Financial Life Focus

How to clearly navigate your financial life

Stumble, Fall, Get Up

Learning From Money Mistakes

The meteoric straight-line to success is a myth, at least for the vast majority of us. Going from the mailroom to the boardroom just doesn't happen to normal people in a single bound. 

The same goes for accumulating wealth, achieving life balance and creating a life that you value. It's more like two steps forward, then one back and one more forward. Life is a mixture of progress, stumbles and failures. Somewhere in between failure and success are the lessons—they show us our strengths and determination to move beyond the mistakes.

There are examples all around us. A toddler’s first unsteady steps and tumbles. A new college grad’s first job—and his/her sometimes over-zealous attempts to apprentice at crafts that take years to perfect. Progress is most often a hard fought series of missteps and blunders that eventually transitions into knowledge, experience and competency.

Your money success follows a similar path.  You enter the workforce and earn your own money.  Maybe it’s your first taste of independence and you used your new paycheck as a reason to go crazy and rack up debt. That first feeling of dread when the bill comes in is usually enough of a sobering experience to keep future excesses to a minimum.

There are other times in our money life when we learn important lessons:

You wake up one morning and realize that your teenager is going to college in a year and you haven't saved enough.

You learn that your neighbors are going on their dream vacation and you believe that you "should" be able to as well, regardless of your financial realities.

You decide to make some home improvements and set aside a budget that is comfortable. Then your contractor offers choices that are "only" a little more and before you know it you’ve busted your budget.

You’ve started substituting the word "want" with the word "need”.

These moments of clarity are vitally important and require your full and engaged attention. To alter your course toward better results, you need to embrace these learning moments. Instead of looking at your credit card debt with exasperation, convinced you'll never get out, you need to decide that nothing is more important than getting out from under it. That's what builds resiliency and meaningful habits.

There are always action steps you can take, for example:

                1.  If you are weighed down by debt, make payments to coincide with every pay period, not every billing cycle.

                2. If you have no emergency fund, set aside a small amount from each paycheck and pay yourself first.

                3.  If you still have bills left over after you’ve spent your earnings, you need to examine every line item and expenditure and make hard decisions to change your spending habits. For every extra dollar you find, you write a check—to your savings, to pay down your debt or toward something equally significant. For example, if you change your cable bill and save $25 per month, actively put that $25 towards something important. It might seem simple—or even silly—but it works.

                4.  If you are not actively saving for retirement and are not contributing anything to a 401(k) plan, then start. It doesn't matter how much—you can begin with 1% and see how easy it is. Then up it as often as possible until you max out.

Money success can happen when you learn from your inevitable missteps and falters—like almost everything in life it is not a straight line. Because we are human, mistakes happen. But as Einstein said, making the same mistakes while expecting to get a different result is just insanity.  

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

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