The End Is the Beginning

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki

old and young_003 by ezloman on Flickr!When I first began my financial turnaround, I was open to trying anything to improve my financial situation. I signed up for online savings accounts at several different banks. I constantly strove to shave every penny I could from my spending.

I failed, a lot. I’d try things that simply didn’t work, or would end up saving me only a few cents for an hour’s worth of effort.

One great example is my endeavor to collect nickel cans. In Iowa, we have a aluminum can and plastic bottle recycling program. Every time you buy a beverage in a can or bottle, you must pay a nickel “deposit.” Then, if you return that empty can or bottle, the state will refund you a nickel. Most grocery stores function as return centers, so it’s easy to get that money back, yet many people simply don’t bother. I decided to take advantage of this and tried valiantly to make scavenging cans and bottles worth my while. Unfortunately, my hourly rate at this endeavor (collecting, sorting, and returning) was roughly a dollar – not really worth it.

This conclusion should have been rather obvious from the outset – it’s pretty clear to me that collecting cans is not going to earn a significant return for the effort put in. Yet, as a beginner at getting my financial house in order, I was willing to try it out of a mix of enthusiasm and a lack of experience.

That excitement – and the experiences that it gave me – was invaluable. It took me from a person who barely had the first idea about money management and helped me pay off most of my debts, get me into a house, and help me build a strong retirement plan and a big emergency fund and college savings for my kids.

Today, after years of trying all sorts of endeavors, I have a rather keen perception of what things will work and what things will not. I can consider experiments like collecting cans and quickly determine whether or not it’s worth the effort – and toss the losing endeavors very quickly. I have a strong basic understanding of most personal finance topics, and I can quickly identify things that work and things that do not.

Where does that leave me? As the Suzuki quote above implies, it leaves me in a seemingly limited place, without many options at all.

You can see some of this in the evolution of The Simple Dollar. When I first started, I would post as many as six articles a day. These articles were often very short – sometimes just a paragraph or two – and they were oozing with enthusiasm for all sorts of ideas. Some of these ideas were very good ones, like What Money Can’t Buy (a great example of my early realizations about the roles of money in life), but others were not so good, like The Power of the Pocket Change Jar.

Now, I only post two articles a day, but they’re much longer and often much more considered than they ever were back then. I toss out 90% of my ideas right off the bat – they simply don’t work or they won’t make for a compelling article. The ones that I do stick with tend to be much longer, more detailed, and based on a significant amount of personal experience or research. I stick mostly with things that I know work.

Many of you are probably in a similar situation when it comes to personal finance. You come to The Simple Dollar for fresh ideas and encouragement each day, but much of this material is at least somewhat familiar to you. You know the basics: spend less than you earn, find ways to cut your spending, try to increase your income, and seek what makes you happy.

Yet, if you’ve been following this path for years, how can it be fresh again? If you’ve been frugal for years, how can frugality be exciting again? If you’ve got your financials in order, what does it take to get you excited and engaged in it again?

Here’s what I do to keep things fresh.

I regularly re-evaluate all of my goals. I often do this in conjunction with my wife, and we usually do it once a month as part of an informal discussion about our financial state. Together, we question everything. Is saving for a house in the country still important? Or should we focus more on shorter-term things? Here’s an example: for years, we had been saving slowly for replacements for our current vehicles, intending to buy late model used automobiles. Now that we’re actually facing the need to replace vehicles, we’re doing some shopping and realizing that new versions of many of the best models are only slightly more than the late model used versions – and we’re very strongly looking at getting a new car. It’s a change from what we had considered a “set in stone” plan – and it’s only one example.

I make an effort to regularly try (or investigate) new things. I’ll go on “Wikipedia wanders” related to personal finance and other topics (seriously, try it – start with the entry about personal finance and click around until you’re in interesting new territory). I try out new inexpensive recipes all the time, both food and otherwise (like homemade laundry detergent). In each case, even if I find that the new things aren’t worthwhile, I still enjoy the experience and I still learn something new.

I listen carefully to people who are just starting their journey and share ideas back and forth with them. People who are at different stages in their life often have vastly different perspectives on the same topic. They bring different life experiences to the table and they bring new ways of looking at tired old ideas to the forefront. You might have noticed that I find myself as of late answering more and more reader questions – I do it because not only do I learn from reading about their experience, researching it, and giving my take, but I also learn from the ideas that others put up in the comments.

I keep reading. Many people are amazed that I’ve reviewed a book each week since 2006 on The Simple Dollar. I do it because, first and foremost, it keeps exposing me to new ideas and new angles on old ideas, and by reviewing them, I get the opportunity to evaluate those new ideas and also share them with you all (many of whom seem to really like the reviews).

Together, these things often let me see personal finance and frugality and personal growth through fresh new eyes, even if only for a little while. Doing that helps keep things fresh and interesting and helps me keep my eye on the ball in terms of managing my money and my life.

Good luck at seeing things in a new light!

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