Putting First Things First
The morning is my time. Five days a week, I'm up at 5:30. I come downstairs, sip a diet soda or a cup of tea (lapsang souchong), and spend a few minutes checking e-mail and approving comments. By 5:45, I'm in my gym clothes and out the door.
I walk through the quiet streets of my neighborhood, greeting the birds and the cats and the dogs. I admire the flowers. I notice all the small changes in the yards. If it's cold, I jog until I'm warm. I walk down past the retirement village to the railroad tracks and then make the five-minute crossing of the river. On the other side, I walk along the tracks through the tall, stately trees until I reach the highway, which I follow into town.
After 2-1/2 miles and 45 minutes, I reach my Crossfit gym. I spend the next hour working out with the men and women of the 6:30 class. We run and jump and climb and stretch and lift heavy objects into the air. We sweat together and we joke together. We share our lives. After an hour of exercise, I walk home again, basking in the sun, soaking in the warmth.
I spend the next 45 minutes showering and shaving and eating breakfast. I down half a pound of organic chicken sausage, half a cup of egg whites, a piece of whole grain toast with local raw honey, and usually another diet soda. (I don't like coffee, so diet soda is my caffeine vice.) My goal is to be out the door again by nine o'clock, walking up to the office where I'll spend the rest of the day writing and talking about money. I know I have nine hours of work ahead of me, but that's okay. I'm able to make it through the day feeling happy and strong because I know that in the first 3-1/2 hours I've been awake, I've walked five miles, spent an hour at Crossfit, and consumed a (relatively) healthy breakfast.
Twice a week, I sleep in. And once every couple of months, I take a week off. During the winter, I drive to the gym instead of walk or bike. But five days a week, I make the mornings mine.
I try not to belabor the obvious parallels between fitness and finance. Most folks understand the connection. But today I want to point out some ways in which my fitness regimen is directly related to my financial regimen. Here are a few ways to put first things first with your personal finances, helping you to pursue your financial goals:
- Invest as much as possible as early as possible. The single greatest factor in determining how much you'll have saved for retirement is how much you save. And the earlier you start saving, the more the extraordinary power of compound returns can work for you.
- Build your emergency fund as soon as possible. Shit happens. People get sick, things break, and fate is fickle. An emergency fund is like self-insurance: It's a way to ameliorate the bad stuff that happens around you. Build your emergency savings as soon as possible, and when you can, build it bigger.
- Pay your bills as they arrive. In the olden days, I'd wait to pay my bills until the last minute. Why pay them early? I figured waiting let me use my money longer. This just led me to live paycheck-to-paycheck, though. Now I pay my bills when I get them (and sometimes I overpay!), which makes life easier. It relieves pressure.
- Get out of debt as soon as you can. I hope this one is obvious. Debt drains your soul — and your bank account. When you eliminate debt, you eliminate burdensome interest payments, freeing that cash for other uses. I'm a fan of the debt snowball, which lets you pay off your smaller debts quickly so that you can use the increased cash flow to pay off even more debt.
The bottom line is this: Don't procrastinate. The sooner you do the hard things, the important things, the right things, the sooner you'll reap the rewards. Sure, it's good to allow a little room for the things you want, but do your best to put first things first. By doing so, you set yourself up for success.
Best of all, by putting first things first, you shift your financial balance. You eventually reach a point where the good habits are ingrained and you've managed to achieve a state where the you can reap the rewards of having made the smart choices. I'm there now.
Because I have a substantial emergency fund, because I set aside money for retirement before I do anything else, and because I pay my bills as they arrive, I know that anything I have left over is mine to do with as I please. Putting first things first seems like a chore for a while (by which I mean months or even years), but eventually it becomes liberating.