Financial Life Focus

How to clearly navigate your financial life

Chopping Ice and Financial Happiness

The outcome was worth the work.

It's just past Groundhog Day yet it's not too early to say that this has been a lousy winter: Nine storms since Christmas and the weekly forecast promises more to come.  Even Punxetawny Phil's inability to see his rodent-like shadow doesn't make me happy.  Last week, a new treat was added when we were blasted with an ice storm.  Nobody likes ice! It means broken cars and broken bones.  Even the nightly news has been regaling us with pictures of poor unfortunates being wheeled into emergency rooms across the region - yet more fear-inducing visuals to add to the ample and oft-repeated footage of cars sliding sideways down hills and pin-balling off cars, poles and the occasional wall or building.

Ahhhhh...Sunday afternoon and we've been blessed with a balmy 40 degree day - enough to make the frozen tundra ooze a bit.  I survey the expanse in front of me, a clean safe driveway seeming impossibly far away.  On go the gloves and I am ready for action; my breath billowing out in front of me, I begin chopping away at the ice. , Inch by inch, cube by frozen cube, each shovelful reveals another piece of blacktop: hallelujah! My wrists and hands hurt, but it's well worth the benefit of reducing the risk of breaking my neck.

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What does chopping ice have to do with financial happiness?  Everything, of course.  The tedium and pain of the scraping, chopping, shoveling and clearing is a perfect analogy to the process of building financial happiness.  Have you ever experienced a time in your life when your financial life was not where you wanted it to be?  What did you do? Did you make any changes or did you stand frozen in retched confusion?

Finding your financial blacktop is a worthy goal.  It is a place of safety and stability, preventing unwanted trips to the hospital.  Just look at the opposite of your so-called clear driveway: you could be dallying on financial ice, where everything is slippery, tenuous, and downright dangerous. One last metaphor here: it's a choice between standing on solid ground and landing painfully on your ass.

Several years ago, I met with a young couple who were in dire financial conditions.  They were earning modest salaries and were both buried by debt.  They tried to display a lifestyle of comfort, only to sink deeper into the mire. Day after day they existed perilously close to disaster, hoping that today would not be the day they would fall flat. Now even they could see it was time to chop the ice and become grounded upon the strong secure base that lay beneath.

Our process of driveway clearing began with a survey of the landscape, including a long look at the distance between their present reality and preferred future.  Their overriding desire and need was to live within their means without being dependent on revolving debt. They were tired of trying to keep up with their friends who earned more. They had had enough calls from credit card companies looking for payment; life was becoming exhausting and depressing.

After surveying the environment, we built a plan together that required that they make substantial changes in their spending, including moving to an apartment that was less costly and cancelling their planned vacation.  In order to pay off debt and live within their means, they had to reduce their discretionary spending to bare bones.  According to the plan, it would take thirty months of disciplined effort to break out of their predicament.  Each month, they would chip away at the debt and add a little but to their savings in order to create financial security.  Their only option was to remain steadfast in their efforts or risk collapsing back into the chaotic state of financial inebriation.

Twenty-nine months later, they came to see me for a check-in meeting. They were both waving zero balance credit card statements and documents showing an emergency fund that would cover them in case of unexpected problems.  They were all smiles.  Life had changed in the last two years.  They learned the difference between living by someone else's standards versus their own values.  They valued security over lifestyle and in so doing made it possible for them to have both: with a secure foundation, they were now able to build up their lifestyle one important brick at a time.  Not only was their blacktop clear, it was now safe and secure.

Looking at my cleared driveway, it doesn't feel like I had to work so hard after all. Sure I have some blisters on my hands from gripping the shovel, but in addition to attaining a safe driveway I also gave myself a pretty good cardio workout at the same time...one chop at a time, of course.

 

Michael F. Kay, a Certified Financial Planner, practitioner and a CPA, is president of the firm Financial Life Focus.

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