Some people, I suppose, do what's “right” — and do it all of the time. It just comes naturally. They eat healthfully, exercise, keep the house clean, and never speak ill of others. They avoid debt, invest wisely, make productive use of their time, and never drink too much wine. I'm sure these perfect people exist. But I don't know any.
The rest of us are fallible. We generally know what's right, but we don't always do it. We make mistakes. We choose short-term pleasure over long-term gain. We're strong in some areas of life but weak in others. We have lofty goals, but we frequently fall short of achieving them.
Take me, for example.
I know what it takes to be and stay fit. I enjoy being fit. When I'm in good shape, I feel better both physically and mentally. But, for whatever reason, I find it difficult to remain fit for more than a couple of years.
Back to Fitness
In the past, my fitness has always faded as a result of too many videogames and too much cake. (Well, metaphorical cake. I used to eat tons of candy and cookies and salty snacks.) More recently, cake isn't the issue. My nemesis is beer. I like beer, but beer isn't kind to my belly.
As we start 2018, I've come to believe that it's time for me to get “back to basics” with fitness. This year, I'm going to focus on some simple goals that I know will improve my fitness. Seriously: These goals are brain-dead dumb.
This year, I want to:
- Stretch for fifteen minutes every day. Because I sit at a desk all day, I'm stiff and inflexible. A stretching routine will help me become more limber.
- Eat at least three servings of plants. Like a couple of my friends, I rarely choose fruits and vegetables. I'll eat them if they're served to me, but I don't pick them myself. I aim to change that.
- Drink less alcohol. Kim and I both believe we drink too much. We don't like what it's doing to our bodies and minds. We've made a pact to cut our consumption.
- Run for fun. I enjoy running (when I'm not fat). It's an efficient and cheap mode of exercise. This year, I want to slowly return to running.
This isn't rocket surgery. Like I said, I'm getting back to basics. I'm focusing on a few essentials that I know will lead to improved fitness. Once I've shown that I can do these things regularly, I can attempt to add some complexity. But until then, I'm doing what my high-school health teacher said I ought to do.
As motivation to continue running, I've signed up for a half marathon three months from now. I caught wind that my pals from 1500 Days to Freedom and Waffles on Wednesday were, for whatever reason, coming to Portland to run the Hop Hop Half.
I threw down the gauntlet:
Not sure why I was being so cocky there. (Too much beer, maybe?) In any event, you folks are welcome to join us, if you'd like.
The Optimization Trap
I tend to over-complicate and over-think things. I make fitness more difficult than it has to be, for instance, or over-analyze the articles I write. I fall into the optimization trap instead of focusing on the big, important stuff that actually makes a difference. You know: the basics.
From my experience, a lot of people do this with money too. Instead of dedicating themselves to a few core ideas that will have maximum benefit, they create elaborate budgets or dedicate hours to projects with only a marginal benefit (clipping coupons, for example).
I’m not saying that optimization shouldn’t be on your financial to-do list. It should be. But it should be near the bottom of that list, not the top. Optimization is about taking what works and making it work better. You don’t optimize something that’s broken. If your budget is broken, you fix it by making big moves not tiny ones. Once you’ve made the big repairs, then you can concern yourself with optimal performance.
If you're looking to turn your financial life around, don't concern yourself with optimizing the small stuff. Do what I'm doing with fitness: Get back to basics.
Back to Basics
What does it mean to “get back to basics” with personal finance? It means focusing on the core skills and behaviors that are proven to lead to good results. Things like:
- Craft a personal mission statement so that you're clear on what it is you want out of life (and how you're going to obtain it).
- Prioritize big wins. Look for ways to cut costs on housing and transportation, not just food and fun. (Together, housing and transportation make up half the average American budget. If you could trim both by, say, twenty percent, you'd save a fortune!)
- Make more money, whether that means working overtime, taking a second job, or starting a side hustle.
- Build and maintain an emergency fund. (Or, if you already have an emergency fund, start an opportunity fund.)
- Get out of debt. Technically, debt reduction isn't a skill. It's a side effect. If you do the things necessary to create a positive cash flow (spend less, earn more), you will get out of debt. But debt elimination is a key milestone, so I've included it here.
- Track your spending so that you know where your money goes. Use this info to create some sort of simple budget (or spending plan) that works for you.
If instead of optimizing you were to dedicate your time to basic actions like these, your personal finances would prosper. You'd dig out of whatever hole you're currently in and place yourself on the path to financial freedom.
Because these sorts of skills are so essential, and because it's been a l-o-n-g time since I covered them, I've decided that this month's theme at Get Rich Slowly is “Back to Basics”. All month long, I'll cover essential topics like budgeting, building a career, and investing. I'll teach you how to use credit cards without going broke, how to get out of debt, and how to take control of your life.
If there's a topic you'd like me to cover, please let me know in the comments!
Author: J.D. Roth
In 2006, J.D. founded Get Rich Slowly to document his quest to get out of debt. Over time, he learned how to save and how to invest. Today, he's managed to reach early retirement! He wants to help you master your money — and your life. No scams. No gimmicks. Just smart money advice to help you reach your goals.