Here’s the truth: when you set a big financial goal for yourself, most of the new discoveries and new behaviors occur at the start of the journey. You bury yourself in knowledge, learn quite a bit, figure out a plan that works well for you, put that plan in place, automate it as much as you can (by having money taken out of your check and so on)… and then you wait. And wait. And wait.
For some people, that waiting can be very difficult, for two reasons.
First, it can feel like there’s less opportunity in their day to day lives. Whenever you take on a financial goal, particularly once you first exit the “honeymoon” period (the part at the start of any new endeavor where you’re having fun learning and trying new things), you’re going to find that you’ve allocated your resources differently and that usually means you have less resources left behind for “free spending” compared to what you had before you started. That can feel disheartening. It can easily twist in your mind into a sense of being very restrictive, giving you a strong sense that you’re missing out on opportunities and life experiences.
Second, it can feel like the progress is really slow and you’re helpless to make it go much faster. Often, once you’ve set up a financial plan, it’s just a matter of rolling through the months and years. The plan is on autopilot. You’ve set it up and it’s running along in the background, but it’s going to be a very long time before you see results.
When you combine those two factors, the road to financial success can seem like a very long drive on a Kansas highway. The hours roll by, but the horizons seem endlessly flat and the destination is still so far ahead that you can barely see it. You feel like there’s nothing new under the sun at all.
In the end, you can start to become disconnected from your goal and from what you’re doing to progress toward it. Disillusionment can begin to creep in, which makes it easier and easier to give up.
What can you do?
For me, a big part of the solution has been to constantly look for new things on the long financial journey. While my financial plan is pretty much locked in place at this point, it actually relies on a bunch of things in my life not actually changing from the way that they are right now. Those factors, from my family to my career, from my personal beliefs to the individual tactics I use each day, are not perfect. They’re never perfect.
Thus, I’ve found that an essential piece of ongoing financial success during the “set it and forget it” part of the journey is to dig into those underlying factors and see what I can do to improve them.
I like to use a house analogy for this. I’ve got blueprints for a house and I’m in the process of ordering parts and waiting for them to be delivered. While I wait for that delivery, I can just sit in place and stew on my thoughts, or I can look for ways to make that house better. I can look at where the foundation is going to go. I can look for new construction or architectural ideas. Yeah, I might end up changing that blueprint a little bit, but what I’m going to end up with is a better house than before, probably one that’s built faster, too.
Here’s how I’m constantly trying to “improve my blueprint” and find something new under the sun during this journey.
Learn (and Think) About the “Why”
Why exactly am I on this financial journey to begin with?
It’s a simple question at first glance. I want to retire early and have the freedom to do lots of things at that point.
But the longer I look at the question, the deeper it becomes.
Why do I want to retire early? Why do I want some sense of freedom in the future? What kind of freedom do I want? Why do I not have that freedom or some aspect of it right now?
And it keeps going deeper.
Why do I desire things that are different than what I have right now? What is it that I really value the most? Why do I emotionally respond to things the way that I do? Why do I make the choices that I make?
Very quickly, you start running into some very challenging questions, ones that aren’t easy for anyone to answer. They lead directly into reading about philosophy and psychology and spirituality.
I find myself reading a great deal of philosophy right now, particularly stoicism and transcendentalism. I read a lot about the information age and how it’s changing our brains and our desires.
More than that, I think about those things. I look at my own life through lots of different lenses and the lives of others through those lenses.
And, over time, I gradually begin to answer those deep questions to my own satisfaction. It turns out that those answers are never exactly the same for anyone, but by reading the thoughts of people who have deeply pondered those questions, you can shape your own answers and build them into something strong.
Once you start having real, concrete answers to those questions, you start to see how the changes in your foundation actually change your day-to-day life and your big financial plans. You start walking right back up the ladder of those questions until you can really answer that “why” question in a way that really means something for you.
It’s a journey that never really ends. There’s always a new way of looking at things.
I tend to view this journey as being like a rough-edged rock. You have some vague idea of the core of your values, but the edges are very rough. Learning about things like philosophy is like tossing that rock into a rock tumbler that, over time, gradually smooths out the edges and lets the underlying aspects get exposed. It’s a long process, but the stone at the end is beautiful. It’s something you’re proud of. It’s something you can build on.
Try polishing the rock that is your underlying values and see where it takes you.
Try New Tactics
I’ve been reading about, writing about, and trying all kinds of money-saving tactics for many years now on a near-daily basis. The reality is that, when I see a new list of tactics, I’ve usually already tried the vast majority of them. That’s okay.
For me, though, reading a list of tactics to find two or three that I haven’t tried before is actually worth it because trying those two tactics and figuring out if they make sense or they’re cost-effective really does “liven up the game” a little bit. I enjoy that discovery process. It’s actually quite fun to find a better way of doing things, a more cost-efficient way of doing things.
I’m at the extreme end of this, having written and experimented with frugality tactics on a weekly basis for literally a decade of my life. For others, the ratio of repeats is going to be lower.
For me, this simple technique checks a ton of boxes.
First of all, it provides new experiences. I’m going to be doing something different that I haven’t done before. That’s fun in itself. In the process of trying out new frugal techniques, I’ve learned to cut my own hair, made my own soap, made pasta from scratch, tried iced coffee with ice cubes literally made of coffee, and dozens and dozens of other things that were well worth trying, even if they didn’t all stick. I’ve made new friends, entertained my children, and taken care of countless household responsibilities along the way. Trying something new is almost always interesting, even if you conclude that it doesn’t fit for you.
At the same time, it potentially results in a better method of doing things. Lists of frugal tips have improved how I boil pasta, how I prepare beans, how I wash windows, and countless other things. Either I’ll find a technique that works better than before at the same price or I’ll find a technique that works just as well as before at a lower price. In either case, I’m better off, and that actually happens more often than not.
The point? Try stuff. Even if a long list of tactics seems old hat, dig out the five or so you haven’t tried before and give them a shot. See if they fit for you.
Build Up the “Earn” Side of the Equation
No matter how perfectly your financial plan is set up, it can almost always be disrupted in a positive way through entrepreneurship and good career moves. If you raise your income level, you’re either going to be able to achieve your goal far faster than before or else you’re going to be able to elevate your goal to greater heights than ever before.
One approach is to focus on your current career path. What can you do to get great job performances that might lead to a raise or a promotion? What challenges can you take on that will build your resume for a better job? Can you take on more hours? Can you look for a professional mentor who can help guide you in your current situation? Can you simply just stop idling at work, find things to work on, and be more productive? All of those things not only provide a new focus, but they also result, in the long run, in more income.
Another approach is to focus on building a small side business of some kind. There are infinite side businesses you can start, from gardening for vegetable sales to starting a Youtube channel, from a lawn care business to writing ebooks. Spending a healthy portion of your time on a side gig can build a daydream into something that produces real, significant revenue throughout the year.
Both routes provide a new set of challenges that, upon succeeding, will provide benefits that directly accelerate your already-existing financial goals.
The journey to your financial destination can seem long and dull, but that’s only if you accept your current mindset as being beyond question, your current tactics as being more than good enough, and your current earnings and career options as deeply satisfying and incapable of improvement. Since almost no one can claim those things as all being true, it’s very likely that the path to your financial destiny involves many options for new directions and new experiences.