I recently heard a sermon about spiritual disciplines in which the preacher gave a fascinating example about the benefits of training vs. trying. He asked who would perform better in a marathon: someone who had trained for six months? Or someone who woke up the morning of the marathon and decided to just try really hard?
In the same way, who will have greater success at being patient with their kids/spouses/friends/parents? At developing a life of prayer? At fasting? At quieting their worried thoughts? I was struck by this example both because I totally understand the power of practice (but had never applied it to a spiritual context) and because it is such a relief to know why I often fail even when I am trying hard. I am a great one for trying things – new hobbies, new habits, new books, new ideas. Generally, this is a positive trait, but it also leads me to be easily disappointed when I fail at my new effort. But re-framing my efforts as “practice” legitimizes the failures during the learning process.
I also realized that this idea of practice can be applied to personal finance as well. It’s easy to talk about developing personal finance strategies and identifying goals, but sometimes it’s hard to take the next step from idea to implementation. And then after implementing a new strategy, it can be hard to integrate it into daily life. This is where practice is key! There are a couple ways that practicing personal finance really helped us:
Practice One Thing at a Time
The great thing about personal finance is that you don’t have to get everything figured out all at once. When you practice a musical instrument or a sport you have to think about five things at the same time (e.g. embouchure, posture, dynamics, tone, tempo, etc.). Personal finance, however, is just one thing at a time. While personal finance strategies are certainly related, it’s not necessary to care about everything at once.
The practice that worked best for us was the one month at a time approach. We chose one aspect of our personal finance (tracking spending, setting up investment accounts, creating our fun spending budget, working on frugality, linking all our accounts to a tracking software, etc.) and focused on it for one month. We didn’t try to figure everything out, but worked to set up one thing at a time. For example, one month we did some calculations to figure out our yearly projected spending so we knew how much of our paycheck to divert to our 401Ks, and also researched which investment accounts we should open (we settled on Vanguard). (Okay, let’s be honest, by “we” I mean “Alex.” Alex did all these calculations.) This took some time because we had to plan out how much money we expected to save each month and make sure we gave ourselves a cushion so we wouldn’t put too much in the investment accounts (which would tie up the money for years). Another month we examined our spending choices to make sure we were being deliberate and intentional about what we were purchasing. We questioned a lot of different spending and made some changes in order to save more money in areas where it was easy for us to cut (like biking more instead of taking public transport and trying not to use the air conditioner and dryer as much). These were both significant undertakings (in both time and thought), but it was easier because we did one thing at a time and gave ourselves time to make mistakes and try again.
Practice a Challenge
For me, one of the most difficult parts of thinking about personal finance was questioning my spending habits. It felt so overwhelming to completely change all my habits at once. So the idea of practicing new spending patterns was a relief. I started by giving myself a series of small challenges. I had a list of questions I would ask myself about each purchase –
- Does this item fill a real need/want in my life or is it a repeat of something I already own? (Seriously, if I buy one more horizontal navy blue striped short-sleeve shirt I may need to seek professional help.)
- Is there something more important that I would rather have than this item? (Often, I realized I was more excited about an extra activity on vacation, or a new pair of shoes, instead of the cinnamon roll or dinner out or candle I was about to buy.)
- Can I put off this purchase to see if I still want it later? (This strategy turned out to be really successful for me!)
At first it was troublesome and took me a long time to go through all these questions for each purchase, but the more I practiced asking myself these questions the easier it became. Now, it feels like second nature to think about these questions. When I approach a horizontal navy blue striped short-sleeve shirt I just walk right by because it is not ingrained in my mind that this is an Unnecessary Duplicate Item. Also, whenever I think of something that I want I almost always wait to buy it – just out of habit. I wait until the next weekend or the next time I order things from Amazon. And in the meantime I think about whether I REALLY want it or whether it is just a passing fancy.
But I was surprised how fast these questions helped changed my entire mindset about shopping and buying. Practicing really does make things easier!
Of course, like any habit or skill that requires practice, perfection is not the goal in personal finance. Instead, practicing good personal finance habits and strategies helps us integrate these things into our daily life and set up systems that work for themselves. Practice is the glue that binds our new personal strategies to our life. Practicing personal finance includes stumbles, failures, and missteps. It’s important to be patient with yourself, to laugh at your tumbles, and then get back up and go at it again. If you forget to track spending one week or buy too many coffee mugs, turn around and fix it the next week. Practice won’t make us perfect, but it will set us up for success. As my college band director always said - “the more you practice the luckier you get.”