The Spiral of Improving Yourself, Your Money, and Your Life

Let’s see if this story sounds familiar to you.

You realize your financial life is in a shambles, so you dive intensely into frugality for a while. You pay off a few bills, get your head above water, and then you realize that some of the frugal strategies you’ve adopted are pretty constricting and rubbing you the wrong way. You drop most of the frugal tactics you picked up, but not all of them – a few of them have stuck.

Then, a little later, you realize that your finances are starting to sink again. You dive back into frugality, perhaps not as deep as before, and things get better, but the progress slows down. Again, you find a few more tactics that stick even as most of the rest falls away.

It’s kind of a spiral or a zigzag, isn’t it? There’s this happy medium that you’re aiming for where you feel like you have the freedom to spend that you want but you also want to be aiming for some degree of debt freedom or financial freedom.

You go too far in one direction and you’re practicing an intense level of frugality and penny-pinching that chafes you. You go too far in the other direction and you’re not making much progress on your financial goals – or you’re even backsliding.

So, you kind of go back and forth between the two. Each time, you’re not going quite as “extreme” as you once did because in previous go-arounds, you learned that certain things really rub you the wrong way or don’t work for you or don’t give you enough value for the dollar. At the same time, as you spiral away from an extreme, you retain some of the tactics that really worked so that the worst of your excesses in the other direction are blunted.

Over time, if nothing changed in your life and you kept paying attention to finding the right balance, you’d eventually get there – or pretty close to it.

Yet life gets in the way. Maybe your income goes up, or maybe it goes down. You fall in love, or fall out of love. You bring a new baby into your life, or a child leaves the nest. And the balance changes, and you start spiraling again, gradually seeking out that new center balance in your life.

I think this kind of spiraling journey is what a lot of us find ourselves on in most areas of our life. We buckle down with our money and get rid of some debts and maybe even save some money, and then the initiative wears off. We work on getting in better shape, then we slack off and maybe even go the other way. Relationships. Professional endeavors. Hobbies and interests. This kind of spiral happens again and again and again in life.

It happens to me with personal finance. There are times when I am ridiculously frugal, down to the point of washing freezer Ziploc bags for reuse. There are other times when I just don’t worry about it and feel like our financial life is going great even if I skip some of the more intense frugal stuff.

It happens to me in a lot of other areas, too. There are times when I’m super intense about exercise and other times when I don’t do much of anything. There are times when I’m very focused on devouring tons of books, and other times where I’ll go days without picking one up.

What I’ve learned over the years is that this oscillation is completely normal. It happens with almost anything in life. When we notice that something is “off” in our life, we tend to overreact and push back in a way that creates other discomforts, which then push back and move us back in the other direction. Eventually, we move toward some kind of happy medium, but then our center of balance shifts as our life changes and it happens all over again.

This is why lasting dramatic change is so hard. We might be able to pull off a dramatic change in our spending for a while, but eventually there will be pushback against the dramatic changes. They’ll chafe against other parts of our life and we’ll find ourselves being pushed hard to move back in the other direction. Over time, our own center of balance will shift, and sometimes not in the direction we expect. It’s like spinning a dinner plate on the end of a stick.

With practice, however, you can get a lot better at spinning dinner plates, and you can get a lot better at managing the spirals of your life. Here are some tactics I use to help me manage the extremes of my spirals and find the center a little faster, financial or otherwise.

Pay attention to where the center of your spiral is right now. For each of us, there’s a happy balance between the various tensions in our life. We’re constantly balancing lots of different things – our finances, our family, our careers, our friendships, our physical health, our mental health, our spiritual health, and so on. When we push too hard on some of those areas, it can send others out of balance, and if things get too out of balance, it can leave you feeling lost and melancholic and it can be very hard to recover.

One of the most powerful strategies I’ve learned over the years is to simply listen to myself, trust what I’m hearing, and take action on it. When I feel like something’s not right in my life, I don’t just brush it off. I spend some time digging into it to figure out what’s really wrong. For me, journaling really helps solve this problem; others might find it useful to simply get into a practice of thinking about their life during their commute. The key isn’t how you do it, but what you’re doing – you’re stepping back, looking at your life, noticing what’s out of balance before it gets far out of balance, and fixing that issue.

I’ve learned that if I feel happy overall and I can go through the various spheres of my life (physical, mental, spiritual, social, marital, parental, financial, vocational, avocational) and feel like they’re all in a good place, then I’m probably pretty close to in balance. However, that balance never truly lasts, and noticing when things are starting to slip is invaluable. It’s easier to make a course correction early than when things are already in bad shape.

Hang onto the tactics that really worked and drop those that didn’t. What I find is that when I dive into something because it feels out of whack, there’s probably a reason that it got into that state and there’s something (often many somethings) I’m going to have to change to alter things. What really works well about the state I’m currently in? What doesn’t?

The trick is to make changes without letting go of what really works. If a particular tactic is actually clicking along smoothly in one’s life, don’t throw it out with the bathwater. Don’t turn off your 401(k) savings at work. Don’t go back to stopping for food on your commute when going straight home is working like a champ. Don’t stop making meals in advance when they’re making your busy evenings a lot easier.

Here’s why: The best tactics we discover in life are the ones that have benefits in multiple areas of our life, and even when we move in a different direction in one area, that tactic is still a win in other areas. Take meal prepping – the tactic of making a bunch of meals in advance, popping them in the freezer, and eating them for lunch or supper later on. I do it because it saves a ton of money, helps me eat healthier, and saves time on busy evenings. Even if I changed direction on one of those areas in life for now, I’d still have two good reasons for doing it.

Put practices in place that make it much easier to maintain the benefits of one extreme, even as you oscillate away. The reality is that, in most areas of our life, we operate via the path of least resistance. Whatever the easiest path in the moment is, that’s what we’ll do. One of the best tricks for being successful in some area of life is to reduce the amount of resistance against doing something, or increasing the amount of resistance against changing something.

With finances, one of the best things you can do is increase the amount of resistance against altering good financial practices. A great example of this is automating your finances. If you set up an automatic contribution to your retirement plan at work, it’s going to require you to actually put in effort and take action to undo it, so when things swing away from strong personal finance in your life, you’re still likely to leave that savings in place. The same is true for an automatic savings plan at your bank, where a certain amount is funneled each week from your checking into your savings for an emergency. You probably won’t undo that without a really good reason because doing so would take effort.

This is a big part of why I highly recommend setting up automatic 401(k) contributions and an automatic transfer to fill up your emergency fund, and I recommend doing it now rather than later. If you do it now, while you’re excited, you probably won’t undo it later when you’re less excited. Instead, it’ll keep working for you.

As you spiral through life, keep these tactics in mind. Keep paying attention to where you are and whether things are in balance. Keep using tactics that really work well in your life. Automate as much as possible so that good behavior becomes the path of least resistance. Using all three of those things in concert will eventually help you find a good strong center in your life.

Good luck!

More by Trent Hamm:

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.