The Seven Things I Need to Work on Most to Improve My Financial and Personal Life

As I’ve mentioned a few times on The Simple Dollar recently, I’ve been using Julia Cameron’s “three morning pages” journaling technique most mornings and it has genuinely been a life changer. It’s helped me reflect on lots of different ideas and viewpoints that I have. It’s helped me to reflect on choices I’ve made and relationships I have. It’s helped me reflect on the state of my life and where I want it to go.

(For those unfamiliar, “three morning pages” is a journaling technique in which, each day, a person pulls out a journal and a pen and fills three pages by writing down whatever comes into their mind. What’s on your mind right now? That’s the prompt every single morning. Then, you just write that down. I find that in the process of writing out a thought in a sentence or two, the next step in that line of thinking begins to emerge, and then I write that out, and the process repeats itself until I hit some really useful conclusions.)

If I had to summarize what I’ve figured out over the last year, it’s this: I’m pretty content with my life in general, but there are a handful of areas where I could be a lot better. Notice that I’m not saying that “my life” could be better or something like that – I’m pointing internally. My life is good, but I could be better.

In other words, I’m content with my life, but I’m not content with me.

The thing is, I feel as though, if I work on fixing some things, they will inevitably lead to some good outcomes, not just for me and my own future, but for a lot of people in my life – my friends, my family, and even the people who read what I write. Changing me has a ripple effect outwards.

At the end of the day, I’ve figured out seven things that I really need to work on in terms of improving myself. Almost all of these things have direct (or strong indirect) financial and personal implications, so I thought it might be interesting to share them here.

The key message I want you to take home is this: personal finance success – and other forms of personal success – come down far more to improving yourself than factors outside of yourself. If you improve yourself, then things outside of yourself naturally begin to have better average outcomes. If you become a nicer person, you’re going to have better relationships. If you improve your professional skills, you’re going to have better professional results. If you want people in your social circle to be nicer, train yourself to be nicer. It’s all about you.

I Need to Curb My Worst Spending Impulses

99% of the time, I manage my finances wonderfully. I have a bunch of automated savings systems in place that fund saving for my retirement and for my children’s college education and for other goals. I’m extremely careful and diligent with large purchases. I budget quite carefully.

However, there’s one spending issue that has continually been difficult for me over the last decade and that’s impulsive spending related to my hobbies. I have a handful of hobbies that I have been deeply passionate about my whole life and, time and time again, I give into impulsive spending related to those hobbies.

Those hobbies are, namely, reading, cooking, and tabletop gaming (board games and the like).

Those hobbies are things that I am deeply passionate about, and when I find something that strongly engages that passion, a lot of my careful financial principles in other areas of life crumble. I make impulsive spending choices that I wouldn’t otherwise make.

I curtail this to an extent by having a “hobby budget” each month, but at times, I’ll even go beyond what I’ve budgeted.

Why? Mostly, it’s because I get caught up in the moment. I learn about a book or a board game or something and it scratches something deep inside of me that other things really don’t reach, and that causes me to not really think about my budget and just click the “buy” button.

This is a really tough challenge for me to overcome. I’ve found lots of things to make it better, but I inevitably find myself in situations that get beyond those strategies.

How can I curb my worst spending impulses? Right now, my plan is to make next year into a “spend nothing whatsoever on hobbies” year and entirely focus on using the things I already have. The only way I’ll get new hobby items that year is in the from of gifts from family or friends.

I’m hoping this achieves two things.

One, it should help me to make better financial moves in the coming year. I will still have a small “hobby budget” for other interests, but it’ll be much smaller than what I currently have. I’m going to channel the rest of that money into other savings goals.

Two, and this is more of a “hope” than a certain outcome, it should break my worst spending tendencies related to my hobbies. If I’m literally not spending any money at all on hobbies, then I have no reason to put myself in situations where I might spend. If I do that for a year, then I have new routines in life that will hopefully stick.

I Need to Incorporate Small Freelance Income Into My Overall Financial Planning Better

On occasion, I find myself with small freelance jobs that are either related to writing or (believe it or not) related to my old career path. Actually executing these freelance jobs isn’t a problem. What is a problem is that I’m not really wise with the money that comes in.

Frankly, when money rolls in from those jobs, I tend to use it to “put out a fire.” I address whatever I feel is most urgent at the moment. Often, that money is used for something like a small home repair or a small emergency or something like that.

In effect, I treat that money as an “emergency fund” of sorts, which keeps me from tapping my actual emergency fund.

Sometimes, if there’s no real “fire” to put out, I’ll use it in some foolish way that doesn’t ever show up in my budget. I’ll usually just cash the check and then use the cash for some purpose that never directly shows up in my financial planning.

The problem, of course, is that I could do much smarter things with that income. I could always make an extra retirement contribution. I could make an extra 529 contribution for my kids. I could add it to my “tax” fund out of which I pay estimated quarterly taxes and make up any differences at year’s end.

How can I manage my “odd job” income better? I simply need to have a consistent plan in terms of what I do with those checks. For now, I’ve decided to simply use them as extra equal contributions to my children’s 529 accounts.

So, going forward, whenever I get any sort of freelance income, it’s getting split into thirds and put into my children’s 529 accounts.

This is a strategy I’m going to revisit annually during my annual financial review. I may end up using the money for something else at other times.

I Need to Improve My Physical Fitness

Let’s get this straight right off the bat: I’m in way better shape than I was, say, five years ago. I’m definitely more aerobically fit. I’m more flexible. I have better balance.

I’m just not where I want to be.

I want to live for a very long time, and I want as much of that life as possible to have me in physical shape to do things I want to do, like go on hikes and go on bike rides and play with my children and eventually grandchildren and so on. Part of the benefit of this, of course, is that I will have lower health care costs throughout my life, which makes a lot of our financial decisions easier. I don’t want to be in a situation where gobbling lots of medications is also gobbling up our financial future.

How can I improve my physical fitness? My first big plan is to get a standing desk for my new office arrangement, and perhaps eventually use it as a treadmill desk. As I mentioned, we’re rearranging our home and my current desk simply will not work as a standing desk because of shelves above it. That’s going to change very soon.

A second move is that I’m returning to the most successful program I have ever been on in terms of managing my weight, which is simply strict calorie counting. It took a lot of work, but it worked. I abandoned it because it was difficult to do while traveling, so my new rule is that unless I slept away from home the previous night or am sleeping away from home the coming night, I’m counting calories.

A third move is to amp up my fitness routine. I’ve been doing a simple routine for exercise and flexibility that I’ve been able to stick with easily, but it’s not been really very challenging. The purpose was to help me with taekwondo, but I’ve really plateaued with it, so I’m going to revisit it and make it more difficult so I can continue to progress and get stronger, more flexible, and in better cardio shape (though, honestly, the class helps with that a ton).

I Need to Devote More Time to Hard, Meaningful Learning

For the last few years, I’ve had an hour blocked off each day for focused reading and learning. I originally wanted to use that time to read challenging things that really made me think and to apply what I was learning to the best of my ability, but over time, that reading hour has migrated to lighter fare, mostly read for entertainment.

I moved from reading things like The History of Western Philosophy to reading high fantasy novels during that hour.

There’s nothing wrong with a high fantasy novel – it’s a great form of entertainment – but it’s not what I want to get out of that hour. I want to use that hour to learn and grow.

How can I devote more time to hard, meaningful learning? I’m retaking that hour. I’ve built a reading list for myself of challenging books that I want to read and I’m spending that hour churning through that list, taking notes and thinking about what I’m reading.

I’m not abandoning the high fantasy and sci-fi novels I’ve been reading lately, just that I’m moving reading primarily for entertainment to other parts of the day, such as before bed or on lazier weekend days.

I have an hour set aside for reading and things I want to learn. Time to bring those two things together again.

I Need to Become More Organized with My Possessions

My office is a complete disorganized disaster, made worse by the fact that I have to move it elsewhere in a few months. I’ve got piles of stuff covering my desk and haphazard piles of things all over the floor. I’ve got an overflowing bookshelf and an overflowing game shelf. It’s bad.

Part of the difficulty is that I feel overwhelmed by all of it. It’s easier on a day-to-day basis to just shrug my shoulders and let it be rather than tackling it in any serious way.

To an extent, it’s also true in my bedroom. I’ve accumulated too many books over the years, mostly cookbooks (remember, one of my big hobbies is cooking) and I don’t have a proper bookshelf in my bedroom to store them. My wife does – her “wall” of the room does not include a door, while mine does.

All of this stuff represents both sunk time and money. I’m going to have to spend time going through all of these things and figure out what’s worth keeping, then I’m going to have to recover some of that money by selling off some of these items, too.

How can I organize my possessions better? One thing I’m going to do during our home reorganization is put a cookbook shelf in our dining room/kitchen area. This will provide a place to store our cookbook collection, which is sizable and spread out in several places in our home (although this is more my thing, Sarah uses them, too).

I need to downsize my book collection, my board game collection, and some of my other possessions to boot. I’m doing this by setting aside one hour four days a week (I’ve already penciled this into my schedule) solely to go through possessions, figure out which ones need to go, and selling them off, and then putting the ones I’m keeping in places where they belong.

I Need to Prepare My Children for Adulthood Without Damaging Their Childhood

My children are getting older, whether I like it or not. While I feel that Sarah and I have done a great job of instilling good core values and knowledge in them, the truth is that our oldest two children are preteens (and our youngest isn’t far behind).

That means that we’re starting to give them more and more responsibilities and more and more autonomy over their life decisions, and that means that they need to learn some key life skills and decision making skills.

How does one do laundry? Dishes? How does one decide how to spend their time? How does one remember commitments and responsibilities?

Most importantly, how does one decide what’s the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do once outside of parental control?

The time is coming for a lot of micro experiments in independence and a lot of difficult conversations.

This is a hugely important step. I’m starting to prepare them to live wholly independent of me, a move that will be a huge financial boon for Sarah and myself. Moving from being financially responsible for the food, care, and clothing of five to the food, care, and clothing of two.

How can I prepare my children for adulthood without damaging their childhood? The biggest step I’m taking right now is keeping track of what things I’m doing for my children that they will eventually need to do for themselves. On a surface level, it’s things like doing the laundry or doing dishes or making dinner or paying bills, but there are deeper things, too, like managing time and remembering things.

As I notice these things that I’m handling for them, I write them down. Over time, I’m trying to figure out how to migrate those things from me handling those tasks to them handling those tasks.

This is going to be hard. It’s going to take a lot of time. Guess what? Good parenting takes time and attention and love.

The journey still has a long way to go. I want to make sure that we get there.

I Need to Be Better in Uncertain Social Situations

I have always felt very comfortable conversing with people that I know, as well as new people in small group or one-on-one situations. I can pick up a conversation with anyone and I have some good techniques for doing that.

However, when that conversation expands to a larger group, especially when it includes people I don’t know well or haven’t seen in a while, I clam up. I simply have a hard time saying anything.

I have a few conversational techniques that I know work really well, but the difficulty is actually using those techniques in any useful way. Instead, I just sit there and clam up.

This hurts me. It makes it nearly impossible to build new friendships in a lot of social situations. It makes me appear aloof or uninterested when I’m actually just feeling really nervous or shy. Those aren’t outcomes that are good for me personally or professionally.

How can I handle uncertain social situations better? A few weeks ago, a good friend of mine gave me some great advice. He said, “Just act like the person you wish would be there with you.” Imagine how I would ideally like an unknown person to act toward me in a group social situation, and then act like that.

Basically, I’d want that person to smile, explain their connection to the group, and ask some questions to nudge me into talking. Right there, that’s my recipe for those situations. I just need to act like the person that I wish was sitting across the table from me. Pretend to be that person rather than the shy person that I actually am.

It takes conscious practice and probably a lot of failures. However, I have a bunch of social situations coming up to put this to the test.

Final Thoughts

Again, as I stated at the start, I’m pretty content with my life. I don’t feel like I’m a bad person overall, or a failure overall. I just notice some things, some specific elements of my life, that I’m unhappy with that I think are leading to bad financial and personal outcomes and I want to fix them.

To me, that’s the core of improving your situation. You figure out specific things about yourself that you could work on – it doesn’t mean you’re “bad” but that there are things about yourself that could be better – and then intentionally work on those things, adopting new norms in your life along the way.

This isn’t a one-stop thing. It’s an ongoing process that can and should be revisited all the time. I revisit it quite often and this is where I stand at the moment.

The thing to remember is that you’re good, but you’re not perfect and you’ll probably never reach it. However, the effort to move closer to that ideal is almost always worth it, because every little step you take in that direction is going to have ripple effects throughout your life that will benefit you in more ways than you’ll probably ever know.

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.