It was a beautiful spring day in April 2006 when I finally realized that I was ready to make some financial changes in my life. Prior to that, I had become mildly concerned about my finances, but I kept buying into the idea that my money problems were something that my “future self” would solve.
That beautiful spring day changed all of that.
When I arrived home at my apartment, I checked the mail as I always did. The mail contained several bills, so I went inside and sat down at the computer to pay them. I popped onto my bank’s website and looked at my checking account status.
I had almost nothing in there.
Ordinarily, that wouldn’t upset me too much, but I also knew that I wouldn’t be getting paid again for a while. My next paycheck was easily a week and a half away, and by then I’d have many more bills that had piled up.
Even scarier than that was the realization that I was also very near the credit limit on my three credit cards. I barely had enough breathing room on those cards to buy a meal or two, let alone a week’s worth of groceries.
I kind of descended into a daze at that point. My wife was due home in an hour or two with our infant son in tow, so I spent that hour or two just walking around with my mind racing through the details of the situation.
No matter how I spelled it out, it was painful.
Finally, she arrived home with our son and we had a fairly normal evening. By about nine o’clock, it was time to put him to bed, so I took him into his bedroom and rocked with him in a rocking chair.
The light in there was dim, but it was still bright enough that I could see the reflection in his little eyes as he looked up at me. That look was one of complete trust. That baby had no doubt at all that he was safe with me, that I would take care of him and make sure that he had food to eat and that his childhood would be taken care of.
I held him close and I cried. I then spent several hours in there, just rocking him. I told my wife that he was having a bit of trouble sleeping and that she should just go on to bed, and I stayed in there holding him throughout the night. I dozed a bit, but I mostly just reflected on my life.
It was during that long night that I began to realize that all of my poor day-to-day choices had put me in this situation, that those choices had left me with pretty poor options going forward, and that, even worse, those poor choices had negatively altered this little baby’s future, too.
That was the moment when it all clicked into place.
Sure, I didn’t yet really understand how to manage my finances. That came in the following days and weeks and months, as I dug into personal finance books, sold off a lot of my extra possessions, and knocked off one of my credit card debts in its entirety. It took a while to build a new routine, one that wouldn’t result in spending more than I earned. It wasn’t easy and it had a lot of growing pains.
It was certainly a wobbly bicycle ride at the start, but it was a ride in the right direction, which was the big difference.
It was that moment, late at night with my son in my arms, when things clicked into place, when I made the choice to head in a different direction and start spending less than I earned.
That leaves us with a very powerful question: How can a person foster that kind of fundamental change in their own life? What exactly makes a major change like that click into place?
It’s a question I’ve considered many times since then. There have been changes I’ve wanted to make in my life over the ensuing years. Sometimes I’ve found success with those changes; other times, not so much.
What was the difference? What makes things “click” in my life?
I think it really comes down to five factors, three of which you can control and two of which you largely cannot. Underlying all of those factors is the fact that people are naturally resistant to change.
Factor #1 – A Significant Life Change That Alters Your Daily Routine
Here’s the simple truth: In order to change the broad direction of your life, you have to significantly change what you do every day. You cannot continue with the same routines and patterns or else nothing will ever change.
The easiest way to foster major change in your day-to-day life is to have a significant life change that alters what your daily responsibilities are. Changing your daily responsibilities usually changes where you are and what you’re doing throughout the day, radically changing the landscape of your daily life.
It is at that moment, when major change is occurring and your daily routines are unsettled, that you can build up better patterns in your everyday life. It is much, much harder to change your routines once they’ve become established. A major life change provides a great opportunity for altering many routines, much like turning the earth gives you a great opportunity to plant new crops.
For me, this significant change came in the form of having a child. It altered many of my daily routines and thus forced me to start re-evaluating how I was spending my time and energy and, yes, money. I was no longer going out after work very often with my usual gang, as I was more interested in heading home and taking care of my child. Our evenings no longer involved going out. Our daily patterns were changed.
There are many life events that can alter your daily routine. A change in jobs can do it, whether it’s simply moving from job to job, moving into unemployment, or moving from unemployment to a job. Perhaps it can be a marriage, or the dissolution of a marriage or a longstanding relationship. It might be moving from a house to an apartment, or from an apartment to a house. Or, like me, it might come in the form of the arrival of a child.
When those moments happen, you have a perfect opportunity to bring about real change in almost any aspect of your life. You are given the chance to establish lots of new routines, so make the effort to establish good ones.
Factor #2 – A Realization That Your Current Daily Life Choices Lead to a Place You Don’t Want to Go
What exactly happens in your life if you keep repeating the routine that you have most days? Where will you be in five years? Ten years?
Where will you be if you keep spending like you do, especially on the unimportant things? Where will you be if you keep eating at the same calorie level? Where will you be if you keep exercising at the same level? Where will you be if you read that much – or that little – each day?
Are those places that you want to be?
Yeah, it’s tempting to think that your “future self” will do better somehow, but the truth is that you’ll most likely keep repeating the same choices every day for a very long time, until something abrupt happens to change it. We are creatures of habit and routine, after all.
For me, it was that tying of daily choices to my long-term future that awoke me mentally and made me primed for change. I had already started thinking along these lines before things “clicked” completely on that long night with my son. For me, this type of thinking “set the table,” meaning that it prepared me mentally to be open to the other kinds of changes going on in my life.
For you, the best step you can take is to start asking yourself what your life will be like in the future with your current routines and habits. Will you honestly be happy with yourself in five years? Ten years? If not, then that’s a pretty powerful motivation to make some changes.
Factor #3 – An Elimination (or Reduction) of the Things That Enable Your Mistakes
What enables you to make less than stellar choices when it comes to your life? The answer to that question often isn’t all that obvious, but the truth is that there are a lot of things in your life that enable you to make the day-to-day decisions you make, for better or for worse.
For example, when you choose to carry cash in your pocket, you suddenly make it easier to make little impulse purchases throughout your day. When you have a lot of convenience food in your cupboard (like potato chips) and in your freezer (like frozen snacks), then it becomes easier to gobble unhealthy foods. When you have a credit card stored in an online website, it’s easier to just click a button and spend money.
Those types of things are enablers of poor habits. Credit cards stored in online sites. Credit cards and cash in your pocket when you’re not planning to spend. Potato chips and cookies in your cupboard. Hot Pockets in your freezer. Even things like cable television can be an enabler of poor habits.
If you want to stop those poor habits, stop having those things with you. Stop carrying cash and credit cards. Wipe your credit card numbers off of the online sites that you use. Cancel your cable television. Stop buying junk food and soda.
One very strong element that often convinces people to make poor choices is their social circle. If your friends consistently overspend, or they eat a lot of junk food, or they spend their time in unfulfilling or unproductive ways, or they spend their time abusing alcohol or drugs, it’s very easy for you to fall into those patterns as well. Make an effort to cut back on those friendships, even if it means being alone a little bit more for a while.
In other words, make active, conscious choices in advance so that you’re not open to making really poor choices in the moment. Consciously leave your credit cards at home when you go out. Consciously choose to leave the junk food and the soda on the shelves at the store. Consciously choose to cancel your cable television or your World of Warcraft subscription. Consciously choose to delete those phone numbers for food delivery from your phone.
Choices like that, made in advance, alter your choices at a later point. They make it so that you have to make better choices because the bad choices aren’t easy any more.
Factor #4 – A Set of Tools and Items at Hand That Enable Better Habits
Eliminating things that make bad choices easy is just one half of the equation. Creating things that make good choices easy is the other part of the equation.
For example, one thing you can do if you’re striving to lose weight is to identify low-calorie snacks that you do enjoy and stock your pantry with them rather than high-calorie snacks. This enables you to make better choices in the moment. If you’re trying to exercise more, find exercises that you enjoy doing and then make the equipment you need for those exercises as easily available as you can. I do this by leaving my walking/jogging/running shoes right by the door so I can easily put them on I often even leave clean socks right on top of them.
How can you do this in terms of financial recovery? Start buying stuff in bulk so that you begin to rely on having things on hand for meals in your house rather than needing to go out to eat. Prepare meals in advance and freeze them so that you know you have healthy meals on hand when you need a meal in a pinch.
You can even voluntarily choose to take on chores that will create a lasting savings around your house, such as air-sealing your home to keep drafts out, installing ceiling fans, installing LED light bulbs everywhere, and so on. Those kinds of moves make it easy to save because it reduces the cost of the normal everyday choices that you make. For example, if you start installing LED bulbs, the normal decision of turning on a light is now less expensive than it was before.
For me, looking for these kinds of opportunities has become a normal part of financial health. I am constantly looking for things I can do to make smart financial decisions easier in my life and, when I have the opportunity to put something like that in place, I try to do it as soon as possible. Those kinds of things make their way onto my daily to-do list with great urgency.
Factor #5 – A Group of People Around You That Are Actively Supportive of Your Change
When discussing the third factor, I mentioned the idea that friends can provide a very negative impact on your own desire for change. They make it easy to make really poor decisions, and those poor decisions along with those relationships continue to reinforce a very negative trajectory.
Of course, the opposite of that is true. If you surround yourself with friends who embody the things you want to achieve and consistently make positive choices in that regard, those attributes are going to influence you.
Your conversations about the things that you’re doing will reflect making positive life choices. Your close friends will be inspirational and will make you want to be more like them. Your friends will share good ideas with you for how you can do things better. The social events that you choose to do together will inherently reflect better choices.
My own life is a perfect example.
My primary social circle prior to my financial reboot was one that went out for drinks every night after work. They went golfing a lot. They always wore nice clothes and had nice gadgets and talked a lot about the hottest restaurants and vacation destinations and lots and lots of consumer products.
My primary social circle nowadays gets together at each other’s homes on a regular basis for potluck dinners. We talk about politics and about doing stuff outdoors and the books we’ve read and the projects we’re each working on. We dress really casually, perfect for hanging out around the house or maybe wandering around in the yard or playing a sport at the park together.
The earlier crowd constantly encouraged me to spend money by their very nature. Every interaction with them was an encouragement to spend money – on clothes, on gadgets, on drinks, on golfing, on cars, on expensive restaurants, and so on.
With my current social group, there’s very little encouragement to spend. Most of our conversation is far away from things you can spend money on, and even our conversations about books usually result from getting books from the library or lending books to each other. Even our meals are simple affairs.
My current social group does a great job of naturally encouraging me to be financially responsible. They even do a good job (to an extent) of encouraging other good behaviors, such as exercising and eating healthier.
Are they more “fun” than my other group? It’s hard to compare, but I enjoy social events with my current group. However, they are undoubtedly more joyful and fulfilling than the other group.
How can you cultivate a more positive social group? Look for places in your community where such people might congregate. Try volunteering or attending free community events where there’s a real opportunity to meet people face to face and see if anything clicks.
It was the simultaneous occurrence of all of these factors that really convinced me to make a financial turnaround.
First, we had a child, which altered our routines of everyday life. We couldn’t simply follow the patterns we had been following for the previous few years.
Second, I began to realize that my daily choices was really negatively affecting the path I was heading down. I didn’t like where we were going to wind up in five or ten years.
Third, I started to gravitate away from things that caused me to make poor financial choices. For example, I started spending less time with my big-spending social circle. We ate fewer meals at restaurants.
Fourth, I started to gravitate toward things that encouraged good financial choices. For example, we ate more meals at home that we prepared ourselves. I started driving a different commute to work that kept me away from places where I could spend money.
Finally, we started spending more time with friends who encouraged good financial behavior. The friends that really emerged in our life after the birth of our first child were much more on the ball when it came to finances, and our friendship was oriented around things that didn’t involve spending money.
Those things all came together at roughly the same time and they naturally led to that moment when I really realized what was at stake and that I needed to change things. It wasn’t an immediate transformation by any means – I didn’t suddenly become a financial wizard – but it did mean that we were making better and better choices almost on a daily basis.
The end result? Today, we own our own home. We have no debts – not even a mortgage. We have savings and investments. We have very little stress when it comes to money.
I owe all of that to the moment when everything clicked into place.
Good luck finding your own “click.”