need to be pulled out of the freezer.

By having the commitment to keeping food costs low via eating at home and then having the willpower to find ways to make it work, we save quite a bit of money on food. This helps us quite a lot with our financial goals.

Example #2: Going to the Grocery Store

When you realize you need a grocery or household item – like a gallon of milk or new trash bags – the best option for overly time stressed people is to just solve this problem as directly as possible. Go to the store, get the items that are needed, snag items for the next few meals while you’re there, get home, get onto what’s next.

While that seems efficient, it’s actually pretty inefficient, particularly in terms of money. An unplanned grocery store trip is typically loaded with a lot of unplanned purchases, many of which are needless calories and many others that just go to waste because they don’t fit into any organized meal. It also doesn’t save any time over the long run versus simply blocking off time to do one big shopping trip every week or two with a clear plan in hand.

Commitment The strategy of going to the grocery store infrequently, but doing it in a way that involves making a meal plan, assembling a grocery list based on that plan and a quick home inventory, and then going to the store based on that list takes commitment. You have to plan ahead for that block of time (or split it into two smaller blocks of time). It turns the grocery store from a place where you stop incidentally a few times a week to a place you go once a week (or less often) for a big trip.

I block off two hours a week for grocery and household shopping. During that time, I assemble a meal plan for the coming week based on the grocery flyer (so that the meals are naturally centered around sale items) and sometimes plan for some make-ahead meals as well, make a grocery list based on that meal plan accounting for what we have on hand and what household items we need, and then go to the store and shop using that grocery list as my focus point. This ends up eating less time during the week than two or three unplanned and unfocused stops at the grocery store, and it saves a ton of money.

Willpower The key, as before, is actually following through with this plan. As I noted earlier, I actually block out time for this, usually on Sunday early afternoons or Monday afternoons. I schedule a two hour block on my calendar and when that time block comes around, I move through each step in our meal planning routine, from making a plan to building a list based on that plan to heading to the store with that list.

When I’m at the store, another element of willpower comes into play – keeping my focus on that list and nothing else. I know what I actually need, as it’s written on that list, so wandering down the aisles and looking at the shelves just means I’m buying stuff we don’t really need at home. Instead, I keep my nose to the grind and watch that list carefully, because doing so saves me both time and money in the store. The time I save in the store is at least somewhat matched by the time spent planning the trip, but the money savings, both from the planned grocery list and the willpower to stick with it, is tremendous.

By having the commitment to only shopping with a smart plan and having the willpower to actually assemble that plan before shopping and avoid temptations in the store, we save a ton of money in the store without actually spending more time overall.

Example #3: Dead Tired After Work

You come home from work. You’re dead tired. The last thing you want to do is look at finances or make supper or anything else. Nothing sounds better than sitting in a chair and reading social media or watching Sportscenter or something like that.

I feel that very feeling a lot of days. Most days, I start the clock at 5:30 and by the time the children are home from school and settled in, it’s 4:00, I’ve worked a full day and taken care of a bunch of other responsibilities, and I’m beat. The last thing I want to do is think about more chores. I want to zone out for a while. I’m often sorely tempted to just curl up with a book.

If I’ve learned nothing over the last few years, it’s that hour or so of “dead” time in there where a lot of the difference is made. Rather than just let that time go to waste and not get any genuine rest, I do one of two things: I either rest or I do something mindless that needs doing.

Commitment As there is for many people, there’s an hour or so in the afternoon where my energy level is low and I’m burnt out from the day. My commitment is that I either use that hour for genuine rest or I use it for a mindless activity before the busy-ness of the evening begins.

If I choose to rest, I literally go take a nap, giving my children an hour or so of free time. They usually engage in hobbies during that window. I’ll set my alarm for an hour later and try to go to sleep within ten to fifteen minutes, which usually gives me a nap that’s a perfect 45 minute sleep cycle. I wake up feeling refreshed.

If I choose not to rest, I spend the hour on activities I can do with my brain nearly shut off. I’ll do things like clean the living room or empty and reload the dishwasher or get the mail or mow the lawn. Those are things that I can do with limited mental engagement, and they usually involve me moving around which helps get me geared up for what’s to come later in the day. More importantly, it gets tasks that need to be completed out of the way, so it becomes much easier to pencil in activities on the weekend or on other weeknights because I’m “ahead” on household tasks.

Willpower The trick, of course, is that when the clock reaches 4 PM, I actually choose to rest or to do a mindless task rather than sit in a chair and stare at my phone (which ends up not being restful or useful). When the kids are home from school and the homework and after school snack is completed, I have to have the willpower to either choose rest or mindless activity, even if vegging out is more tempting.

My rule of thumb is this: If doing a mindless activity sounds truly horrible, then I need to rest. I go upstairs and just lay down for a while. If it doesn’t sound that bad, then I start on something immediately before I can talk myself out of it.

Remember, the goal here is to fill that time with something useful rather than just wasting it “vegging out” after work. Genuine rest is really useful if I’m beat.

By having the commitment to not just vegetate during my afternoon energy low point and having the willpower to actually go take a brief nap or do something, I can transform that low energy moment into time later on when I’m more focused and alert and I can make meaningful financial decisions and take on other projects that might save or earn me money.

Example #4: Kids With Too Many After School Activities

After that little lull, things often get crazy in our home. Our three children have disparate interests. While none of them are individually overfilled with activities, having three children that are into very different things (one is into soccer, another is into music, and so on) means that getting them to and from a variety of different things is a challenge. Add onto that the time and planning needed to be an active part of the community and maintain some social relationships and the schedule gets very tricky, very fast.

It can often feel like the evening hours are just as jam-packed and relentless as workdays and it can also give the sense that there is no time in the evenings for the important things, either, because you’re constantly running around to different events and putting out urgent fires.

Here, the trick isn’t so much to impose commitment and willpower on yourself, but to bring it about for everyone in the family together.

Commitment Simply have everyone in the family start putting a reasonable cap on their evening activities, capping things down to one or two core things they’re passionate about and letting go of less urgent activities (unless they’re at home and self-directed activities). Finding strong success in one or two areas is often as valuable (or more so) than finding middling success in a lot of areas, and the logistics of it are much easier to manage.

This may require some family soul-searching, but it’s a worthwhile process. We chose as a family to continue our shared family activity – taekwondo – and have each person choose one additional activity they could be involved with, excepting activities that require no extra logistics from other family members. At this moment, all three of our children have chosen soccer – but, of course, they’re in different soccer leagues. Still, it’s far better than it could be, and that makes our evenings at least somewhat easier.

Willpower The key here going forward is to not allow any other commitments to sneak in the door unless you let go of ones you already have. If you’re in soccer, you can’t add something else without dropping it; if you’re on a community committee, you can’t add something else without dropping it. That takes willpower.

The advantage, of course, is obvious – it keeps everyone less busy and lets each of us focus on being excellent at one or two things instead of filling our schedules with an overabundance of commitments, while freeing up time and energy to take care of the important but less urgent things in our lives. It’s just hard to choose between a handful of things that you care about – that takes willpower.

By having the commitment to choose a limited number of evening activities and having the willpower to actually stick to a smaller number of commitments, one spends less money and time on extracurriculars and provides focus, enabling excellence in one area instead of spreading out reduced efforts across a lot of things. Plus, it frees up time and money for other things in life.

Example #5: The Job That Never Ends

Sometimes, it can feel like work follows you everywhere. There’s something that needs to be done in the early morning. There’s something that needs to be done in the evening. A client or a customer calls you at some absurd hour. It can feel like your job never ends, because work always grows to fill up all of the space that you give to it.

That, right there, reveals the truth of the matter: If you let work grow to fill all of your time, then it will fill all of your time.

The key thing to remember here is that the more hours you throw at a project, the lower the quality of each hour becomes. You only have so many hours of quality output a day and when you get beyond that, your work becomes very low quality, whether you realize it or not. Rather than squeezing in another hour to limp across the finish line with slow, unproductive work, you’re far better off simply ignoring it entirely until you’re fully rested, at which point you’ll finish off your project in short order.

How do you do that? It’s actually pretty easy, and it works at virtually every job. If you choose not to do this, it’s your choice, but you’re choosing to give your job priority over everything else in your life.

Commitment When your work day ends, turn off your computer. Turn off your cell phone. Turn off your email. Turn all of it off and focus on the other important elements in your life. If you miss an important email, it can wait.

Yes, there are jobs where you do need to be on call during certain periods, but when you are not strictly on call, you should turn off your computer and your email and your work notifications entirely.

Those things are unimportant. You already give half or more of your working hours to work. There is more to life than your work, plus you can’t produce work very well if you’re exhausted and don’t recharge. The only way to recharge is to turn entirely away from that work sometimes – or else accept that your entire life is work. If you simply cannot turn off notifications and work alerts, then your life is work, period, and it is the only priority. That’s not a healthy long term situation as it’s virtually guaranteed to throw your whole life out of balance – trust me, I’ve been there. It will collapse, and it will be disastrous. You are far better off learning how to shut things off for a while now than to wait until you collapse or you’ve taken on more than anyone can simultaneously handle, because that will be a far, far worse situation for everyone involved.

Willpower Of course, the trick is actually doing it, and it’s scary to do it at first. You feel like there’s so much to do, or that there will be this urgent email that must be handled immediately.

Guess what? If you work on that big pile when you’re already worn down, you won’t make much of a difference to that pile and the work you produce will be mediocre, plus the multitude of other things in your life will sit around untouched, too. If you miss that urgent email and don’t answer it until tomorrow morning, the world is not going to end (again, unless you’re on a strict on-call situation that’s a normal part of your work).

By having the commitment to turn off work some of the time and give your complete focus to other parts of your life and having the willpower to actually flip that “off” switch regularly, you’ll free up your sanity and your ability to engage with the other parts of your life. Not doing this results in not only a high chance of financial failure, but failure in almost every other sphere of your life.

Final Thoughts

The reality is this: If you truly want something in life, you will only achieve it with commitment and willpower. You have to commit to making this a priority, and you have to have the willpower to make it happen. Without both, you won’t be able to achieve financial change in your life – it will always be secondary and you won’t achieve big success.

For me, the most powerful tool in commitment is my schedule. I block off time for everything that’s important to me, and many of the tasks listed above are ones that I find important enough to block off time for. Quite often, that time is recouped from other places by being organized – I genuinely feel like I spend less time taking care of my priorities because I have that calendar that helps me figure out what to do throughout the day. Again, you may find a better approach than this that works for you, but look for some system that helps you manage your commitments to the things that are most important to you.

The most powerful tool for willpower for me, honestly, is being present in the moment. My calendar tells me what I should be doing right now, but am I actually present in the moment? Am I focused on what I’m supposed to be doing and doing it well? The better I am at being present in the moment, the easier it becomes to achieve all of those little financial steps that lead us to our goals. I “train” this kind of presence in the moment through daily meditation and journaling – yes, this eats up some time each day, but I’m repaid over and over again by my ability to focus in the moment.

Start bringing those tools into your life. Find ways to bring commitment and willpower to your financial life. This might involve thinking about your priorities and perhaps de-emphasizing some things in your life, but that’s a natural and healthy process. Figure out what’s important, even if it’s not urgent, and make those important things a priority.

Your finances will thank you. Your whole life will thank you.

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Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.