Five Things That Keep People from Getting Ahead

I’ve kept in touch with many of my friends from high school and college. All of us are roughly the same age (almost everyone in that group is in their thirties), so our experiences in terms of societal changes in our lives is roughly the same, as is the time spent since we’ve become adults and entered the workforce.

With very few exceptions, almost all of us have struggled with finances at one point or another in our adult lives. Many of my friends are still struggling mightily to just get a strong foothold in the world – even the simple act of owning one’s own home can be challenging.

Why have so many of us faced deep financial struggles? I’ve pinned it down to five big factors that really drain people today as they grow up, move out, enter the workforce, and try to live their dreams, along with some tactics on how to avoid it.

1. Automobiles
The United States is a large nation with relatively poor train services and families and friends that are often widely distributed. People often work surprising distances from their homes and live surprising distances from the people they care about.

The “fix” for these problems is the automobile. The freedom that owning your own automobile offers is alluring.

The problem is that cars are total money hogs. Not only do you have to pay a wad of cash for something that depreciates rapidly, you also have to pay for insurance, for gas, for maintenance, for licenses, and for registration – and that’s if you’re lucky and don’t have a car catastrophe.

How do you avoid this problem? The simple answer is to avoid owning a car as long as possible. Use public transportation for your commute. Use planes, trains, and buses for long trips. Use a bicycle to get around your neighborhood. You avoid an incredible amount of expense if you do this.

If you must own a car, get a junker. Focus on the idea that, unless you have a mint in the bank, a car’s purpose is solely to convey you from point A to point B. Reliability and fuel effiency matter, while leather seats and iPod connectivity don’t.

2. Student loans
There’s a strong connection between postsecondary education and one’s lifetime earning potential. A college degree drastically increases what you can earn, and post-graduate education bumps it even more.

The problem here is that college is expensive and it’s getting more expensive by the year. If you take on loans to complete your education, you walk out the door with a degree, but also a crushing debt load.

When you have that debt around your neck, you are somewhat restricted in your career options. Your ability to take a low-paying job that builds great experience for you over the long run isn’t really available, because you need funds to start paying back those loans. It also can force you into walking a career tightrope, where you are more concerned about playing it ultrasafe than taking professional risks to build an impressive career.

How do you avoid this problem? There are a lot of avenues. For one, take as many classes as you can at the community college level. For another, look at trade schools. For another, don’t be ashamed to complete your degree as a part-time student while working.

3. Incredibly easy consumer credit
Almost every store I walk into offers me a credit card if I want it. It’s usually as easy as filling out a two minute application, then I can walk out the door without paying a dime – right now, at least.

Even with the changes in consumer credit over the last few years, it is still ludicrously easy to get credit to buy pretty much anything you want.

When things are tight, it can seem like a godsend to get some breathing room for the time being, but then those bills start rolling in and you find yourself more compressed than ever.

How do you avoid this problem? Keep one general-purpose credit card open and avoid the rest. Make sure that you pay off the balance of that one card in full every single month. If you can’t do that, stop using that credit card entirely until you can get that balance paid off in full. You are far better off going cash-only than digging a debt hole.

4. Narcissism, envy, and marketing
There’s a strong sense, particularly in early adulthood, that you “deserve” to have nice things – it’s youthful narcissism at work. There’s also a sense of envy – if that guy over there has something amazing, then I should be able to have it too, right?

Marketers are fully aware of these emotions and find countless ways to trigger them. Advertisements are just one of many, many ways for marketers to tap these emotions (and others) to convince you to buy things you don’t really need.

How can you avoid this problem? The most effective tactic I’ve seen for this is the “ten second rule” and the “one month rule.” Whenever you pick up an item of any kind in a store, wait ten seconds before putting it in your cart. During those ten seconds, ask yourself if you really need this item or if there isn’t something else you already have that works just as well or if there isn’t a better bargain elsewhere.

Similarly, if you pick up an item with the intent to buy it, it costs more than $20, and it’s not an absolute need, put it down and wait a month. Chances are you’ll either forget about the item or you’ll decide it’s not really important after all, and in either of those outcomes, you’ll be better off having never spent the money.

5. Low community awareness
The community around you is loaded with things to do. There are parks, trails, community theaters, open concerts, civic groups, volunteer opportunities, library activities, book clubs … the list goes on and on and on and on.

Your neighbor next door is an incredibly valuable resource, for starters. They can provide tools in a pinch, provide neighborhood advice, and keep an eye on your property when you’re away.

Yet an awful lot of people either are completely unaware of these opportunities or never think of them when they’ve got downtime. They fill their free time with overpriced restaurants and entertainment instead of seeking out the amazing things they already have available to them. They connect with people in other towns instead of connecting to the people on their block.

How can you avoid this problem? Get to know your neighbors. Offer them help when you see them, and don’t be afraid to ask for help in a pinch if you need it (though things go better if you make the first step here). Ask for their perspectives and what they’ve found in the community.

At the same time, seek out a list of community groups and the community calendar for your area. Use them. Try out different civic groups and volunteer groups in your town. Engage in activities available in your community just to see if they click for you. The cost is usually free and even if the activity turns out not to click for you, at least you know about it now and have tried something new.

The more of these traps you can avoid in your life, the better off you’ll be, whether you’re just starting out or you find yourself far along life’s journey.

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