Last night while cleaning the house, I found some old papers. Among the many memories, I found a document entitled “J.D.’s Ten Commandments”. I can’t tell exactly when I wrote this, but I’d guess it was back in 1992 or 1993, just after I’d graduated from college.

My ten commandments were:

  1. Be physically fit.
  2. Be attractive.
  3. Don’t waste free time.
  4. Be frugal.
  5. Maintain the automobile.
  6. Be curious.
  7. Be loving.
  8. Be productive.
  9. Have fun.
  10. Be rational.

The meat of this document are the supporting details beneath each commandment. They’re a fascinating glimpse at my mind from fifteen years ago. For example, under “be physically fit”, I wrote “eat food that will prolong life, not shorten it”. As part of my productivity goal, I aimed to “write for at least three hours a week”. (Ha! Now I write at least three hours a day.)

It’s fun to see which of these goals I’ve achieved and which I’ve missed. It’s also interesting to note which goals have made me happy and which have not. I met my writing goal, for example, and this has been a source of fulfillment. But I also “learn to program in C”. This wasn’t such a dream come true. I spent a year programming computers, and found that the work wasn’t meaningful or enjoyable.

I did a poor job at following some of my commandments. My fourth commandment was “be frugal”, under which I set the following subgoals:

  • Budget for a limit of $10 a week of personal entertainment.
  • For something more than $10, save.
  • Buy only Star Trek comics.
  • Don’t eat in restaurants.
  • Utilize a savings account.
  • Don’t use credit.
  • Pretend that life is a business venture.

I failed miserably at every one of these. In the decade after I made this list, I spent lavishly on personal entertainment. I never opened a savings account — if I wanted something, I usually just bought it on credit. I bought whatever comics I wanted, and ate in restaurants all the time. If I had followed my own admonitions, I might have been able to get a head start on retirement. Instead I found myself with more than $20,000 in credit card debt.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that eventually I figured this stuff out. Eventually I learned to be frugal. If only I had learned these things back in 1992!

I still make lists of financial goals (though I don’t call them “commandments”). Every few months, I draw up a list of my current income and fixed spending. I project big upcoming expenses (“plumbing repairs”, “vacation to Europe”), and then plot how much I need to save. This is as close as I come to creating a budget. The difference between 1992 and 2007 is that now I actually achieve most of the goals I set for myself.

If I can learn to handle money correctly, then anyone can.

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