The Destiny Trap

Yesterday, I read this wonderful article on the Australian website Whimn entitled ‘I Make A Six-Figure Salary But I’m Still Always Broke.’ The article takes the form of a “letter to the editor” in which a person struggling with their spending sensibilities writes in for advice:

I just got a raise, which will create about $700 more of income per month. I will also finish paying off a consolidation loan (another result of my terrible spending habits) within the year. Between these two things, I’ll have an extra $2,000 per month that I’m afraid I’ll just waste on more trips to Sephora. Is there a way to train my brain to stop wanting to buy things after years and years of feeling like I need them? Will I ever be able to save money, or am I destined to continue to throw it away on disposable goods?

I know that feeling all too well. The answer from Whimn writer Charlotte Cowles was quite good, but one section really stood out to me (I added the highlight):

If you continue to see your situation that way — as your “destiny” — then the answer is yes, because you’ve effectively removed yourself from the equation and decided that your spending controls you. But if you put some work into figuring out what you really want to do with your income (which involves figuring out what you really want, period), then you can wrestle your finances into their rightful place in your life — a source of occasional stress and annoyance, sure, but mostly a means to take care of yourself.

This is such a brilliant point. Once you’ve made the decision that your situation is “hopeless” and that things will always be like this, you’ve abdicated personal responsibility for the situation. You’re saying that, because this is simply how things are, you no longer have to take any meaningful steps to fix the problem. This is just how things are.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Believing that this is how things are so that you don’t have to take any action on your own behalf just gives you an excuse to not even try to improve your situation. The truth is that virtually every situation in life can see some improvement if you’re actually willing to try. “That’s just how things are” is an excuse not to try to improve things.

Looking back on my own experience, I certainly felt this way quite a lot during the year or so before our financial turnaround began. I continually felt like the future that Sarah and I happily talked about and dreamed about as we were graduating from college was slipping away from us and that’s just how things were. I believed that I was now an “adult” and the rut that my life had fallen into, where I was spending money all the time on all kinds of forgettable things because they brought me little bursts of pleasure, was just the normal life routine of an adult. That’s just “how things were.”

That feeling came from several sources, I think.

One, I didn’t look to people who were spending less than they earned as role models or influencers in my life. The real influencers in my life at that time were people who spent quite a lot of money on disposable goods and minor enjoyable but forgettable experiences (like an afternoon playing golf and having drinks) or were earning a lot more than I was.

I spent most of my professional networking time and social time outside of work with people who fell into those two categories. They were either earning many multiples of my income and could afford their expenditures with ease or they were as addicted to spending their relatively small salary as I seemed to be at the time.

The end result was that spending lots of money felt completely normal. It felt like that’s what people in my social group and my professional group just did. It was normal, and not doing it thus felt abnormal.

It wasn’t as if better influences weren’t available to me. I just chose to hang out with big spenders, and that rubbed off on me.

Two, I never really tied what I was doing on a given day to what my life would look like in the future. When I first launched my professional life, I really believed that in ten years Sarah and I would be living in a wonderful home with a few kids and so on. That just felt like what would inevitably happen.

As time passed, it became clear that our finances weren’t going to allow this to happen any time soon, so my vision of the future changed to one I didn’t like nearly as much. That nice vision of the future slipped away and I began to think that my future probably involved living in an apartment most of my life.

While I could see that being frugal and not spending could help out, I mostly saw it as a tactic that would help until the next paycheck, nothing more. “Living cheap” simply meant eating a few cheap meals at home until the next paycheck came in and then it was time to party. I never saw the connection between those daily behaviors and choices and the big direction of my life.

Three, I often blamed “the man” for my problems. In other words, I believed that the big picture outcomes of my life were out of my control, that I was just being swept along by currents that were bigger than myself.

I believed that although I had some control over my career, the tides of fortune were going to ensure that I never earned a huge income, so why really try for it?

I believed that people in their twenties and thirties were supposed to be weighted down by student loans and credit card debt and that owning a home was something that only rich people did, so why fight for it?

In short, I bought into the idea that my situation was one that was simply not going to lead to home ownership. I was a twenty something coming of age in an era where student loans were suffocating and there weren’t really any opportunities for me. It was an easy thing to believe, so I believed it, and that made me not really try when it came to the other aspects on this list.

Four, I was addicted to the little pleasures and didn’t want to think about life without them. I enjoyed going to bookstores and walking out with three or four fresh books in my arms. I enjoyed going out for drinks with my friends. I enjoyed going out to eat with my wife. I enjoyed visiting coffee shops. I enjoyed having a nice shiny car. I enjoyed dressing in nice clothes.

It’s not as if I don’t view those things as enjoyable now – I certainly do. The difference is that now I have the capacity to distinguish between those which are just momentary and forgettable bursts of pleasure and which really mean something to me.

Back then, I didn’t really see a difference. I viewed them all as pleasurable and worthy and I didn’t want to really think of life without any of them.

The reality was that many of them really didn’t last. They’d provide little bursts of joy and then they’d fade so fast I’d forget about them within a day. They made no meaningful impact on my life other than to drain my bank account and give me the most fleeting sense of joy.

The crazy part? I wanted to hold onto all of those little fleeting joys. I didn’t want to change anything. The thought of giving up even a little of those fleeting pleasures seemed like pure misery. (Oh, how foolish I was.)

Finally, I didn’t really believe I had the capacity to change my behavior in any real way. Even if I ignored the previous four elements, I still didn’t believe that I had the ability to make real meaningful changes in my life.

From my perspective at the time, I worked hard already. I barely had any free time as it was, and what little I thought I had I wanted to guard carefully.

My view was that real meaningful change in my life was simply beyond me. I didn’t just accept the situation, I accepted my own non-response to it.

Added together, those five elements felt like destiny. They felt like the story of my life – I was headed down this path I saw for myself where I was going to keep struggling with debt and living in this little apartment forever, never quite achieving the dreams I had for myself just a few years ago. My destiny was to keep up with this lifestyle, which seemed fun but left me feeling sort of empty inside – almost exactly what the woman writing the letter that started all of this described.

What changed? Well, over a several month long period, I knocked down every single one of those ideas that underpinned my sense of destiny.

One, I started to spend more of my time with financially responsible people and less time with less responsible people. A big part of that was having a kid, which somewhat changed our social life, but another part of it was simply engaging more in my local community and also getting back in touch with older friends who had started to fade in my life. The thing is, you choose who you hang out with, and if the people you spend time with are constantly spending money, you’ll probably do it, too. On the other hand, if the people you hang out with don’t constantly spend money, you’ll probably cut back on it, too – if nothing else, you won’t have to spend money just to hang out with them. I also noticed that a lot of my conversations started to change – it was less about “stuff” and “the cool thing I did last weekend” and more about “life” and “ideas.”

Two, I started to really associate my day-to-day behavior with where my life was headed. More than anything else, this was the revelation drummed into my head by the amazing personal finance book Your Money or Your Life, which completely changed my life. More than anything else, that book really got me to connect the long term outcome of my life with my day-to-day behavior and made me realize that the many choices I made each day did a ton to shape those big lifelong outcomes.

Three, I stopped blaming “the man” or society for things not going perfectly in my life. This shift was guided by some of my mentors I had in my life at the time, who were incredibly good at helping me realize that I was making a lot of mistakes while blaming external forces. I remember hanging out at the retirement party of one of my mentors and he sat down next to me for a moment and said something I won’t ever forget. He told me that there were a ton of days early in his career when he felt stuck in place and felt like he’d never get ahead and he wanted someone to blame for it, and the day when things got better for him was the day he woke up and realized that the someone he needed to blame for it was himself. Sometimes the world will hand you a bad hand, but what makes the difference is how you play that hand. You can win sometimes even with a 6 and an 8 off suit, to borrow some poker parlance, if you play your hand right. The “man” isn’t holding you back. You are.

Four, I began to realize that the pleasures that didn’t last were actually a net negative in my life. Whenever I spent money on some little burst of pleasure that I forgot about within a half an hour, I was basically making my future a little worse for nothing. There are many, many, many free things in life that can give you those little bursts of pleasure – paying for them is a fool’s game. If you’re going to spend money for something that brings you joy, that’s fine, but make it something worthwhile. If I want something pleasureful for free, I’ll hold my wife in my arms or play around with my kids or play a board game or go on a walk out in the bright sunshine or go on a hike or do any of the hundreds of enjoyable free things there are to do. Many of them even provide lasting pleasure, too.

Finally, I simply gave change a sincere shot, based on the other four realizations. I began to understand that I could control my own financial destiny, but in the end, I had to make some changes, and the only way to find out if you’re capable of something is to… yep, just do it. I started making sweeping changes to my spending habits, to my bills, to all kinds of things in my life and not all of them stuck, but many of them did, enough to turn the ship around.

The truth is there really isn’t any such thing as destiny. There’s only the future you make for yourself and how you work around the unexpected events, and that future is built piece by piece, day by day, out of the choices you make. You choose who you spend time with. You choose the things you think about. You choose to accentuate certain thoughts and minimize others. You choose whether to blame others for your problems or look within for the best way around those obstacles.

Those choices might not lead to a perfect golden future, but they will definitely lead to a better future than you have right now. They led me from sitting in a tiny apartment with no savings, tens of thousands in credit card debt, tens of thousands in student loans, and a sense that things couldn’t get better to living in a four bedroom house – fully paid for, no mortgage – with no other debts and a fresh new career, all within about five years.

Was either one of those things my destiny? Nope. However, the better outcome was shaped by realizing that I wasn’t tied to a destiny of financial struggle. I could make my own story.

And so can you.

You don’t have to surround yourself with people who encourage your worst impulses. Instead, find people who encourage the best in you, not the worst. This might require you to get out and look for those people. I suggest starting with your local community calendar and with Meetup.

The choices you make every single day do shape your future, even if you don’t immediately seek the connection. Aim to be your best self every day. You won’t always make it, but what matters is the effort. Aim to spend less. Aim to be a better person. Aim to exercise. If you don’t quite make it today, don’t feel like a failure. Aim for it tomorrow even harder.

You don’t have to blame other people for the things going wrong in your life – in fact, that’s a giant waste of time. Yes, they might actually be part of the problem, but they’re a part of the problem that you can’t control. Separate what you can control from what you can’t control and focus on what you can control. The first thing you can control is your emotional response to things – not your emotions, but how you act on them. Work on keeping that in check. Next, start looking for things you can do to make a bad situation better regardless of who might have caused it. Are there workplace issues? What can you do to make them better, even if it’s not “your fault”? Start looking at all of your life through that lens.

Turn a discerning eye to the things you do for fun. It’s fine to spend money on the things that really mean something… but how much of the things you spend money on really provide lasting value to you? Eliminate those things that really don’t matter and try to trim down the ones that do. Replace those things with free things that bring you joy, like a conversation with a friend or a jog around the neighborhood or reading a good book. Seek lasting bliss, not momentary bliss. Fill your life with low cost activities and things that bubble up with momentary bliss all the time.

In the end, if you’re in doubt about all of this, just give it a shot. Doing things like this can’t really harm you. Even if you find out that they don’t really work, what exactly did you lose by trying? What matters more than anything is sincere effort towards living a better day to day life, and that starts… today.

There’s no better day than today to start changing your destiny, and along the way, you may just realize that there’s no destiny at all, just a path through a life you’re happy with.

Good luck.

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