Looking Ahead

We are living through an unprecedented moment in modern history, the type of moment that we tell our children and grandchildren about in the future. The world will have likely changed in notable ways between the time I write this and the time you’re reading it. It feels unbelievable and scary and confusing all at the same time. This is an incredible chapter in the history of our lives, individually and collectively.

Yet, for almost all of us, it’s not the last chapter.

As this moment passes and life returns to some level of normalcy (likely with some changes, though those remain to be seen), many of the familiar cycle of life will return with it.

We’ll return to work in a more normal way. We’ll return to school. We’ll return to our houses of worship. We’ll gather again in our public places. We’ll travel. We’ll meet up with friends. We’ll have parties.

That sense of normalcy might feel far distant from the current moment for many of us, but it is out there, down the road.

This moment provides us a chance to step back and look at things in a broader scope, to reassess what’s actually important to each and every one of us, and to make some decisions and choices about what kind of life we will return to.

It’s certainly a time in which most of us can reboot a lot of our spending habits. By simply falling out of a lot of our spending routines that we became accustomed to in recent years, we have a unique opportunity to question every one of them. Do we really need to be stopping at the coffee shop every morning, or is it a treat? Do we really need to fall back in a routine of frequent stops at that store?

It’s a time where we can reconsider our career choices. Are we on the right path? For many people, there may be some very difficult professional moments and decisions coming in the near future. What can you do to make yourself more valuable? What can you do to make your work more meaningful?

It’s a time where we can reconsider our personal choices, to make healthier choices for ourselves going forward and avoid falling into a pattern of overexertion and unhealthiness. I know that there are times when I feel completely strung out from all of the demands in my own life, and I’m doing my best to use this moment, when so many things are closed and cancelled, to reboot and reconsider a lot of those commitments and choices.

It’s a time to reconsider everything. It’s a time to look ahead and think about the future we want for ourselves and for those around us. It’s a time to establish new habits and new life routines that might prove more sustainable, so that we don’t find ourselves nearly over the lip of the cliff when things go haywire, as they inevitably will again in a more personal way for each of us at some point.

Many of us are living a very locked-down life right now. We’re staying at home, practicing social distancing the best we can, and doing our best to wait out this moment in time.

Eventually, the page will turn. We’ll start slowly returning to life. Some of us are still working, and others will return to work and school. We’ll go to stores again. We’ll go to those gathering places again.

Which old routines are worth bringing back? Which ones are better left in the past, now that we’ve broken out of the cycle for a while?

These are the thoughts that have been cycling through my head the past week or so, as our nation and our world has gradually locked itself down in an effort to flatten the curve and slow an overwhelming flood from hitting our essential services.

In this current moment, I can’t do much. I can follow my daily routine. I can follow the social distancing guidelines. I can stay at home. I can do my best to stay healthy. I can keep working from home, as I’m lucky enough to have had a work-from-home job for the past 12 years.

Like so many of you, however, many of my routines have changed, and I’m left with more free time than I’m used to. I’ve thrown myself into a lot of different projects and am doing lots of little things to keep myself sane, but I’ve found that dwelling on the present moment, particularly in terms of things I can’t actually do anything about, does me little good. I do what I can… and then what?

My answer is to let my mind move ahead to the next chapter.

What will my life look like as things return to normal? What routines do I want to restore? Which ones do I want to leave in the dustbin of the past?

What routines did I have that really brought value into my life? What other routines do I see now, from the vantage point of a break, as being something I kept up with out of inertia, something that really didn’t bring a whole lot of value to me?

The routines that brought value, those are the ones I want to bring back. The new routines I’m finding right now, those are the ones I want to keep. The old routines that didn’t bring any value? Those need to go into the dustbin of history.

The answers to these questions are going to look a little different to everyone. Here are some of my own answers.

I want to stick with a healthier sleep schedule, even if that means giving up some things I used to do outside the home. I’ve been really leaning into this, since I’m not bending my sleep schedule around school schedules and other activities, and it’s been incredible. I want to protect it going forward.

I’m going to give up a lot of hobby spending, now that I truly realize how plentiful my hobby options within the walls of my home already are. I have tons and tons and tons of hobby options already. Spending more seems… wasteful.

I have little desire to eat at a restaurant ever again. Going to restaurants was a semi-occasional routine for me and for my family, often done because it was convenient. Simply cutting it out and eating food prepared at home has made me more deeply appreciate what we make at home, and I’m wanting to make choices so that I can almost always eat what I prepare myself (or what Sarah prepares), aside from moments of travel.

A lot of the incidental spending that I do is wasteful, in general. I look back at a credit card bill from a few months ago and I just shrug my shoulders at almost all of the expenses that aren’t essential. I don’t intend to return to any of those patterns.

I recognize how much I value the process of writing — developing ideas, taking down notes, turning that into an outline and then into an article — and how much I value the daily routine of it, even if there are times in which I would rather do “fun” things. I think that, even when I retire, I’m going to want a daily routine of writing, at least for a few hours each day, though I’ll have much more freedom in what I write and how fast I produce it.

I genuinely enjoy the feeling I get from helping people. I’m going to lean in even more to volunteerism and just helping people in my life and community without thinking about what it gets me in return.

With those ideas, what kind of life am I designing for myself? What does my life look like, looking ahead?

In this moment, when I can’t do much about the present, looking ahead with an eye toward fixing the inadequacies of the past is a powerful thing to do. It feels healthier and more empowering than dwelling on the present.

What will your next chapter look like? Use this window to sit down and really think about things. What parts of your life, as it was before, really matter to you? Which ones were you just sticking with out of tired routine? What lifts you up? What doesn’t? How can you add more of the things that lift you up, and remove the things that do not?

And, through all of it, how can you maintain a good foundation of financial (and personal) health that will last?

Those are questions to think about in this time, and they’re questions we’ll be digging into in the coming weeks.

Good luck.

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.