Intimidated by the Mistakes of the Past

On October 4, 2010, I made a choice to switch to a vegan diet due to health reasons and the recommendation of a dietician due to those reasons. It was a difficult choice, one that seemed almost impossible at the time.

On the first evening after the decision, I sat down to a final non-vegan supper with my family. As I ate the meal, I almost couldn’t imagine a diet without this stuff in it. No meat? No cheese? No milk? What good stuff would I eat?

I was intimidated by the mistakes of the past. I was so stuck on a set of personally damaging routines that I didn’t want to imagine life without them.

In January 2008, I hung up the phone after a phone conversation with my wife. On that phone conversation, I listened to my son repeatedly ask me when I was going to be home. I was on yet another work-related trip, you see. After I hung up the phone, I cried, because I felt like I was becoming the type of absent father I had always promised myself I wouldn’t become.

I knew I had to find another path in life, but the possibility of doing that scared me to my core. What would I do for income? Would I actually be good at being an increasingly important caregiver for my children? Would I have any self-respect without this job?

I was intimidated by the mistakes of the past. I was so stuck on a definition of what I should be professionally that I was damaging my relationship with my children, the one thing I promised myself I’d never do.

In April 2006, I stayed up through most of a very long night realizing that we were in a very, very deep financial hole. Simply put, we were spending more than we were bringing in and it was becoming unsustainable.

As I sat there, I tried to imagine a lifestyle where we didn’t spend as much as we were spending. I almost couldn’t conceive of it? Give up all of this stuff?

Again, I was intimidated by the mistakes of the past. I was so stuck on how my life had been for the past few years that I couldn’t bear to think of anything truly different from that pattern.

It is our routines and our ongoing mistakes that define us, in a way. Every one of us makes mistakes. The ones that repeat those mistakes, even when they see that those moves are in deep error, are the ones that wind up in deep trouble.

Most of the emails I receive from readers boil down to this very thing. They’re trapped by the mistakes and patterns of their past. They’ve done things a certain way for a long time and now they’re learning that this certain way doesn’t work, but the thought of abandoning that path and trying another one seems scary. It seems impossible to some.

It’s not.

You can make the changes in your life that you need to make.

If someone with a 500 DVD collection and a 200 video game collection can change his spending habits to buy perhaps five of either one in a year, then you can change your life.

If someone who practically couldn’t get through a meal without a healthy dose of meat and/or cheese can become vegan, you can make a big change in your life, too.

Yes, it’s hard. There is no real change in life that isn’t incredibly hard. We are all people of routines, whether we like it or not. Even those with a varied life do them within the context of routines.

Don’t be intimidated by the choices and mistakes of your past.

Just because you’ve always shopped for clothes at boutique shops doesn’t mean you can’t find a perfectly serviceable set of clothes at Goodwill.

Just because you’ve spent the last four years at a comfortable yet stressful job doesn’t mean you can’t quit and find something that doesn’t leave you eating antacids all day long.

Just because you’ve gained a lot of weight since college doesn’t mean you can’t practice some portion control, eat more vegetables, drink water, and start gently exercising via walks in the evening.

Just because you’ve bought five computer games a month for the past three years doesn’t mean you can’t spend your time actually playing these games instead of buying more of them.

Just because you’ve lost the person you thought was going to be the love of your life doesn’t mean you have to sit at home every single night waiting for nothing more than the next day to start.

Your past is your past. It’s full of mistakes. My past is full of a lot of them – the list above just scratches the surface of the idiotic things I’ve done and the idiotic things I continue to do.

Your past is not your present. Every moment, you have the opportunity to make a different choice. With every beverage you drink. With every meal you eat. With every moment you sit alone. With every time you consider a purchase. With every substance you consume. With every hour spent giving your energy and ideas to some soulless company that will spit you out at the first opportunity.

Change. Right now. And don’t look back.

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.