Updated on 09.27.11

The Waiting Game

Trent Hamm

Recently, a friend of mine offered up an interesting thought on personal finance issues: “You know what the worst part about getting your money straight is? The waiting. It doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years. All of that waiting on your debts to go away is just excruciating.”

I know exactly what he means – and it’s not just the debts either. The same thing can be true if you’re saving for a down payment for a house or simply waiting until you can make the next leap in your career.

Personal finance success often means waiting. Patience is pretty much a required virtue.

It’s an interesting contrast to many aspects of day-to-day life, where speed is valued and instant gratification is the rule. It’s no wonder, given how other elements of life work, that many people struggle with the patience needed to make personal finance work for them.

How can you play and win the waiting game when it comes to your money? Here are some things that I do in my own life.

Automate everything I make most elements of my finances completely automatic through automatic transfers and other mechanisms. I never have to talk myself into moving money into savings each and every month. It just happens without me taking any action on it.

Money gets transferred to my retirement savings. It gets transferred to 529 accounts for each of my kids. Several of my regular bills are paid. And I don’t have to lift a finger. It just happens.

Don’t look at your balances Come up with a plan for achieving your goal before you start, then don’t even look at your account balances until you’re close to that goal. Seriously. Looking at your balances forces you to reflect on how long it is until you reach your goals, adding to the sense of waiting.

I just don’t look at these balances at all. Whenever I examine a statement, I’m mostly verifying that things are being deducted and contributed correctly. The balance itself just causes me to reflect on the distance I’ve yet to travel.

Set a mix of goals Most people think about personal finance in terms of big goals, such as paying off big debts or saving for big things. In truth, you can feel success with personal finance and get the sense of achieving goals if you choose some shorter term goals, too.

I’m usually saving for some specific goal or specific item that I expect to come to fruition within the next several months. Right now, for example, I’m saving for a walking desk for my office. I’ll be able to achieve that goal in the next few months, giving me a strong sense of success in my endeavors.

Share your experiences It’s a lot easier to manage a big, long term goal if you know you’re in it with others. Don’t be afraid to talk about the challenges of being patient with your friends. You’ll probably be surprised to find that they’re dealing with much the same thing that you are.

Over time, I’ve found it a comfort to talk to my friends about personal finances when I focus on the struggles we all have in common. Simply knowing that they’re in it for a long haul as well makes it easier to deal with. We’re all in this together.

Patience is a vital virtue when it comes to personal finance, but it doesn’t have to be a weight dragging you down. By simply taking a few basic actions to combat impatience, you can make the whole process easier as you head down the road to success.

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  1. lurker carl says:

    Getting your money “straight” isn’t a waiting game, it is a process. You have to watch, track, think, work, plan, measure. Yes, patience is a virtue for every long term goal but, just like losing weight, the process must be monitored and remain a high priority 24-7-365. Otherwise, you will fail.

  2. Steven says:

    “Don’t look at your balances” is stupid advice.

    Sorry. But it is.

  3. lynda grant says:

    Saving for a walking desk? Is that a desk attached to some sort of treadmill? I just know there is a joke in there somewhere, but I can’t think of one right now!

  4. Adam P says:

    As someone saving for a downpayment, this post speaks to me.

    I’m comfortable where I rent (across the street from work in a beautiful condo that is reasonable and has a great landlord). Theoretically I could live there another 10 years, although the pressure to buy buy buy from family is mounting by the month. I have about $50,000 or so saved for a place, but the housing market in Toronto is crazy hot and every other day the word bubble appears so I’m just biding my time and saving about $1500 a month more for the downpayment. When interest rates rise I’ll see if a crash happens or not.

    Since that saving is on top of my retirement savings and out of my net pay, it’s quite a chunk of my fun money. And it’s approaching 20% down very soon for a very expensive place (which is what % I would like to put down). But a house downpayment can really never be big enough until you have zero mortgage. Which is forever.

    Hence the waiting game I’m in.

    For me, writing down goals well in advance (I usually budget out at least 6 months and make goals for a year ahead each December) and making sure I reach them is what motivates me. I don’t automate, I just have enough willpower to send money to ING every time I get paid. This way I can control when weird things happen (like my credit card changed billing cycle this month so I had a 50 day balance due on a weird date!).

  5. Vanessa says:

    I wouldn’t say “stupid” but I kinda agree with Steven. If you don’t look at your balances, how will you know when you’re close to reaching your goal? Keeping track of your progress can be encouraging. When I was paying off debt, I knew it was going to take awhile, so I set mini-goals. For each $1,000 I paid off, I’d do a mental happy dance. Looking at my debt in chunks of $1,000 gave me a psychological boost. I used the same approach when building my savings–focusing on saving increments of $1,000.

  6. Steven says:

    Not looking at your balances is a bad idea, and when you’re in debt, not looking at your balances is a stupid idea. You’re essentially ignoring your reality by not looking. I get Trent’s point, it’s similar to watching the clock, time goes faster when you don’t…

    Maybe a person doesn’t need to look at their balances every single day, but I think once a week, especially when a person is actively working their way out of debt, is a good idea. Check your balances, know your position. By checking your accounts, you know exactly how you’re doing, and whether or not you can afford to pay down the debt even more this week.

    Stupid might seem like a strong word, but most people who are in debt most likely got there because they ignored their balances. Getting out of debt requires more diligence and attention. You can’t simply set it up and let it go. There’s much more to it than that.

  7. Becky says:

    I appreciated this post. Maybe you’re right and I should check my balances less. I go to the Mint “overview” page several times a day and review where I am with my spending and debt repayments. It’s almost become like a tic – need a brain break? Check Mint!

    It has been helpful for the last year or so to do this, because during that time I was turning around from saving very little and sending most of my paycheck to debt every month (because of scary high payments, not stellar get-out-of-debt behavior). At the beginning of the year I got a better paying job and restructured my debt so my *required* payments are lower, though I am still trying to pay them off at a very high rate. But, I have other goals to meet too – setting up an emergency fund, for example, and managing my cash flow rather than just hoping I’ll have enough money in the bank when the property taxes come due, and putting them on a credit card if I don’t. Yikes.

    Because I have so many goals, and such a mountain of debt ($45K, down from $51K at the beginning of the year), it IS discouraging to check it too often. At the beginning of the year I got several big checks all at once – accrued vacation pay from my former job, and three big tax refunds (long story there). So it was really fun to check my Mint balances often and see the emergency fund fill up and the debt balances sink.

    But now, it feels like a long slog up a steep mountain – only $100 per month into the emergency fund, only $800 per month into debt repayments (and so much of that is sucked away by interest, the principals go down much less than that). Realistically it looks like I will not be out of debt till 2016, and that’s a whole lotta hours of checking my Mint overview page!

    I’ve been so discouraged. Today I spent a little bit of time outlining the things I *have* accomplished (not just finanically) over the past year, and that helped a lot. I think I will start keeping a little journal of “small wins” instead of looking so obsessively at the whale I’m trying to eat. I’m on the right path, after all. As long as I stay on the path, I don’t need to check my map every step of the way, as long as I check it when I get to a crossroads or want confirmation that I’m still going the right way.

  8. Katie says:

    I don’t think Trent is advocating not checking the balance of your checking account or credit card. He’s talking about long-term things where you make regular, probably automated payments or transfers and are looking at a very far off goal. I think this is good advice. Sorry, if I sat down and looked at the actual balance of my law school student loans every time I made a payment, I would shoot myself and then they’d never get paid off. Instead, I pay what I can afford to pay – which is a reasonable amount – and then focus on the rest of my life without obsessing over how far away I am from getting them entirely finished.

  9. BirdDog says:

    I enjoy looking at the balance of my savings account. It feels great to see it grow. Rather than thinking of all the things I could be spending that money on, I like the fact that it is growing. The more I save, the less I want to spend. I know that money is there in case of emergency or when I get ready to make any life change.

    I like to see that in print. I just do. If looking at balances makes you want to give up or spend, then don’t. But I don’t think that’s great advice for everyone.

  10. Steven says:

    @Katie: I guess we’re different in what motivates us then. When I look at my school loan balance, I get fired up…and that makes me want to get rid of them even faster. It’s frustrating to me to have that balance hanging over my head. And when I think about just paying the minimum and having that debt there for years (or decades), I think about the freedom I’m giving up by having that debt. It makes me feel like I’m an indentured servent to the banks. I hate debt. And I believe that debt is the single most limiting thing in life that people deal with. It keeps us locked into a job that we hate because we fear not being able to pay our creditors. We fear risk, or standing up for what’s right because we need stability to service our debts. Without debt, we’re free to do as we chose with our life. There’s not such a need to keep our nose to the grindstone.

    So, I guess what I’m saying is that I use my balances to push me to get out of debt. I think that’s a very powerful thing. I refuse to accept debt in my life, and I have a long way to go to correct the mistakes of my past, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to just pay the minimum until the debt’s gone. I want it gone sooner than that so I can have my freedom.

  11. Katie says:

    Steven, of course you should do what motivates you. Trent described a thing that can happen through obsessive balance checking and if it doesn’t apply to you, it doesn’t apply.

    That said, you shouldn’t assume that people who don’t constantly track balances are paying some minimum amount. You can be making regular extra payments and still be on long term repayment horizons and not tracking the total balance can still make perfect sense.

    Personally, my student debt is large enough that I will be paying it off for a while no matter how much I make being debt free a crusade. I see no reason to torment myself with that fact and so make responsibly sized payments and then continue to live my life.

  12. Steven says:

    Different strokes for different folks, right?

    I’m not trying to say “my way” is the only way, or even the best way. I just think that not checking your balances is poor strategy.

    And honestly, I’ve read so many conflicting things on TSD…makes me think Trent just grabs ideas out of thin air without much thought. That’s why the mantra of this site is “do what works for you, ignore the rest…” Because half the things that Trent writes about probably don’t even apply to his own life. Nothing like “Say as I say, not as I do.” One post he’ll write that you should work hard for 10 years so you can be out of debt in half the time than to drag that debt along with you for twenty. Then, a posts later, he says “Eh, don’t worry about the balance. Just set up autopay and ignore it.”

    It’d be nice if there was some consistency in his message other than “Spending on things *I* don’t value is bad…”

  13. Katie says:

    Steven, I honestly don’t think those things are inconsistent (and I’ve gone on record times where I think Trent is!). You can work hard to pay the debt off in ten years and then put the ten year payments on autopay, throwing extra money at the debt when you get it.

    Though I don’t disagree that it’s good to acknowledge that other people will get something positive out of really regular balance-checking.

  14. Steven says:

    I suppose you’re right. It IS possible to do both. But that’s not really the message I got from this post. And it’s not that I even disagree with the theme of the post (about having patience), I am just rubbed the wrong way with his suggestion to ignore the balance of your accounts. How can you do that if you’re tracking your spending, debt repayment, savings, etc? I suppose a person could update that info once a month…and then it’s consistent with Trent’s message. I guess it’s a matter of what motivates you, and which techniques work best for you. (But I still think it’s stupid to ignore your balances.)

  15. Vanessa says:

    If we’re talking about inconsistencies…Trent has said he calculates his net worth every month and suggests others do it monthly or quarterly. I’d post the link to the article but I’m not sure if it would get stuck in moderation. Anyway last December he said…

    “In my experience, there is no better snapshot of your financial health than your net worth. With one single number, you can get a glimpse of your financial state, good or bad. More importantly, by calculating your net worth on a consistent basis and comparing the numbers, you can get a sense of whether you’re making positive financial progress or whether you’re regressing.”

    Maybe *I’m* the one who’s stupid, but I thought figuring net worth was all about tracking balances?

  16. krantcents says:

    The only debt I ever had was mortgage debt associated with the apartment buildings and shopping centers. When I sold off my businesses, the mortgages went with it. I always fairly good at finance, which was one of the reasons I chos eit as a career.

  17. Kate says:

    It has been interesting to me to see how Trent’s advice has changed over time–I chalk it up to the fact that as he has gained more financial “strength” he has adjusted his thinking and trusts himself more. But, like with any new way of living, he occasionally has to go back to the basics (such as his inner debate as to whether to purchase a video game or not).
    Being an obsessive balance checker can consume your life…at some point, you simply have to trust yourself that you are doing the right thing in the long term.

  18. Sandra says:

    Hmmm….when I was paying off my debt, I was obsessive about checking the totals- logging into my accounts daily (or more) to see if I could squueze another $5.00 to the payment, or just to use it to shame/inspire me to find more money. Now that I am out of most debt (the rapidly diminishing mortgage remains), I don’t check. In fact, I make a point NOT to look at the balance on my savings accounts. The transactions into the accounts, yes, the balance NO! Like Trent, until I think I am close to the goal amount in any of the myriad accounts, it is torture to see how much more I have to go.

    So, yes I do a net worth evaluation quarterly, so I HAVE to look at balances, but I am no where near checking the total savings daily or weekly or monthly. I guess in my mind, savings is a surprise, a gift to myself so it is protected and cosseted and treasured, whereas my debt is a nasty war attacked daily.

  19. moom says:

    Checking your balances several times a day as one poster wrote doesn’t make any sense. But I do like to check balances once a month or so. I compute accounts for income and expenditure and net worth on a monthly basis. This helps us keep on track financially and I like to see balances growing. Seeing them declining makes us try to reduce spending.

  20. Brittany says:

    I can see how tracking network is a better method than just checking the balance of your “goal.” It can be really overwhelming to see a giant chunk of of student debt that despite throwing all of your extra money at it, barely moves. I can see how that would be discouraging. However, seeing that number in context with your net worth (which, even if you’re just paying a little and saving a little, should increase every month/quarter) can result in more positive than negative reflection.

  21. Katie says:

    However, seeing that number in context with your net worth (which, even if you’re just paying a little and saving a little, should increase every month/quarter) can result in more positive than negative reflection.

    Mmm, I don’t really see this. Tiny number swings are tiny number swings.

    Personally – and I know many people find it helpful for themselves – I feel no need to calculate my net worth until, well, there’s some specific reason to know my net worth. I know I’m paying off student loans at a rate I’m comfortable with; I know I’m transferring money into cash savings at a rate I’m comfortable with; I know I’m saving for retirement at a rate I’m comfortable with. I also know I have room to be more frugal and try to trim from my day-to-day budget, and as I do that, I can redirect the extra. Knowing all those things, I don’t need to know specific over-all numbers and so I don’t track them. Of course when I set all this up I did make the calculations, and could do so again quickly if I needed to, but it doesn’t need to be in the forefront of my consciousness on any given day.

  22. joan says:

    Some really great comments. I’d like to add that banks and other institutions can make mistakes. So. I believe in checking items at least once a month. Trent makes enough money to have it automatially transferred into several accounts. So, maybe it wouldn’t matter as much if there were mistakes made by the institutions; however, not everyone makes that much money and a mistake could be very costly.

  23. cc says:

    i’m opposite from this, i check my balances once a week to make sure everything is on-track. i also scour my bank and credit card bills weekly- ive caught all kinds of stuff this way. the vigilance can be exhausting, but i know that my statements are accurate.

    now checking stock and mutual fund prices daily… that sucks ;P

  24. Maggie says:

    #7, I love the idea of a journal to track wins, whether big or small. While my journal is not for financial matters, it still lets me see that I am making progress on several projects that have been going on for far longer than I ever thought they would. My sister thought a journal would help me see that I was taking the right steps and I have found that it really keeps me motivated. Yes, I am making progress even though I don’t work on them every day, I can check back over the last few months and see changes. I try to do a little something every day so I can add another entry to my journal. Try doing this a while and you will want to have an entry every day.

  25. Brittany says:

    Katie–my point wasn’t that everyone needs to check their networth to be motivated. It was more in response to #15 Vanessa’s question: “I thought figuring net worth was all about tracking balances?” which pointed to a seeming discrepancy between Trent’s “track your net worth monthly” and “don’t look at the balances on your debt/savings account.”

    My point was that while the two aren’t totally exclusive, there is a bit of difference. I think it’s possible to maintain “Checking your debt balance constantly can be unhealthy/demotivating… but calculate your networth monthly.” within a consistent framework, because networth provides the broader CONTEXT of those balances. This has the potential to be more motivating to some than just looking at the very-gradually-shrinking balance. (“I still have debt, but my finances are in order.” versus “HOW WILL I EVER PAY OFF THIS DEBT?”)

    Again, different strokes for different folks, but I can see the argument.

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