Start where you are

Start where you are

My life isn't the only one filled with flux lately. Many of my family and friends are experiencing Big Life Events (BLEs). Some are suffering serious illness. Others are switching careers. A few are leaving long-term relationships. And a couple are simply experiencing a mid-life crisis.

As often happens, these BLEs are prompting the people I know to evaluate their circumstances (financial and otherwise), and to re-evaluate their priorities.

Resets due to BLEs can make people feel panicked.

My girlfriend Kim, for instance, has been fretting that at age 45 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's facing a BLE and 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 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.

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. Big Life Events can suck, I know. But dark clouds come with silver linings. As hinted earlier, these times of transition are excellent opportunities to re-evaluate your direction. 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. And during BLEs, it's as if we're in a storm at sea. We're more worried about immediate survival than any greater purpose! But 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.
  • 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.

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.

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 main message to family and friends who find themselves at forty or fifty and feel behind the curve is: Don't panic. All is not lost. You're not too late. This isn't a contest. 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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S.G.
S.G.
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Brandon
Brandon
2 months ago
Reply to  S.G.

This is wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing

Adam
Adam
2 years ago

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.

Jason@WinningPersonalFinance
2 years ago

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.

BusyMom
BusyMom
2 years ago

“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.

Chris
Chris
2 years ago

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.

GinnyS
GinnyS
2 years ago

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… Read more »

elaine
elaine
2 years ago
Reply to  GinnyS

you are an inspiration!

rachel
rachel
2 years ago
Reply to  GinnyS

This is wonderful! Thank you so much for sharing 🙂

ISR
ISR
2 years ago
Reply to  GinnyS

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
Anne
2 years ago
Reply to  GinnyS

Way to go Ginny.

Sanja
Sanja
2 years ago
Reply to  GinnyS

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
CiCi
2 years ago
Reply to  GinnyS

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

Katie@MySweetHomeLife
2 years ago
Reply to  GinnyS

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.

Mr. Piggy Bank
Mr. Piggy Bank
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Bonnie
Bonnie
2 years ago

Thank you, JD. I needed this today!

mark gutierrez
mark gutierrez
2 years ago

JD,
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.

Sarah | Smile & Conquer
Sarah | Smile & Conquer
2 years ago

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.

Siva
Siva
2 years ago

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… Read more »

rachel
rachel
2 years ago

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… Read more »

Karen Klinedinst
Karen Klinedinst
2 years ago

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.

Joe
Joe
2 years ago

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.

Accidental Fire
Accidental Fire
2 years ago

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”

Matt Spillar @ Spills Spot
Matt Spillar @ Spills Spot
2 years ago

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.

Sean @ FrugalMoneyMan
Sean @ FrugalMoneyMan
2 years ago

“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.”

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