Empty goal syndrome: What to do when your last goal leaves the nest
I shouldn't be admitting this in public, but it's the truth. Hi, I am a staff writer for a personal finance blog, and I'm losing interest in personal finance.
I'm not leaving the blog, and I'm not going crazy with spending. But I need a little shot of espresso in my ho-hum financial life.
This is the first time in my life that I've felt my enthusiasm waning. After all, I've always had goals that required me to manage cash, but my problem is that I have completed most of the things I set out to do. And I'm bored.
To help meet my prior goals, I devoured books and blogs on frugality tips and saving money for years. If you talked to me long enough, money always came up in the conversation. I couldn't help myself. Talking about money with other people gave me some great ideas and kept me focused.
Of course, when my husband and I had student loans, a car payment and two mortgages, I was also motivated to improve our financial picture, because living paycheck to paycheck stinks. And because I was motivated, applying what I had learned was easy… and fun.
But then more quickly than I thought possible, we weren't broke anymore. We started saving for other things. We started a family. We saved for some home-improvement projects. My husband took a pay cut to start his dream job, and as of July 31, I will be taking an indefinite break from full-time employment.
I still have some goals, like learning how to invest, paying off our mortgage, and starting my own business. But I am running out of steam as we coast down to the third stage of finance. All that's between us and being totally debt-free is a mortgage. And those goals I still have left? They're not exciting me at all.
When goals aren't good enough
Maybe the reason my remaining goals don't excite me is because they're not good goals. I may sound like Goldilocks, but paying off the mortgage goal is too big and learning to invest is too vague. With a little help, starting my own business could be just right.
A little tweaking of the goals with the SMART goal-setting system will definitely improve them. Take my goal of paying off the mortgage. Everything is wrong with that goal. My husband and I have talked about it several times. Sometimes we want to pay it off, and sometimes we want to pay the minimum and spend our money on other things. With a low interest rate and the fact that we're not underwater, either decision is OK. We just need to decide which path to take. If we don't decide to pay off the mortgage, we won't pay it off early. It's that simple.
But if we do decide to accelerate payments, I need to find a way to break down the big goal into several smaller ones. Based on past experience, $20,000 seems to be an amount that is small enough to inspire me to pay it off, but not too big that I get overwhelmed. I once taped papers together and made a chart as a visual inspiration to pay off the house. Each one-inch square was something like $4,000. With our large balance at the time, there were a lot of squares. The paper chart was huge (and ugly) and snaked around an entire room. I threw it in a closet and never looked at it again before eventually discarding it and bidding farewell to the two pointless hours I spent creating it.
When good goals aren't enough
After clarifying and improving my current goals, what I really need to find some new goals to get me excited again. Is there something fun I would like to save for? A special class, maybe? Or self-development? Maybe something that I can do to help others financially?
I need to find something to make me excited, because I have the best results when I am motivated. But I also know I'm not alone in faltering at this stage. Maybe because the first steps to financial success look almost the same for everyone, and because once you pay off your debts and save up some cash, well, the rest — your goal — is really up to you. Or maybe most people aren't there. I don't know.
I know an older couple who confessed that paying off their mortgage was anticlimactic. “It just wasn't a big deal. We thought it would be so huge to be able to get rid of that monthly payment, but it wasn't. We just have to make a decision on what to do with the money, just like we've always done.”
And I've found this stage of our finances to be the same. Paying off my consumer debt and saving money felt like a big deal. But I've been stuck here for months, and I can't believe how uninspired I am.
It's time to kick things up a notch and do something new.
How about you? How have you kept yourself motivated to stay the course, especially after you paid off consumer debt and learned the basics of personal finance?