Almost every self-improvement goal, whether it’s straightening out your finances or losing weight or getting yourself fit or earning a challenging degree or getting a black belt, comes down to two elements: the fight and the results.
The fight is the journey to get there. It’s the work you put in. It’s the struggle against internal signals telling you to quit and encouraging you to be lazy.
The results are what you see when you win that fight. It’s the outcome you can show to the rest of the world.
The fight is internal. It’s a battle inside of you, above all else. Are you willing to overcome the resistance inside of you, the voice telling you that you can’t do this, the desire to be lazy, the negative habits you’ve built up over the years? That’s an internal battle.
The results are external. The results are what most of us want when we get into the fight. We want to have that trimmer waistline. We want to have that degree. We want to have no debts. We want to have that black belt. They’re things we can look at to tell ourselves that we did it and to show others that we did it.
There are two main approaches to winning the fight and getting the results.
One approach is to simply survive the fight, to push through it every day, to look for shortcuts to get to the results quickly, even if it’s not sustainable. Think of a crash diet or a thirty day money challenge or a series of all-nighters to finish a project. This project is often littered with shortcuts, unsustainable leaps toward the desired results.
That’s a path that will often get you some positive result fairly quickly at a specific moment in time. If your goal is to look as thin as possible for your friend’s wedding or to get approved for a mortgage or to get a particular project don reasonably well and on time or to simply get caught up on all of your bills, then the “survive the fight” strategy is probably a good choice.
The only problem is that when you merely “survive the fight,” you are virtually guaranteed to fall back from that result and not sustain it. A crash diet never leads to lasting weight loss on its own. A hyper-frugal month and selling off a bunch of stuff never leads to lasting financial stability on its own.
Why? Because you didn’t really win the fight. Rather, you just lasted through a few rounds of taking lots of punches.
“Surviving the fight” is great if you just want to be a person who looks sort of healthy for the wedding. A different approach is needed if you want to be a healthy person.
“Surviving the fight” is great if you just want to get caught up on your bills. A different approach is needed if you want to be a financially stable person.
“Surviving the fight” is great if you just want to get that report in on time. A different approach is needed if you want to be a valuable employee who naturally earns and deserves raises.
That “different approach” is all about creating a system for your life that produces the results you want. That’s where you don’t just survive the fight, but you win the fight, and the one after that, and the one after that. The results you want just magically appear, time and time again.
The problem is that it’s a lot harder to begin with (taking perseverance) and results are often slow to appear (taking patience), and we live in a society that does not seemingly value perseverance or patience very much.
So what is a system that produces results?
It Starts With Who You Are
The fundamental difference between surviving the fight and getting quick but non-lasting results versus winning the fight and getting lasting results starts with defining who you are.
Are you a financially stable person, or are you a person looking to just get their bills paid for the moment?
Are you a fit and healthy person, or are you just looking to squeeze into some clothes for a big event?
Are you a successful professional, or are you just looking to get that project done and keep skating by?
That’s a fundamental choice, and I’m not going to say that one choice is the right one for everyone. Some people enjoy a lot of life’s expensive momentary pleasures and value that more than lasting financial success. Some people want to put in the minimal effort to get a paycheck and keep their job. Some people want to look good at the wedding and eat extravagantly the rest of the time. Those are valid choices. It depends on what you want out of life.
When I started my own financial turnaround, for example, my initial aim was to just get caught up and ahead on our bills. I didn’t really have any major life changes on my radar at all. I read some specific strategies for getting out of debt, mostly Dave Ramsey stuff, and I just threw myself into those. I wasn’t a financially stable person. I was just looking to get my bills paid for the moment.
What changed? How did I decide to go from being a person who just wanted to get my bills paid up to being someone far along the path to financial independence?
It’s simple. I decided I wanted to not just be a dude who had his bills paid. I wanted to be a financially successful person with a lasting financial foundation under me. That was a key decision. I changed my vision of who I was.
What Does a Successful Person Do?
The question then becomes: what does a person who is successful in this way do every day to be successful?
What does a financially successful person do every day to move forward their financial success?
What does a healthy and fit person do every day to move forward their health and fitness?
What does a professionally successful person do every day to move forward their career?
What does a great parent do every day to move forward their parenting skills?
What does a great partner do every day to sustain a great lasting relationship?
That’s the thing: it’s an every day (or close to it), permanent thing.
Getting caught up on your bills is something you can do for two or three months and then you’re done. Being a financially successful person is a permanent change that is a permanent alteration of your daily routines.
Squeezing into those clothes for the wedding is something you can pull off in eight weeks. Being a healthy and fit person is a permanent change that is a permanent alteration of your daily routines.
That’s the key word: permanent. Going from being an ordinary person to being a financially successful person or a healthy person or whatever the case might be means that you’re going to alter your daily routines, forever.
You want to alter them in such a way that a normal day is one where you’re taking steps, either directly or indirectly, toward being what you’ve decided that you are. You’re no longer a financial train wreck. You’re a financially successful person cleaning up a mess. You’re no longer an unhealthy mess. You’re a healthy person cleaning up a mess that will eventually be cleaned up and then you’re just a healthy person.
The Misery Factor
The stumbling block that many people run into when facing this is the idea that they are consigning themselves to “misery” for the rest of their entire life.
I can’t buy anything fun for the rest of my life?
I have to eat like this for the rest of my life?
I have to exercise like this every day for the rest of my life?
If those are the kinds of feelings you’re having, one of two things is going on.
One, you value other aspects of your life more than the role you supposedly want. You love gourmet food more than you love the idea of a healthy body. You love spending on splurges more than you love the idea of being financially stable.
If that’s you, that’s okay, but accept that. You can’t do one thing and expect completely contradictory results. If you love to eat delicious high-calorie foods and want it to be part of your daily life, you should expect a constantly excited palate, but you shouldn’t expect a thin waistline. If the activities you are most focused on enjoying in life require constant purchases, you shouldn’t expect financial stability. You are choosing one life role over another one when the two are in direct conflict, and that’s okay. That’s a personal choice based on what you value.
The other possibility is that you are choosing a lifestyle change or routine that’s beyond your current capacity. Going from being almost entirely sedentary to multi-hour extreme workouts every single day is very likely to be miserable. Going from eating whatever you want to a carefully planned 1400 calorie per day diet is very likely to be miserable.
Trying to live up to such extreme change, particularly when such extreme change is a permanent one, has a very good chance of leaving you with negative feelings about the whole thing, and negative feelings are extremely damaging to personal change.
You are much better finding sustainable patterns that lead to slowly emerging positive results than unsustainable ones that can produce faster results but leave you with strong negative feelings. Why? Those negative feelings result in a big backlash where you end up just rolling back to previous patterns that you were unhappy with (but they’re probably a little less unhappy than the radical changes you added to your life).
So, let’s sum it up. If you want to win the fight and keep winning, you need to redefine who you are. If you want to win the personal finance fight, you have to view yourself as a financially successful person. That means answering the question “What does a financially successful person do each day?” and applying that every day going forward. If you find it too difficult, find smaller steps and work up to it, but you have to keep taking steps every day until that becomes your normal path. Over time, the outcomes you desire will naturally emerge from that change in your normal behavior.
So, what does that look like?
The Fight and the Results: Personal Finance Edition
I’ll use myself as an example here.
Before I started The Simple Dollar, before I even began turning things around, I was a complete train wreck in terms of my finances. I spent money constantly without any accountability, fulfilling every little desire that came to mind by throwing money at it. I stopped at coffee shops pretty much every day. I stopped at the local bookstore two or three times a week. I had a bunch of expensive and acquisitive hobbies, including golfing and video games and trading cards. Sarah and I went out to eat quite often.
While we made good money, we were a financial wreck. We lived in a tiny apartment. We both had cars with outstanding loans on them. We both had multiple student loans that added up to a pretty frightening number. We had a bunch of credit card debt and some additional loans. We also had a baby and were dealing with the expense of child care for the first time.
This all culminated on a giant mess where we couldn’t even pay our bills. We were beginning to have to walk a tightrope just to pay rent and utilities and keep enough space on the credit cards to keep living our lifestyle, and eventually that didn’t even work. We reached a point where we couldn’t pay our bills for the month.
At that point, the fight began, but my original goal was just to survive the fight. I didn’t want to radically change my life – I liked my life. What I wanted to do is reach a level of financial stability and not find us walking up to the precipice like that again.
So, I started doing a typical “fix my finances” binge. I sold off a bunch of stuff to quickly pay off a few debts. I remember selling piles of trading cards and lots of DVDs and video games and such, just to generate cash quickly to get myself out of that immediate hole. That was actually a good move, as I purged stuff I wasn’t looking at or using at the moment.
However, I also started making radical changes to my spending. I went on huge spending fasts, where I would try to avoid spending any money at all. It helped a lot in the short term, but it left me with this feeling that I was giving up too much. I was missing a lot of hobbies and having thoughts like “Is this all there is? Am I going to have to not spend any money for fun now?”
That was the point when I started to really think a lot about what I really wanted out of the future and out of my daily life. For all of that spending that I felt I was missing out on, what was I really missing? Furthermore, and perhaps even more important, what exactly does a financially successful person do with their day if they’re not on a steady diet of spending?
I started looking around for examples of such people, particularly wanting to understand what they were doing when they were in my shoes, starting out with a family and a career. I read books like Your Money or Your Life and The Millionaire Next Door. I had some really good conversations with a few mentors that I knew through my career. More than anything, I asked myself what things brought me real joy without costing me money? and what things should I be doing every day so that those inexpensive joyous things become more and more secure?
I started putting aside more time for reading and became a big patron of the library near my apartment. I started going on lots of walks, often pushing my infant son around in a stroller, because I realized I liked how it felt, and that eventually turned into going on lots of hikes and walks in nearby state parks. I started playing through some of the video games I’d accumulated and kept, not just playing them for a few hours and looking for the next thing. I started making a lot of my own meals, not just because it saved money, but because it was enjoyable and interesting and I learned pretty quickly that I could make some really tasty stuff without much of a mess.
I also realized that I made most of my spending mistakes when I had cash just sitting in my hand, so I started moving to automate a lot of the good financial moves I wanted to make. I bumped up those automatic retirement contributions. I started making automatic 529 contributions for my son and, very shortly after, my daughter, too. Whenever I saw cash in my checking account, I intentionally quelled a lot of temptations and moved a lot of it either into an emergency fund in a savings account at another bank or made a big extra payment on an unpaid debt. I stopped using credit cards entirely for a long while, cutting up a couple and leaving others at home most of the time, and I deleted my credit card numbers from online stores. I started buying everything store brand at the store and figuring out how to grocery shop effectively.
These were all obvious positive moves. They were all things that became daily or weekly routines. Most importantly, they weren’t things that made me feel miserable. If I realized I was feeling unhappy about my life and longed for something that I was doing in the past, I didn’t try to “shut it down.” Rather, I tried to understand it.
It’s because negative feelings when you’re trying to make permanent changes are a sign that the permanent change is going to fail, that you’re building a system in your life that’s destined to break down. When you make changes, they should either feel neutral (most of them) or good (some of them). If they feel bad, and you feel like you’re missing something, you need to dig into that now and figure out how to balance the change you want to make from the thing you desire and value in your life right now.
For me, that means having a hobby budget. I figured out before long that I do have a number of hobbies and that some of them do require some spending, but that I don’t need to spend a lot to feel good about it, just a little. It’s one of those situations where, over time, I figured out how much hobby spending was “just enough” to feel good about my explorations of my interests, and I put a firm cap on that “just enough” amount. I can’t afford nearly everything I might want, but I know that if I do want something hobby related and I’m patient and really figure out if I want it and search for a bargain, I can afford it without a problem and I get that pleasure.
Most days, I don’t spend a dime on anything non-essential, and the resources I do use were usually purchased inexpensively, like store brand dish soap an dos on. When I do spend money on something nonessential, it feels like a treat. I genuinely enjoy things like going out for an $8 fast casual meal with one of my friends who also works from home; we meet up for lunch sometimes just to have that contact. There’s no reason for me to have an $8 lunch somewhere every day, but on the days when I do, not only is it a social occasion, it feels like a treat.
That’s my system. That’s how I’m not just surviving the financial fight, but winning it. It’s a day-in-day-out life that is sustainable and enjoyable and each day I basically automatically move a few steps along the path to complete financial independence. I am a reasonably financially successful person and I can say that with complete seriousness, and it’s because my daily system keeps me on that path without resentment and with plenty of joy.
What’s Your System?
Whatever the challenge you face, whatever it is you want to change in your life, you have two ways of approaching it. You can survive the fight by just taking some emergency temporary action, or you can aim to win and keep winning by becoming the person you want to be and putting together daily systems and habits for success.
There is no right answer for every situation. It depends on what you want most out of your life, and not everyone wants the same things. What matters is that you decide what you want and that you move forward accordingly.