Updated on 04.11.10

When Financial Change Is Overwhelming

Trent Hamm

Mark writes in:

I’ve been reading The Simple Dollar for a year or so and I’ve found it really inspirational. My problem is that I can’t get past the “inspirational” part.

Several times, I’ve started to try to implement your tips. I’ll make grocery lists and try out lots of free activities and give up my morning coffee and start watching less television and reading more. What I find, though, after a week or so is that I just get frustrated with all of it and I quit all of it and go back to doing exactly what I was doing before. How do you start changing if you can’t even tackle a handful of simple changes like this?

In order for change in your personal life to succeed, you need several elements. From what I can tell from your description here, Mark, you’re missing several of them.

First and foremost, you need a goal. Why are you doing this? Where do you want to be in five years? Will you be out of debt? What will you do with debt freedom? Will you have a family? A home? A better career?

Don’t spend your time worrying about specific money-saving tactics right now. Spend a week or so really thinking about your future and what you really want from it. Where do you want to be in a year? In five years? In ten years? What do you aspire to?

Flesh these goals out. Add lots of detail to them so that you can really get a sense of what it might take to get there.

Most importantly, write them down. Record these goals somewhere, along with all of the details you come up with.

Think of it this way: if you’re not working towards something better than where you’re at right now, why make sacrifices at all?

Once you have that goal in mind, you need a plan. What exactly needs to be done to get to the goal (or goals) that you’ve set for yourself?

One big part of this is often a debt repayment plan. A debt repayment plan basically organizes and orders your debts to maximize the effectiveness of your debt payments.

You might also want to come up with an educational plan or an exercise plan or a plan for improving yourself in some other fashion, whatever that might be.

Make the plan realistic. Never forget that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Your plan should be one that’s easily achievable, even if it means putting off your goal for a little bit longer. It should also allow you to go beyond the plan if you so choose on any given day.

Once you’ve done that, do a lot of “one and done” financial changes. Fill your spare time with these things. Install a programmable thermostat. Air seal your home. Clean out your closets and sell off the stuff that you don’t use that has value. Trim down your DVD collection.

Spend your spare energy doing these things for a few days. Better yet, as you do them, calculate the results. How much will they reduce your energy bill? When you sell off that stuff and throw the cash straight into your debt repayment plan, how muh is that plan accelerated? Do you pay things off a few months faster now?

This is the first taste of success, and it’s usually an inspiring one. You’ve got goals and plans for getting there. You’ve done something that directly helps your plan along and it wasn’t all that hard, either. You’ve reached some success.

Once you’ve done this, now’s the time to start with the behavior changes. However, I’m going to suggest that you not just do a bunch at once. Instead, pick out one change and focus on maintaining only that one change for thirty days. If you decide to switch to “office coffee” instead of stops at the coffee shop, do that, but don’t force other changes.

Again, figure up how much you’re saving from that one behavior change and roll that savings into one of your plans for the future. If you’ve simply made a change that saves $10 over the course of a month, that’s just fine – add $10 more to your next debt payment or put $10 into a savings account.

Take it slow. Every step you take is a real improvement, and it’s far better than taking thirty steps at once, stumbling, falling down, and rolling back down the hill.

Good luck.

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  1. Andy says:

    Totally agree, one step at a time –one change at a time. Mine was the setting up of ING accounts and “hiding” the money from ourselves.

    My next step was ending my “addiction” to buying coffee mugs. I bought my last one, got rid of the ones that weren’t right. Now, my local coffee shop charges me for a small coffee and gives me 20oz. Since I don’t mind cold coffee in the PM, I don’t have to buy that afternoon coffee to perk me up for my weekly night class :) (So I am spending less, but didn’t have to give up my treat *yay*)

    Currently I am trying to take lunch to school, that one is harder, but I am working on it –it ends up being $10 a meal on campus!

  2. Sara says:

    I totally agree about taking one change at a time. You don’t have to go cold-turkey. For example, if you stop at Startbucks before work every day, you could try cutting it down to just Monday and Friday, and make coffee at home the other days.

    it’s also a good idea to track your spending and make a budget. A lot of PF gurus recommend simply tracking your spending, without trying to make changes, for a few months, and then using that information to draw up a preliminary budget (which you can adjust later if necessary). I think this helps because you’ll be able to see exactly how much money you’re saving with your new behaviors.

  3. Shevy says:

    Absolutely! If Mark doesn’t have a goal (a specific *reason* to change) and a plan for what he will do with the money he saves by not going to Starbucks or by using coupons or whatever then he’s never going to feel any motivation for maintaining the changes he makes.

  4. Nicole says:

    It may also help to automatically deduct savings etc. from your paycheck into a separate account or into retirement etc. (like #1 Andy suggests). The “pay yourself first” helps some people automatically change their behavior without pain. Of course, it doesn’t work if you get into debt with credit cards regardless of what you spend.

  5. Michele says:

    This was sooo ME!
    I was so messed up in debt and overwhelmed that I got frustrated trying to do everything at once.
    I decided to do one thing at a time, until I got good at it, then add one more thing. For example, I first started tracking spending for groceries and put the money over and above what I spent the previous average three months into an account I could not easily access. (ING)
    I did this for 6 months until it was automatic and my spending for groceries was much lower.
    Then, I started tracking other spending for a few months, then I started to use the ‘extra’ money to pay down debt from highest interest to lowest…etc. It took several years to get to the point I am at now but one step at a time until it becomes a habit was the best way for me.
    Now I’m trying to lose weight and I’m doing the same thing- I’ve been counting calories for several months, now I’ve added walking 30 minutes each day. I know me, and I won’t stick to it until it becomes an ingrained habit. Good luck to you, Mark. If I can do it (over time and one step at a time) so can anyone!

  6. Kathy says:

    Baby steps. Start out with one small change. When you have made that change and are successful and the change has stuck, then make another change. If you go in and start making drastic changes all at once, the changes will not stick. With any change, you have to take baby steps or it won’t work and you will easily become overwhelmed.

  7. deRuiter says:

    Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Mark, start with one thing, like cooking more at home, packing your lunch, making your breakfast at home. Put the money saved in an ING account. Reading more while watching tv less isn’t going to save you any money because you’re trading one sedentary activity for another. Canceling your monthly cable and netflix and putting that money in an ING account while reading more will save you money if that’s an option, assuming you don’t buy books but borrow, use the library, paperback swap. If you have a lot of stuff, have a yard sale, and put the cash generated in that ING account. Read less, watch tv less, and get a part time job and put that money in the ING account. You may be wasting a lot of time reading and watching tv. ESTABLISH A GOAL FOR WHICH TO SAVE, putting money in a retirement account or saving to buy a house are goals, as is an online bank acocunt with an emergency fund.

  8. Johanna says:

    While I agree that it’s good to know what you’re doing all of this for, I’m pretty sure that you don’t actually need to have a detailed picture of what you want your life to be like in ten years in order to have your financial head on straight. Because if you did, I’d be in trouble. But maybe I’m the exception.

    And I’m not sure it’s a great idea to start by doing a whole bunch of “spend before you can save” things (like air-sealing and getting a new thermostat) all at once. If you’re trying to climb out of a hole, digging deeper is not the most inspiring way to start, even if it does mean you can eventually climb faster.

    I like the idea of focusing on one change at a time, but I think it’s important which change you pick: Choose one where (1) there’s the potential to save a substantial amount of money, and (2) you save that money fairly directly (as opposed to seeing it in reductions on your electric bill or your future health care bills or something like that). Skipping the morning Starbucks would be a good place to start; turning out the lights when you leave the room, not so much.

    And while you’re focusing on that change, focus on finding an alternative that you can turn into a routine. Maybe you can’t stand the office coffee (or your office doesn’t have coffee), but maybe you don’t mind drinking tea that you make at home. Or maybe you can find a decent coffee maker for cheap or for free and use that. Or maybe you want to try to push yourself through the caffeine withdrawal period and quit altogether. There are lots of alternatives to pretty much everything you spend money on, so find one that works for you.

  9. Tabatha says:

    Preach it Trent! This topic really got me because I’ve spent some time recently thinking about how changing your life really just boils down to changing your habits. Take one at a time and don’t sweat the small stuff. Patience pays off.

  10. I agree with Johanna that it’s not necessary to have a clearly-defined goal in the beginning so much as the knowledge that “here” is not where you want to be. For example, I have no idea what my future will look like as I am trying to determine what else I’d like to do – however, I do know that I don’t like the way certain things run in my life. I also find that these things are not mutually-exclusive to each other. Clutter in your head leads to clutter in your home and even office environment. You buy gadgets for the anticipated ‘quick-fix’ and then have no idea how to keep it up! It’s overwhelming and you go back to your established routines.
    Pick 1 thing is absolutely the best advice you can ever follow! Since your actual financial situation wasn’t expanded-upon, I would go so far as to say that so long as you’re not in crazy debt it doesn’t even have to be one of the above types. Try changing something about your morning routine that doesn’t have to do directly with $$, like getting up 15 minutes earlier and having some peace and quiet time to prepare for your day. You’ll be surprised how sometimes those sorts of habits will be the catalysts for your own personal journey in discovering what you really want.

  11. Shevaun says:

    I think redefining what you think of as “normal” is key. Many, many years ago, I was in a relationship and all we did was go out. Every social experience was mediated by money. Whether it was going to a bar to meet friends for a drink, stopping by a coffee shop to relax with a hot mug and a good book, even going to a music concert–everything was mediated by money. After a while I felt really uncomfortable that without money (whether a lot or a little, but money nonetheless) there was no relationship.

    A lifetime later, I’m now engaged to just the most wonderful and amazing man (insert adorable giggle here). But here’s the thing: we don’t spend money to be together. Sure, we go to the movies once in a while. Yes, I bought new shoes for our dance class. Certainly, we go grocery shopping. But the point is that the vast majority of our time is spent talking, eating, dancing, laughing, arguing (intellectually, not fighting), and hanging out with our extended families.

    So I guess my point is that a frugal lifestyle isn’t really about this-or-that money-saving tip. It’s really about redefining what kind of life you want to live and who you want to live it with.

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