What Is Your Logjam?

During the months leading up to our financial meltdown in April 2006, I knew that there were some serious financial problems brewing in our life. We had a lot of debt and didn’t own any major assets and we seemed to be consistently spending less than we earned. It wasn’t as though I was oblivious to these facts.

The problem was that there were a few self-imposed logs blocking our way to the financial progress we needed to make.

For me, there were three things that stood in the way of changing things.

First, my day-to-day routine was really comfortable and pleasant for me. I didn’t want to disrupt the flow of a normal day in my life.

I can somewhat recount what a normal day was like then, based on my journals. My wife would get up about 5 AM for her commute, but before she left, she’d feed our baby and then slip the little one into bed next to me. I’d cuddle with him for a while, then get up at about 6:30 AM, get him and myself ready for our day, and take him to daycare. On my way to work, I’d stop for some sort of breakfast, then get to the office about 7:30 AM or so. I’d work a normal day, usually involving going out to lunch with a coworker, then I’d head out. I’d stop by some sort of entertainment store on the way home from work, whether it was the local comic book shop, the local electronics store, or a bookstore, and I’d usually leave with some purchase that was meant to entertain me that evening. I’d get home and either enjoy that new entertainment or one of the other really recent ones until my wife and son got home at about 5:30, after which we’d make supper, play with the baby, watch a movie, and then go to bed. A few nights a week, I’d squeeze in drinks with coworkers before going home.

I loved that routine, but it’s easy to see where unnecessary expense after unnecessary expense found their way into the routine. I’d eat out two meals a day. I’d stop for some entertainment purchase virtually every night, and go out for drinks a couple times a week.

Let’s say my breakfast was $7 a day, my lunch was $10 a day, drinks were $5 a day three times a week, and the after-work entertainment was $10 a day on average. That’s right around $30 a day spent without much sensibility, just to sustain a routine I’d built up for myself. That’s $150 a week. That’s $7,500 a year spent on nothing but a expensive daily routine.

It was such a comfortable routine, though. I’d get up in the morning and feel as though I’d rather have that daily routine than just about anything I could realistically see in my life.

Second, I wanted to be seen as the “successful” person in my family, and the only way I knew how to show that was with financial showiness.

I was the first one in my family to go to college and the first one to have what one might call a white-collar job. I felt intense pressure, whether self-imposed or not, to be seen as successful.

Today, I understand that an impression of success has to do with a lot of things, and how you dress and what you own are extremely minor elements of that. Back then, I really only understood the “first glance” appearance of success, in the sense that the person who dressed well and drove the shiny car must be successful.

So, I wanted to be the person with the amazing technology and the shiny car and the nice clothes. I wanted to be the person who casually picked up the dinner tab. Not doing that felt like a betrayal of the “success” I’d worked so hard for.

Finally, I believed in my “future self” way too much. I was absolutely certain that at some point in the future I would earn lots of money and pay for all of the things I was doing.

I had achieved many of the things I’d wanted to achieve in life up to that point, so why not completely expect that I would achieve even more of them? I believed I could spend that money because, in just a few years, I would succeed at some endeavor or another and my ship would come in.

These three attitudes conspired to keep me from fixing my financial situation and, in fact, to keep burying me deeper and deeper in debt. As long as I had enough financial stability to keep my head barely above water, these three things kept blocking me from making the decisions I needed to make to improve my future.

What was the reality, though?

First, the parts of my daily routine that really mattered weren’t the ones I was spending money on. When I started eating breakfast at home, taking my lunch with me, and coming straight home after work, I really retained almost everything I really loved about my daily routine. It turns out that between all of the books I’d already bought but hadn’t read, the video games I’d bought but hadn’t completed, and Netflix streaming, I actually already had more entertainment at home than I could possibly consume.

Second, I learned that the people I care about really didn’t care much at all about those “trappings.” In fact, if they were impressed by anything, it was the fact that Sarah and I purchased a home and then paid off the mortgage fairly quickly. The other stuff is just like wrapping paper around the present – it’s quickly torn away to reveal what’s actually going on underneath.

Finally, my “future self” isn’t going to do any more than I’m doing right now. If I’m not committing time to making changes in my life right now, then my “future self” in two years or five years won’t, either.

Almost every challenging life change we want to make is blocked by a logjam made up of “logs” of inaccurate and self-deluding beliefs. We buy into certain things because it’s easy and it keeps us from having to take on something hard in our life. Once you start pounding away at those logs and break through them, the river of change begins to flow freely and you begin to see that it’s not really that hard at all to make the changes you want.

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