One of my favorite posts I’ve ever written for The Simple Dollar was called “The Longest Night.” In it, I discussed the day that I hit financial bottom.
It was an afternoon in April 2006. As I sat down to pay some bills, I looked at the balance of our checking account and realized that we simply did not have enough cash on hand to pay those bills. Even worse, our credit cards were near their maximum and didn’t give us enough breathing room there, either. We simply did not have enough money to make ends meet.
At that time, Sarah and I were proud parents of an infant boy (he’s eight years old now). We lived in a rather small two bedroom apartment in which one of the rooms was a combination nursery/library/computer room, leaving the remaining rooms as a bathroom, a tiny bedroom, and a combination kitchen/living room area. It might have measured 500 square feet, all told.
We were about four years out of college and were facing a lot of debt. We both had student debt well into the five figures. We had multiple maxed-out credit cards, as well as outstanding loans on our two cars. We also both had completely unsustainable spending habits that were running our finances dry.
It was a very bad situation. It could have been worse – one of us could have been hit with a job loss or an illness – but the situation added up to a real problem.
What made it particularly bad is that our path to that situation was almost the opposite of what we had dreamed about during our late college years. Sarah and I were engaged before we graduated from college and we spent a lot of evenings talking about our plans for the future, about how we were going to save up and buy our dream home in the country and have a few kids… it all seemed so wonderful.
Our actual behavior, however, led us down a path to more and more and more debt. We were heading in the opposite direction from that dream home.
It was that day when I realized that something fundamental needed to change. I stayed up much of the night rocking with my infant son and thinking about the life I wanted to build for him, and I realized that I was not making the right moves.
Within the next day or two, I had stopped at the nearest large public library and checked out a small pile of personal finance books. Two of them had a deep impact on me – The Total Money Makeover and, especially, Your Money or Your Life.
That day was a moment of change in my life. I can pretty clearly divide my personal finance behavior into a “before” and “after” moment around that day – and the difference is drastic.
Since then, I’ve had a few moments of change in my life – perhaps most noticeably, I had a moment that caused me to become a vegetarian for a number of reasons. Those moments are almost universally powerful and each one is unique, but I’ve found that all of these moments of change have a few elements in common.
Ingredients for a Moment of Change
In general, I’ve found that four things need to be in place for a moment of change to occur. You can’t force them to happen, but you can have a life situation that’s primed for one to occur. If you’re primed for it, then a moment of change is much more likely to happen.
(I look at this in much the same way that I look at luck. There are a lot of ways to improve your luck, but they all boil down to just priming your life for luck. You take action so that luck is more likely to find a home.)
The first ingredient for a moment of change is sustained reflection on your life’s situation. You’ve spent time evaluating the realities of your overall life and you know both what’s good in it and what’s bad in it.
Very few people have a life that is all good or a life that is all bad. We all have things to be proud of and we all have things we can improve. Self-reflection mostly revolves around thinking about both of those things until the realities of them become clear.
This has always been an ingredient in my life. I have been a near-daily journal writer since I was in seventh grade. In fact, I still have most of those journals (although they’re now all in electronic form). Much of what I write about is self-reflection. I use that space to try to piece through what is troubling me.
Deep Unhappiness with Some Aspect of Life
Generally, people who have a moment of change have some life element that is bringing them deep unhappiness. Self-reflection is basically how you really figure out what that unhappy element is, bringing it from a general sense of unhappiness to something rather specific.
Even for me, someone who is actively self-reflecting, the source of that deep unhappiness can be cloudy for a while. It takes time to really figure out what’s wrong when you start to feel generally unhappy with things.
The realization that I was in financial trouble wasn’t just an epiphany out of the blue. I realized that I was headed in the wrong direction for quite a while before then. In fact, I wrote about those earlier signs of financial trouble. I was fully aware that my financial situation was not a healthy one. It took at least eight months for me to really put together why I was so unhappy.
Resistance to a Change in Direction
The problem was the third ingredient needed for a moment of change: resistance. There must be something in place to keep you from making that change right now. Whether or not it’s actually logical or correct doesn’t matter. Something is stopping you.
It might be addiction. It might be a strong routine that you don’t want to break. It might be fear of the changes that would occur in the wake of your big change. It might be something else entirely.
For me, the big resistance was the creature comforts. I didn’t want to give up all of the routines of spending money that I had. Living an affluent lifestyle had a lot of short-term perks. It didn’t seem like it was worth it to give up my trips to the bookstore or drinks after work or the other little pleasures I enjoyed.
A Life Open to a Catalyst
Many people, when they have the first three ingredients in place, will make small life shifts in order to keep their heads above water. Perhaps they’ll cut down on their drinking or another bad habit, but not give it up. Maybe they’ll make a few shifts in their spending routines or they’ll cut down to four slices of pizza instead of five.
Sometimes, that little shift is enough to put things into a sustainable balance, which means that they’ve just indefinitely postponed their moment of change. Most of the time, all it does is slows the downward spiral, meaning that moment of change is still to come.
A life open to a catalyst is a life in which you’re still engaging in those problematic behaviors even after you’ve really considered them and evaluated their impact on your life. The trend is still, on the whole, a downward trend.
In April 2006, my life was definitely open to a catalyst. While I had made a few minor changes over the last year or so, they were very minor and certainly did not stop the overall downward trend of our finances. I knew in my heart that I was headed in a bad direction, but I had a lot of momentum and excuses – I was absolutely primed for a change.
The Moment of Change
For me, each time, the big moment of change was some event occurring in my life that altered what it was that was bothering me. Obviously, in the financial situation, it was the arrival of bills that I simply couldn’t deal with. At other times, I can point the finger at medical visits and spiritual events.
I’ve found that you can’t really manufacture these moments – I’ve certainly tried to. Instead, you just have to have your life in a situation where you’re very open to them. You need to have reflected on the problem and be aware that it’s a real issue, but find yourself with a bunch of resistance and excuses “explaining” why you can’t (or won’t) do anything about it.
Each time, for me, I’ve known within a day or two that things have really changed in my life. I usually feel deeply committed to some kind of lasting change in a way that I absolutely wasn’t just a few days before and I’ve usually just gone through some kind of personal “shock,” like bad medical news or a financial difficulty.
Ingredients for Building on that Moment
So, you’ve had this moment of change in your life. Now what?
A little less than a month ago, I described the five stages of change that we all go through when we introduce some sort of change into our lives. Here’s a refresher:
Stage 1: Uninformed optimism.
Stage 2: Informed pessimism.
Stage 3: Hopeful realism.
Stage 4: Informed optimism.
Stage 5: Completion.
A “moment of change” usually launches us fully into stage one, but after that, almost every life change goes through this cycle – and the second stage is the hardest.
There are a few things you can do to make this all work out – and some of them are aided by having a moment of change.
Vision for the Future
The best tool you can have for building on a moment of change is a big vision for the future. Where is it that you want to go? Perhaps you’re looking at a life free of smoking, or maybe you’re like me and you dream of financial independence.
Whatever it is, this vision for the future is borne out of the groundwork laid for a moment of change: self-reflection. At the end of the day, reflecting on your life, knowing what the problem is, and knowing exactly what it is that you want to change for the long run is what’s going to make the difference. You need a big vision on the horizon, something that you’re heading toward.
For some, visual expressions of this can be useful. You might want to hang up a poster that depicts what your goal looks like. Use an image that represents that success as your desktop wallpaper on your computer or as the background image on your cell phone. For more number-oriented people, a wall chart depicting your progress might really be helpful (choose a scale that really shows off how your progress is going).
The next element you should have is knowledge. How exactly do you defeat this problem that you have in your life?
As I said, I handled this step by going to the library and checking out a small mountain of personal finance books. You might handle it differently by reading blogs or watching instructional films or attending meetings or talking to knowledgeable friends.
The goal here is to gain a deeper understanding of what exactly you need to do to make this change happen. What are the best techniques for introducing financial change or dietary change or habit change or exercise change or any other change into your life? That’s what you’ll learn from a bit of learning.
Knowing exactly how to defeat your problems and replace them with something better with the fewest obstacles and the least difficulty is incredibly valuable.
A Well-Considered Plan
When you combine that knowledge and vision together, you tend to come up with a plan for the future. You know what it is that you want to achieve. You know what kind of steps need to be taken to move from where you are now to where you want to go.
A plan for the future is one that makes it clear each and every day what it is that you should be doing. There should be no grey area. However, there should be a little bit of room for life flexibility – don’t commit to a huge exercise routine every day, but do commit to doing at least minimal exercise or at least setting foot into a gym or exercise room every day, for example. Don’t commit to spending no money on non-essentials, because eventually you will crack – look for other ways to get to where you want to go, such as just thinking for ten seconds before you make a non-essential purchase and logging every single dime that you spend.
It should give you something to concentrate on every day. It should also have clear deliverables and milestones, such as recording all spending for a whole month. Plans with daily actions, deliverables, and some flexibility tend to be the ones that work best for me.
You need to have people around you who are supportive of the changes you are trying to make in your life. The first step in that process is to tell them about your change.
Good friends and family members will do all they can to help. They’ll provide positive reinforcement. They’ll give you a shoulder to cry on if you’re struggling. They’ll even help you with specifics, like going on a walk or a jog with you or coming over to your house to play cards instead of going out.
That kind of social support structure makes all the difference. I was lucky – I had Sarah as a great support structure, and I provided support for her own changes. We worked together throughout our financial change.
Preparations for the Rebound
Inevitably, you will hit the second stage of emotional response to change – and that’s the period when it’s very hard. You’ll want to quit. You’ll be really sick of the changes. You’ll try to find excuses.
This is where those daily things to focus on can really help, because the big secret here is to just take things one day at a time. It becomes easier to keep going if you know you just have to focus on this little thing, just for today, and you can feel great about that success at the end of the day, not only because you made it through today, but because you kept your overall progress going.
I’ve also found that having a lot of reminders of why I’m doing this and what my big goal is can help a lot. For a long time, I kept a picture of my children wrapped around my credit card as a visual reminder that when I used it, I was directly taking money away from more important things. I used to keep a picture taped to my rear view mirror in my car, too.
I also often use the memory of that moment of change to help keep me focused. It’s usually a painful and sad moment and I can draw on that feeling to let me know what will happen if I give up on the changes I’ve pledged to myself.
Before I go on, I want to say that it’s not required for you to have a “moment of change” to bring about some lasting alteration to your life. It’s simply observation of patterns in my own life and the lives of a few people close to me. I have had life changes that didn’t center around a single moment of change – I’ve just found that moments of change have really spurred me to some major positive shifts in my own life.
That being said, I’ve found that time and time again big changes in my life were often tied deeply to a moment of change. I’ve been on several unsustainable paths in my life at various points and the elements described in this article – preparing and making myself open for moments of change, actually experiencing those moments, and then working hard to find ways to sustain the change brought about by that moment – have helped me to become a better person in many different dimensions of my life.
If you feel as though there is something wrong in your life – whether it’s financial or something completely different – I’d strongly recommend taking the steps I suggest to bring about a moment of change in your life. Start with some introspection. Think about what’s really troubling you with regards to that problem. How is it connected to other things in your life? What do you really dread about making the change?
The more you reflect on those issues, the more primed you become to bring about a transformative moment in your life. What you choose to do after that is up to you, but the door will then be open to something great.