Some Advice for When You’re Losing Motivation for Your Financial Plans

For the past ten days or so, two of my closest friends have been visiting Iceland together. They’ve shared some stunning pictures of hot springs, auroras, the city life of Reykjavik, and other things.

I’ve been enjoying the pictures and I’m glad they got the chance to make the trip, but there’s a sizable portion of me that wants to be there, too. I would love to just take off to Iceland for a week and a half with my family in tow, just to explore and enjoy.

“Why don’t you do that? You can afford it!” whispers the little voice in my head.

I explain to that voice the multitude of reasons I have for my current financial plans and it goes quiet, but eventually it’ll pipe up again.

Eventually, part of me starts to wonder whether my financial plans really are worth it.

Is our route to financial independence really the route I should be on with my life? Or am I missing out on a lot of things in an effort to retire relatively young and with security?

It’s in moments like these when the motivation to stay on my current financial path starts to flag a little. I feel a strong tug toward the things I could be doing, and I also begin to wonder whether what I am doing is the right path for my life.

It’s in these moments that I look back to the times over the last several years when I’ve lost motivation and doubted my path. Here are six key strategies that have helped me get through those moments in time.

Am I Really Unhappy? Evaluate My Life

I tend to lose motivation for financial progress due to moments in time where I convince myself that my life could be better if I were doing things differently. “If only I were…” goes the refrain. For example, here the refrain was “if only I were traveling more, my life would be better.” At other times, the refrain has been “if only I were more involved with a particular hobby (meaning buying more stuff for that hobby), my life would be better,” or “if only I felt more free to buy whatever I wanted in the moment, my life would be better.”

If I can articulate my feeling in that way, then I just step back and evaluate that feeling seriously. Would my life genuinely be better than it is now if I were traveling a lot? Or, in the other cases, would my life genuinely be better if I were buying a lot more hobby stuff? Would my life genuinely be better if I let myself buy whatever I wanted in the moment all the time?

The thing is, when I sit down and consider what I actually value most about my life, the answer almost always ends up being “no.” My life wouldn’t be better if I was traveling a lot, even if it were just long trips during the summer with my whole family, because aside from maybe one trip a year, I really don’t enjoy travel very much. I absolutely hated it during the three or four years in my life when I did travel all the time. My life wouldn’t be better if I spent more buying hobby stuff – it would just be more stuff that would end up taking up space in our home. My life wouldn’t be better if I just bought whatever I wanted on the whim of the moment – again, the vast majority of it would be purely short term and it would end up filling up our house with a bunch of unwanted stuff.

The thing is, when I initially consider these kinds of changes, I’m always looking straight at the upside of those changes. I’m looking at how much fun my friends are having in Iceland and I want that fun in my life, too. I’m looking at some item on the shelf that I want right now in my life. I’m envisioning that a hobby item will somehow equate to more time in my life spent on that hobby.

What I’m not looking at is the downside of those changes. If I travel more, my life becomes more logistically challenging than it already is, and I truly love pure downtime at this point in my life. If I buy more stuff, then I have more stuff to store and to deal with and to take care of, and I have even less time for all of the stuff I already have that I yearn to have more time with.

Plus, in all cases, I have less money for the future, something that’s hit on even stronger with the other strategies.

In all of this, a key realization starts peeking through: my life is really pretty good as it is right now. I have my health. I have a sound mind. I have a family that genuinely loves me, and some close friends that care deeply for me, too. I have a home to live in. I have steady work that I value. I have hobbies that I enjoy and access to the supplies I need to engage in those hobbies. It’s really a pretty good life. There’s nothing I can really add that would make it significantly better than it is right now, at least not anything without a heavy counterbalancing cost.

What Happens If You Give Up? Consider the Near Future and Whether It Bring Happiness

Let’s say that I do commit to the change I have in mind. I start spending money on the thing I want to spend money on freely. What does it change about my life in the short term?

I consider going on a big elaborate trip with my family. It seems fun in my mind, but in the aftermath of that trip, how has it really changed my life for the better? When I’m sitting back in my home office after that trip, is my life really better in any lasting or meaningful way? Perhaps it is because I spent some quality time with my family, but couldn’t I spend that same quality time doing something locally and achieve the same family bonding? Perhaps I had some new experiences, but I barely touch on the variety of human experience available to me right now anyway. I don’t need to travel halfway around the world to meet people very different than myself, see things I’ve never seen before, eat foods I’ve never tried before. They’re all available near me if I bother stepping outside the ordinary routines of my life.

I consider buying a bunch of new stuff. I’m probably going to enjoy that stuff, but most of it is just going to wind up taking up space in my closet. At some point, I’m going to be just digging through it, wondering why on earth I bought it, and trying to figure out if it has resale value or whether I can just toss it. It’s only a very small fraction of the stuff that I buy that will wind up being a daily part of my life, as has been true with virtually everything I have ever purchased.

In both cases, I recognize that the change that I want to introduce into my life is really only going to bring a short burst of happiness and then fade into nothingness. At what cost is that burst, though? What am I giving up in order to have that burst of happiness?

Are You Happy in Five Years? Consider the Future Path

I’ve established that my life, as it is, is pretty good. I’ve also established that the changes I’m considering are really just short term bursts of happiness. What about the long term, though? How do those changes affect my life further down the road?

The truth is that money spent on unimportant things today have a lasting negative impact that I’ll regret in five years. If I spend a bunch of money right now, I’m going to miss that money in five years because the lack of money will be preventing me from doing something meaningful, or push that meaningful thing further down the road.

Right now, my big dream is financial independence, which basically means no longer having money as a reason to do a day’s work. I want to be in a state where I don’t need to exchange my time and energy for money; when I do trade my time and energy, it’s purely for other results – the joy of creating something, or the sense of achievement or accomplishment, or a desire to make the world a better place.

When I spend money right now, I push that big dream further down the road in a measurable and quantifiable way. I can sit down and actually add up all of the non-essential purchases I’ve made in the last year and actually see how that sum total has pushed off my big dream. Let’s say I spent $10K on completely forgettable things – eating out, silly hobby stuff, silly incidental things, spontaneous little purchases. If I do that every year, then I’m literally pushing off my financial independence goal by more than a decade (compared to spending $0). Trust me – I’ve run the math on this.

Spending money on ill-considered things is going to keep me working at a job for another decade of my life.

Five years down the road, if I start on a path of spending a lot of money on travel, or on hobbies, or on impulsive things, I’ll have to face the fact that because of those purchases, I’m now going to be working for years longer than I would have if I hadn’t done it.

At the same time, I’ll look at all of the stuff I spent money on and I will have forgotten almost all of it. Even the stuff I haven’t forgotten will be mostly jammed away in a cupboard or a closet. I might have some really good memories, but they’re likely just replacements for other good memories I could have had doing other things, because the source of most of my good memories is simple things or time spent with people I care about.

There is almost never any sort of spending initiative that I have that makes me feel as though life will be better five years from now if I jump on board with that spending today. I can think of very little outside of covering the bare necessities of life that will seem like a really worthwhile purchase five years from now.

What else can I consider when I’m losing motivation?

What’s Driving You Down? The Five Whys Applied

Almost always, the loss of motivation to keep on a financial path is coming from some source of unhappiness about the state of one’s life right now. There’s some element of your life that you’re unhappy with and you feel as though walking away from your financial progress and freeing up your spending will fix whatever the source of that unhappiness is.

Thus, one great strategy is to simply dig into that unhappiness. Why exactly are you feeling unhappy with the state of things in your life?

For me, I came to realize that my desire for travel came from two things. First, I have often lately felt overburdened in my day to day life. There are too many things going on at once that I have to manage (though many of these things are very much short term things that will disappear in the next month or two). A big trip to another country feels like an escape from that burden.

Second, I feel like I don’t have as much time for my friends as I used to have. This is part of the cost of being an involved parent. I recognize that if Sarah and I were childless, we possibly could have gone on that trip with our friends, but it would have been enjoyable in large part due to the friendship.

Both of those things are concerns in my life that are largely non-financial. They are concerns that won’t really be fixed by simply throwing money at the problem. Spending money on those things by buying an expensive trip or something like that won’t really fix the underlying concern. Rather, that concern is fixed by considering how I commit time and energy in my life.

I find that such revelations become clear if I spend time in focused self-reflection. As I’ve mentioned before, I write in a journal quite often, usually using the “morning pages” technique where I just open up a journal in the morning with a pen in hand and write about whatever’s front of mind. You might find other ways that work for you, but self-reflection is a valuable technique.

I often use a technique I call “the five whys” to drill down into things. I ask myself why I feel a particular way about something, and then I ask myself the same thing about my answer to that question, and then I do it again, and again, and again. Eventually, I drill down into something deep and powerful and meaningful that’s spread throughout a lot of areas of my life, and addressing that core issue in a meaningful way has far more positive impact than just throwing money at the surface issue.

Quite often, you’ll find that the reason for your loss of financial motivation has little to do with actual finances and has a lot to do with some other area of your life, and it represents a problem or challenge that’s not really fixed by simply redirecting your money use.

What’s the Bigger Picture? Look Outside of Yourself

When I start to feel demotivated when it comes to my own financial plans, I find that I need to step back and look at the bigger picture. The truth is that my financial plans aren’t just my own financial plans. At the very least, my wife Sarah is intimately involved in my financial goals, and to a slightly lesser extent, so are my children. My parents are involved to a small extent, and beyond that, so are some of my closest friends. They are all impacted if I start making major changes to how I spend my money, and often not in a good way.

If I start spending recklessly, Sarah’s retirement is also delayed. She also is going to have to spend more years working, not just me.

Depending on the financial choices that I make in terms of how I redirect money into spending, it can take away from the money we’re saving for our children’s college education. Furthermore, postponing our retirement does have an impact on our children’s early adult lives. Sarah and I have both experienced how hard it can be without supportive family nearby when you’re raising young children and part of our retirement plan is to actually move relatively near our own children and be “support” for them and for our grandchildren while doing other things in that area.

There are a lot of secondary and tertiary effects that result from abandoning our financial plans, and when I start looking at all of those effects, I really don’t like what I see.

What’s the Routine? Alter It

In the end, all of this thinking almost always leads me to the conclusion that the right fix for financial malaise is to start altering my time use, not my money use. These feelings almost always result from me not using my time and energy in alignment with the things I most want to be achieving in life and getting out of life, and throwing money around is like putting a small bandage on a gaping wound.

As I think about my current crossroads – the desire to travel more – and I recognize that it’s really about a sense that I’m not spending enough time with friends and that I feel overburdened right now, I realize that the fix for those things is in a change of how I use my time. I need to recommit from a thing or two in my life and then fill in some of that found time with more time spent with my closest friends. That’s not a financially oriented change. I’ve come to the conclusion that a financially oriented change would actually make my feelings worse, not better.

Each time I’ve been at these crossroads, the best solution has been to alter my daily and weekly and monthly routines. Usually, I’ve committed too much time and energy to one part of my life and I’m starting to feel the deficit in other areas of my life. When I simply wanted to spend more freely, I had committed too much time and energy to my professional life and had drawn it from several other areas at once. When I wanted to spend more on hobbies, I had committed too much time and energy to community commitments and not enough time and energy to hobbies and personal interests. Right now, I’ve committed too much time and energy to several areas of my life and not enough time and energy to my social connections.

In the past, fixing that imbalance quickly eliminated my sense of lost motivation for my financial plans because I fixed the problem through other means. I think that, in the coming months, that will be true once again.

Final Thoughts

If you’re feeling demotivated with your finances, spend some time really thinking about why you’re feeling that way. What is it that you want to spend that money on besides your financial future? What do you want that change to bring into your life? Will it really bring that change that you seek? What will be the negative consequences of that change, not just for you, but the other people in your life? Is the real root cause of all of this a misplaced use of time and energy?

For me, following that path of questioning in a serious and thoughtful manner almost always brings me to the conclusion that my financial demotivation and poor spending choices are attempts to solve a problem that’s much more effectively solved by simply redirecting my time and energy and focus, and when I make a concerted effort to redirect that time and energy and focus in a more meaningful way, my financial motivation almost always rebounds, because I never actually lose sight of the big picture of why I’m on this financial path. I just get distracted by the pain of my misdirected time and energy use.

If you feel demotivated, do the same. Ask yourself what it is you’re hoping to buy, and whether or not money is really the right way to buy it. You might find a pretty refreshing answer if you give those questions the time and seriousness they deserve.

Good luck!

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.