Start where you are

Ah, a brand new year.

It’s good to have the sense that we can begin anew, that we can shed some of those habits and behaviors that have been holding us down while adopting new patterns that lead us to become better humans.

I actually enjoyed a fruitful year. I lost 24 pounds. I (mostly) gave up alcohol. I made progress in my fight against depression and anxiety. And, most importantly, I resumed the habit of writing regularly.

This year, I want to build on this momentum. I want to continue these habits while incorporating a few new ones, such as tracking my time, keeping a personal journal, and — once I reach my target weight — exercising regularly once more.

There’s one thing that often holds me back when I decide to make changes. It holds others back too. It’s the overwhelming feeling that there’s just so much to do — and that I’ve handicapped myself through poor choices in the past. I remember the physical feats I was capable of when doing Crossfit a decade ago, for instance, and I feel a sense of helplessness. I’m nowhere near as fit I was ten years ago. There’s no way I can do that stuff today.

But I have to remind myself: It’s not a competition. I ought not compare myself to others — or to my past self. My sole goal should be a better person tomorrow than I am today.

To do this, I must accept who I am, where I am. It sure would be nice if I were to start a fitness program in better shape than I currently am, but that’s only a dream. If I want to change, I have to accept reality. I need to start where I am.

And if you want to change — if you want to master your money, your health, your relationships, your career — you too must start where you are.

How to Start Where You Are

Start where you are quote by Arthur AsheClearly, this is easier said than done. It’s one thing for me to sit at my desk and type out pithy advice; it’s another to actually deal with the situation day-to-day in real life.

But here’s the thing: In order to get where I am, I had to start where I was. In order for other Get Rich Slowly readers to get where they are today, they had to start where they were.

When I say “start where you are”, I mean that you should accept that who you are and what you have today is, essentially, your starting hand. Don’t beat yourself up for past mistakes. Don’t blame others for getting you into this situation. These are the cards you’ve been dealt (even if you’ve dealt them to yourself), and it’s now up to you to play them as best you can.

How do you do this?

  • First and foremost, take care of yourself. Pause. Breathe. Prioritize your physical and mental health, even if that means spending a bit of time and money. Exercise. Eat right. If you need the help of a therapist, see a therapist. Money spent on self-care is never wasted.
  • Next, take stock of your situation. Figure out exactly where you are starting from. Set aside a Saturday morning to perform a “financial inventory”. Ideally, you’d take the time to begin tracking your money with a program like Quicken or YNAB or Personal Capital. At the very least, calculate your net worth and list all of your debts, bills, assets, and income. You need a snapshot of your current financial situation so you know what you’re working with.
  • Figure out where you want to go. It’s great to decide that you want to change, that you want to improve your financial life, for instance. But you’ll have greater success if your reason for change is specific, not nebulous. Craft a personal mission statement, and maybe use this to set up a series of smart goals to act as waypoints along the road to your destination.
  • If needed, restructure your life. We all suffer from “financial drift”. We become complacent and lose sight of our larger goals from time to time. When you press the reset button, when you start your financial journey, it’s the perfect time to make changes, large and small. Analyze all of your spending. Cut the crap you do not need. Consider changing jobs. Ask yourself if it might make sense to move to a cheaper home — or to a cheaper city or state.
  • Meanwhile, don’t compare yourself to others — not even in the abstract. On an individual level, comparing yourself to your friends and family is a bad idea because you’re pitting your internal worst against their external best. Of course this’ll make you feel like crap! Besides, it doesn’t matter where anybody else is; what matters is where you are relative to where you want to be. It’s also a bad idea to compare yourself to statistical norms. Sure, stats can be fun to look at — and I share them all the time here at GRS — but stats are soul-less, lifeless abstract numbers. Statistics don’t have cancer. Statistics don’t get divorces. Statistics don’t struggle with faulty financial blueprints. When you start where you are, worry about your own self — not anybody else.
  • Keep things simple. I know first-hand just how tempting it can be to over-complicate things when you want to make a change. I’m a master at this. But the thing is, when you make things too complex, you’re less likely to follow through on them. If your fitness program is “I’m going to walk around the block each day”, you’ll have a better shot at success than if you decide “I’ll bike for all of my errands”. One is simple and the other is not. This advice is especially true with money. Keep things simple at the start; you can always add complexity later.
  • Seek support. One of the best things you can do when starting out is find support for the journey ahead. This support can take many forms. You might find a mentor, for instance, somebody who’s been down the same path before you. Pick their brain. Find out what worked for them and what didn’t. You might put together a “personal board of directors”, trusted experts who can give you solid financial advice. Most of all, look for other people in a similar position to you. Band together so that you can start your journeys together.

I’d also add that when you’re making changes, you shouldn’t expect to get things right immediately. There’s a lot of trial and error. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll try certain methods that don’t quite work, then switch to others. That’s okay. Don’t get trapped by the need to make a perfect choice when starting out. It’s enough to make a good choice in the beginning. There’ll be time for perfection later.

There’s a lot more to getting out of debt, managing your money, and saving for retirement, obviously. That’s what the rest of Get Rich Slowly is all about! But these are the essential steps to getting started. You don’t start where your friends or co-workers started. You don’t start where you wish you were. You start where you are.

Do More of What Works

Change Your Life and Everyone In It I’m currently reading Change Your Life and Everyone In It, a 1996 self-help book by Michelle Weiner-Davis. My therapist recommended it as a possible antidote to my depression and anxiety. The author offers a simple path to building a better life: Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

To some, this advice will sound stupid. To me, it’s a revelation. So simple! So obvious! So smart!

I’ve read similar advice before, of course. Tim Ferriss, for instance, has talked about the importance of playing to your strengths rather than working on your weaknesses. When you do more of what you’re good at, you naturally do less of what you’re bad at. You don’t have to deliberately avoid your trouble spots because the good crowds out the bad.

Take me, for example.

I like to write. I think I’m good at it. I also like to play videogames. Writing is productive but gaming is not. Some game play is fine; too much is a vice. Rather than try to play fewer games, which seems like deprivation, Ferriss would say that I should instead try to write more, which seems like abundance. If I spend more time writing, as a side effect I will have less time to play games. By honing a strength, I’ll be avoiding a weakness.

Or, as Weiner-Davis puts it, I’ll be doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

Doing more of what works and less of what doesn’t is an essential part of starting where you are. It’s tacit acceptance that, like everyone, you’re imperfect. You’re good at some things but suck at others.

Where I Started

I was in debt for seventeen years before I began my own quest for financial freedom. For many of those seventeen years, I was grasping at straws, trying to find quick fixes to fundamental problems. When I looked at my friends — at my wife, even — I felt ashamed that they were financially successful and I was not.

I wasn’t able to turn things around until I surrendered to the idea that I had to start where I was. I couldn’t magically will myself into smart financial habits. No amount of wishing was going to give me the same amount of savings that my wife had or the fancy house that my best friend had. It didn’t matter where anyone else was on their financial journey. I had to approach my money with what Zen Buddhists call a “beginner’s mind”.

So, in October 2004, I sat down one night to take stock of my situation. I put all of my financial information into Quicken. I entered my bills, my debts, and my income. For the past thirteen years, I’ve used Quicken (on and off) to keep tabs on where I am.

Next, I figured out where I wanted to go. I drew up this “spending plan” as a roadmap to my desired destination:

Gradually, I restructured my life to be more aligned with my mission. I made major cuts to my spending, which included giving up things I had previously valued such as computer games and comic books. I boosted my income by taking side gigs — and starting this blog.

I stopped comparing myself to my friends. I realized it didn’t matter what they had achieved. (I also realized that, in some cases, what appeared to be financial success was built on a house of cards. Some of my friends were just as poor with money as I was. They fueled their fancy lifestyles with debt!)

And, most importantly, sought support. I found people who actually were good with money and asked them for advice. I read books. I participated in online communities. I started Get Rich Slowly, which turned into a massive support group for myself and many others.

The Final Word

My girlfriend Kim has been fretting that at age 48 she doesn’t have enough saved for retirement. She hangs out with me and at early retirement gatherings and comes away feeling inadequate, like she doesn’t measure up to the rest of us.

Or there’s my friend Joel who desperately wants financial advice — but is afraid to ask for it. He’s embarrassed by his past decisions and his present circumstances. He’s afraid to look foolish.

Text exchange with Joel re: starting at 50

Text exchange with Joel re: starting at 50

Here’s my message to people like Kim and Joel: Start where you are. Don’t panic. All is not lost. You’re not too late. This isn’t a contest. Don’t fret about your past, and don’t worry about how others are doing. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

If you’re meticulous and methodical, it doesn’t matter when or where you start. It’s still possible to get rich slowly. I’m here to help — and so are other GRS readers. Join us.

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There are 39 comments to "Start where you are".

  1. S.G. says 04 January 2018 at 09:35

    I grew up poverty level in a single parent household. When I was in 2nd grade my mom sold our small house and used the money to go back to school. When she graduated I was starting 4th grade and she started her career at 42. She worked for 2 years for a horrible employer so she didn’t get her feet under her until 2 years later. My sister entered college 2 years after that and my mom paid for most of it out of her own pocket.

    She then retired a bit early to take care of her father as his health failed.

    She now has a comfortable, if not extravagant, retirement. She owns a small home that is almost paid off in a major city and money that she tied up in a small investment will start paying out in about a year and a half. She isn’t living a life of luxury, but she’s comfortable and she started pretty late. As you say, it’s about knowing where you are, where you want to go.

    I would add that it’s also about setting priorities that aren’t about money. It is easy to panic when you think of how much the lifestyle you want will cost. But the basics of life are actually pretty cheap, and once you retire you have a lot of flexibility for things like moving to a cheaper house. And if your health is good there are lots of options as a “young” retiree to reduce expenses quite a bit.

    • Brandon says 30 April 2020 at 17:48

      This is wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing

  2. Adam says 04 January 2018 at 10:36

    I think it was on Jim Collins’ website where I first saw this proverb: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” It really resonated and has informed everything I’ve done with money since. As a result, with each passing year, my expected retirement date has crept forward faster than expected. It’s glorious. You can do it too.

    • Adam says 04 January 2021 at 10:46

      What a solid article to bring back three years later! My wife and I have paid down 20% of our mortgage (to be paid off in nine years) and doubled our retirement savings to more than half a million since my previous comment. Fortune played a hand — our jobs are pandemic-proof and the market has been on a tear — but step 1 is to sort yourself into position to take advantage of any luck that comes your way.

  3. Jason@WinningPersonalFinance says 04 January 2018 at 10:39

    I couldn’t agree more JD. I’d even extend this idea to those in their 20’s and 30’s who may still have a negative net worth with no end in sight. Everbody has to start somewhere. In the US we are lucky to have so many opportunities in front of us. We just have to get going on them to achieve wealth.

  4. BusyMom says 04 January 2018 at 10:44

    “On an individual level, comparing yourself to your friends and family is a bad idea because you’re pitting your internal worst against their external best. Of course this’ll make you feel like crap!” No truer words have ever been spoken.

  5. Chris says 04 January 2018 at 12:47

    I didn’t get my act together until I was 36 after a divorce, 2 foreclosures, bankruptcy and a lot of stupid choices. I thought I was doomed to work until I died. Retirement seemed like an unreachable goal. Eight years later I have made better progress than I ever thought possible. Things will turn around and it will be faster than you think.

  6. GinnyS says 04 January 2018 at 13:18

    My GRS computer folder is dated 1/27/2010 At that time I was 79 years old. Retired, living on $1079.06 a month. Period. No food stamps, no help of any kind. I was a snowbird, living in Oregon and spending my winters in an Arizona campground.

    Today at 87 am living in the same motorhome, a small class C which has been paid for, for so long I don’t remember when I paid it off. Along the way bought a used Jeep Cherokee to tow behind my motorhome. Doesn’t cost as much to drive when I need groceries, laundry, etc.

    I’m not a snowbird any longer. When I returned to Oregon in 2011 I quit my winter excursions Live in the country beside a river with forest all around. The Coast Range of Western Oregon. Kind of a neighbor to JD.

    As of January first am living on $1191.40 a month. My car is paid for and am now working on my credit card. Have a roof over my head and am living a frugal life. All the Kindle books I can read and not at full price, mostly. A brandy each evening, if I am up to it, while my dinner heats or I get up and fix it. Usually have food I prepared ahead and in the freezer. By the way, I do all my own cooking and try my best to always eat what is healthy. Me, the river and the forest.

    All I have accomplished on a little bit of nothing, I owe to Get Rich Slowly. Specially the frugal parts. Worked all my life until I couldn’t anymore and then volunteered as a campground host with the Forest Service until I had to quit because I couldn’t do it either. That’s when I started going south in the winter. Even there I volunteered at the library.

    I’m rambling. A very short story of a very long one.

    Thank You a whole bunch JD for Get Rich Slowly. Am back checking in every day.

    I started where I was. What has age to do with anything?

    • elaine says 04 January 2018 at 19:42

      you are an inspiration!

    • rachel says 05 January 2018 at 00:55

      This is wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

    • ISR says 05 January 2018 at 08:31

      Thanks for sharing this Ginny. I sometimes feel sorry for myself because I’m 61 and haven’t started the frugal life earlier in my life, but all it takes sometimes are letters like yours to get me going again!

    • Anne says 05 January 2018 at 08:45

      Way to go Ginny.

    • Sanja says 05 January 2018 at 10:38

      Dear GinnyS,
      You are such a brave person! I’m 52 and I am beginer. Keep going, you are inspiration to others.
      Greetings from Croatia <3

    • CiCi says 06 January 2018 at 13:52

      You are an inspiration, Ginny. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Katie@MySweetHomeLife says 06 January 2018 at 17:53

      Thank you for this comment Ginny. I’ve just started getting into personal finance blogs and been feeling like I missed the boat as I’m 43 with a massive mortgage. You’ve helped me realise that my age doesn’t matter – only my actions going forward.

    • Sheila says 04 January 2021 at 08:42

      Would be interesting to know how Ginny is doing now, two years later.

  7. Mr. Piggy Bank says 04 January 2018 at 14:28

    Interesting article! While ideally, people would save and invest from early on in life while not going into any debt, that isn’t always where people find themselves when they decide to get their financial lives in order. And it’s definitely better to start late than never when it comes to starting down that road of building wealth!

    One of my favorite books is an old one written by Fred J Young titled “How to Get Rich and Stay Rich.” The underlying principle is that you need to spend less than you earn, and invest the difference in something that goes up. Simple, but extremely wise. It is the way that many “millionaire next door”-types have built their wealth. It may not be glamorous, but it often works.

    While starting late isn’t as ideal as starting early when it comes to saving/investing, it’s better than not starting at all!

  8. Bonnie says 04 January 2018 at 14:51

    Thank you, JD. I needed this today!

  9. mark gutierrez says 04 January 2018 at 16:30

    So many times in life we find ourselves with projects to do and things that need getting done. Some times so many things that we just shut down. What a great post about just getting started! Just dig in and start . Great post.

  10. Sarah | Smile & Conquer says 04 January 2018 at 18:58

    This is such an important point and a good reminder that everyone is on their on path. There are plenty of stories out there of people out there who started late and still hit their goals, and yes, you’ll have to buckle down eventually, but you won’t get anywhere comparing yourself to others.

  11. Siva says 05 January 2018 at 00:04

    You’re not too late, this is one of the best advice for me i have seen. Most of the online forums and other advisors use to tell, starting at the young age you can accumulate/ save more.

    But starting from where we are now is also the best thing. Better late than never. When some of the peoples tell me, i should have started early, it always make to feel worry that I have lost first 7 years without saving even single rupee.

    Bottom line, saying “You’re not too late. This isn’t a contest. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can”, will be more encouraging.

  12. rachel says 05 January 2018 at 00:58

    Thank you so much for this article, JD. I used to read Get Rich Slowly years ago when I was working full-time and saving up for a deposit on a house. I had my plan and I was working it!
    Until a health crisis cost me my career, my independence (to a degree) and demolished my savings. I did have the house, for better or worse. The past few years I’ve basically been in survival mode, but this year I decided to get my financial house in order and figure things out again. It’s not so great but it’s not so bad. This article was perfectly timed for me, and I appreciate it.

  13. Karen Klinedinst says 05 January 2018 at 06:00

    Thank you for this, JD! For the past two years, I’ve been adrift and as a result have been re-evaluating my life. The past two years of been painful and financially draining, but necessary. What’s important to me now, wasn’t important to me 10 years ago. I’ve decided that after 20 years of running my own business, that I want to let someone else take care of the business end of things; and am looking for a job at age 55. I consider this a bridge to my ultimate goal of becoming a full-time artist and teacher.

  14. Joe says 05 January 2018 at 06:55

    Good advice. The best time to start is yesterday, but sometime you just have to go with what you’ve got. Just take stock and make some improvements.

  15. Dave @ Accidental FIRE says 05 January 2018 at 06:59

    Sage advice JD. I read another blog something like “if you haven’t started yet, yesterday was the best day to start. But today is the next best”

  16. Matt Spillar @ Spills Spot says 05 January 2018 at 13:36

    Great advice JD, so important for us all to focus on where we’re at and do the best we can instead of comparing ourselves with everyone around us.

  17. Sean @ FrugalMoneyMan says 05 January 2018 at 19:42

    “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

    It can be frustrated to play the “what if” game with your past, especially your financial mistakes. The reality is that time has come and gone and there is nothing you can do about it.

    Everyone has their own journey and experience events at different points in their lives. Thank you for reiterating that the most important step is to “start where you are.”

  18. Sandra says 27 December 2020 at 06:47

    Thank you, this was very much needed.

  19. David @ Filled With Money says 03 January 2021 at 16:19

    Wherever you are today, there’s someone out there who has less than what you have. Yes, there are people out there who have more than what you have. But what matters is you. As long as you’re successful, someone else’s success or failures should have no bearing on you!

  20. Fred says 05 January 2021 at 07:52

    This is very inspiring. I missed it it 3 years ago, thank you for bringing it back.

  21. Lisa says 05 January 2021 at 10:36

    Thank you for reposting. I needed this reminder. I am 47 and most of my friends are retired or near retiring (at the normal retirement age) and it’s been a real struggle for me to not feel like I am so far behind where they are. I need to stop comparing! I wish I could stop worrying about it and just relax a little. I am doing just fine. And I kind of wish I had more friends my age!

  22. JoAnne Jenkins says 06 January 2021 at 09:05

    I have been following your blog for almost as long as you’ve been writing it. I was deep in debt, and searching for “get rich quick.” The internet gods instead gave me “get rich slowly.” You might not get what you want, but you get what you need. I started following along with you, and taking your advice. I signed up for my companies 401K, thinking it was pointless, but there was the free money match, so why not. I worked to pay off credit cards, one at a time. I started saving an emergency fund. And eventually, I started traveling cheaply using points, thanks to one of your posts.
    It took me much longer than it did you, since I wasn’t writing what turned into a lucrative blog. But it did work, and I am now debt free, and I have about $50,000 in my retirement account. It’s not enough, but it’s $50,000 more than I would have had, if I hadn’t spent 30 minutes following your advice.
    Start where you are, and go from there. It works. Thank you.

    • J.D. says 06 January 2021 at 10:26

      JoAnne, I love this comment. And I want to give you a big virtual hug. *HUG*

  23. Suzie says 13 January 2021 at 19:19

    A number of years ago I read a book called Do One Thing Different: Ten Simple Ways to Change Your Life by Bill O’Hanlon. I had always struggled with depression and poor life decisions. This book helped change my life. That and getting sober. Accepting where and who you are is the first step.

  24. J. Money says 15 January 2021 at 03:58

    That old spending plan of yours!!! Classic!!!

  25. Chris@TTL says 17 January 2021 at 18:45

    Really enjoyed the simplicity and clarity of the message here, J.D.! For a guy who has gone through a lot (and some of it quite publically), it’s strangely reassuring to hear you recite such direct advice like:

    Don’t fret about your past, and don’t worry about how others are doing. Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

    Good stuff! And I hope Kim understands that even thinking through her future retirement savings and having a plan (much less keeping up with it consistently!) puts her way ahead—and most importantly, on track for herself.

  26. Gino Armes says 29 January 2021 at 20:44

    Thank you so much, JD, for your endless insights and practical advice and suggestions. I always look forward to your next vlog. Like you and anyone else in the comment section of this page, I totally experience the same situation in life that I sometimes feel like I am on the brink of giving up. I still read a lot of books, articles, vlogs, etc. that will give me ideas and inspiration to move forward and be positive in whatever happens in my life.

  27. DH says 13 March 2021 at 17:00

    Hey J.D. Just wanted to say that I paid off my credit card yesterday! Debt free for the first time in many years. I drew no small amount of inspiration from your site. Just figured it was time to stop by and say thanks for what you do. Sending good vibes to all your readers – keep on keeping on!

  28. samantha says 02 September 2022 at 07:05

    I’m 23 and I’m diving head first into being financially stable on my own. I want nothing more than have a stable safe life. Being raised in the foster system I never had anyone around me to teach the importance of money and what kind of relationship I should have with my money. As soon as I turned 15 I got my first job at Subway. Every pay day id spend my money on things I always missed out on having growing up. Things like day trips to the local beach, a DS and all the popular games that come with it. When I turned 18 I made the biggest decision of my life which was moving states away from Iowa to South Carolina and ever since then I’ve been alone learning from my mistakes. Being here on my own i have a lot of pride and I’m always too scared to ask for help, like Joel. I just want to say thank you for the amazing advice. The more I read your blogs and watch your videos about mental health the more I feel that my mentality and I feel more awake. Start where you are has been the beginning of life changing thoughts. So thank you.

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