The statute of limitations on regret

Recently I read a blog post so glum I wondered how I might do a well-being check on its anonymous author. “The vacation high wears off” at The Quest for $85,000 describes the aftermath of a trip to visit aging family members. Now the writer’s own life feels “shorter” and the three years until her husband’s retirement seem unbearably long.

She writes:

It’s three more years of watching our precious time on this planet circle the drain. This is what one gets when one spends every single f*cking cent with no regard for the future…I am regretful beyond belief.

If I could only have one more chance…Just enough money to live on for as long as we are alive, enough to enable us to do the things we’d like to do before we die, enough money to enable us to help those people and those causes around us that we’d like to help. … I have too much time on my hands and too much time to wish for something I can’t have right now.

Thanks to previous financial mistakes (overspending, hoarding), the couple must watch every penny. I don’t know if the writer, who blogs as “The Quest,” works outside the home (or whether she can work at all). I do know that they live in Los Angeles, which she refers to as another big mistake.

I also know that she needs to move on.

Learning From the Past

Constantly berating herself over past money mistakes is no way to live. Framing the next three years as 1,095 days of drain-circling will surely drive her mad. It will also waste that time — and time, like land, is something they’re not making more of. Those three years are to be lived, not endured.

I take this so personally because it’s so familiar. Far too often I focused on just getting through the days rather than living them.

It wasn’t only those gray-shrouded days that were lost, either. Later on, in the midst of changing my life, I spent additional time obsessing over what I could have done, what I should have done, all those years.

Important tip: You cannot change the past. You can only learn from it. That’s why I propose a statute of limitations on regret.

A Second Chance (Sort Of)

Understand: I’m not saying that you shouldn’t fix the financial messes you made. Accepting responsibility for actions (or inactions) is what adults do. What I’m saying is that regret is self-defeating and ultimately pointless.

Short-term regret can be useful if it turns a mistake into an object lesson: No more bank fees! I’m going to start tracking my spending.

But it doesn’t do you a damn bit of good to moan about how much money you wasted on bank fees all those years. Nor does it help to bang your head on the wall every time you think of all the Stuff that you bought and discarded, or to wish you’d put more into retirement when you were younger.

The author probably won’t get that second financial chance she so desperately wants. What she does get is a chance to change.

A Meaningful Life

Things aren’t completely dismal. For example, they’ve saved $69,000 of their $85k retirement goal. The Quest also recently ditched a car that had given her nothing but trouble. Although getting around via L.A. public transit can be challenging, she’s going to do it. (She has to: They’re a one-car couple now.)

So she’s clearly capable of prioritizing and making crisp choices. Her next one should be to ditch the regret, or at least to give it an image makeover.

Oscar Wilde said that “experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” If you turn regret into “experience,” you’ll have a fighting chance at remaining true to your goals. The Quest has already learned from experience: She acknowledges that because of past overspending she can’t have the life she wants right now.

The next step: to see this new way of living as a consequence, not a punishment. The difference is saying “I goofed and I will now look for ways to fix it” vs. “I goofed and I must now punish myself endlessly.”

The Quest and her husband fouled up financially. The consequence: being super-careful with money for at least the next three years. But these years need not be lived like a long stretch in solitary. It might not be the life they wish they could afford, yet there are ways to live richly on a budget.

Doing without the things they want won’t be easy at first — or maybe ever. In time they should feel some measure of pride at having taken charge of their finances. Smarter choices now will mean less anxiety in the next stage of their lives.

Don’t Dwell on the Past

Does a statute of limitations on regret really work? As they say in the 12-step programs, it works if you work it.

Occasionally I still want to dent the drywall with my own noggin when I think about past money blunders. However, those occasions are fewer and farther between. When they pop up, I remind myself that I can’t retrofit the past with smarter behavior.

Agonizing over goofs and gaffes is an energy suck. It doesn’t matter what you should have done. What matters is what you do next.

So why not declare your own statute of limitations on regret? You have nothing to lose but self-recrimination. Believe me, you won’t be sorry about that.

Shout-out to The Quest: If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll join us. I also hope you do okay on the Los Angeles bus system.

J.D.’s Note

I know some of you hate it when I editorialize on other author’s articles, but I’m going to do so here. I love this post. For years, I too beat myself up over past decisions. I made myself miserable, and eventually made things miserable for those around me. For the past few years, I’ve been fixing those mistakes.

So, I agree with Donna: Don’t dwell on the past. And I would add, don’t fuss about the future. Sure, you need to plan for tomorrow, but you shouldn’t spend all your brainwidth worrying about tomorrow. Be in the moment. Live for today. Enjoy what you’ve been given. It’s a blessing. The past is gone and irrelevant; you can’t control the future. Do what you can to make the best decisions in this moment, and that will maximize your chance of success.

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