Good financial intentions: we all have them. Yet, with the American savings rate at an anemic 4.6% of income and the average household credit card debt load of $15,956 (for households with credit card debt) – our good intentions aren’t amounting to much financial good.
Happily our failure on this front has a silver lining: the chance to learn.
There are probably as many reasons for failing to control your financial life as there are people. Dip your toe into financial self-help literature and you’re sure to be wowed by the often deeply rooted emotional reasons why we overspend and under-save. It’s fascinating stuff. But reading about it will only take you so far. If you really want to pull yourself out of your financial rut, you will have to stop being an armchair observer of other people’s failures and become a student of your own.
Here are four critical steps to embracing your financial failures in a way that will enrich you over the long haul.
Step 1: Keep track
We know it sounds depressing: track my failures?!? Why on earth would I want to do that?
The fact is if you aren’t willing to take an honest look at where you are going off the rails, you will not ever learn how to stay on them. Nobody is perfect; we all fail at one point or another. Those who succeed quickly get over their fear of failure and figure out how to learn from it. As Samuel Beckett said so eloquently: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Thus, when it comes to getting your financial house in order, you must establish a ritual for documenting your financial failures. Pick one night a week where you look back over the previous seven days and identify any missteps. Did you overshoot your food budget? Jot down how much you went over and why you did. Did you compulsively shop? Note when, how you felt before you went shopping, and what kinds of things you felt compelled to buy. Did you feel better after? Or worse? The more detail you can put around the event, the more likely you will be to learn from it over time. And don’t be tempted to skip this step. You may think, “oh I’ll remember this.” But you won’t. Or you may, but you may not want to think about it too much. There’s something about having to face the cold, hard facts – both when you write it down and then again when it’s time for your weekly review – that leads to real learning and inspires permanent lifestyle changes.
Step 2: Identify critical patterns
As you gain experience documenting your financial mistakes and missteps, clear patterns will start to emerge. Perhaps you are chronically over budget when it comes to food, or once a month you hit the mall without any plan and do some damage with your credit cards.
At least once a quarter, and ideally once a month, review your spending patterns and ask yourself if there are any recurring patterns of note. Take the time to capture any in your journal or virtual notebook, wherever you are keeping track of your failure stats. Again, writing it down is critical; it helps you truly internalize the information.
Step 3: Synthesize and cement lessons learned
Any time you identify a negative pattern in your finances, force yourself to get to the root of the problem. Perhaps you are chronically over your food budget because you’re trying to wing it without a weekly menu and turn to take-out and expensive prepared foods at the grocery store more than you realize. Maybe you are in the habit of going shopping with a friend who makes a lot more money than you do and feel compelled to keep up appearances, or worse, hit the stores when you’re feeling vulnerable and try cloak your lagging self-esteem in fancy badge brands.
The point of this step is to dig deep for the reasons behind your sabotaging behavior. As soon as you identify a pattern in step two, start a running tally of possible reasons why the pattern exists. Keep asking yourself why until you get to a satisfying answer. It will often be emotional in nature.
Once you’ve identified the root cause(s), take a few moments to capture your failure in the form of a complete sentence and then list each valuable lesson you have learned.
Step 4: Brainstorm “back on the bandwagon” tactics
The final step is to come up with a few tactics that you can employ to stay ahead of the negative pattern and/or to interrupt it and get yourself quickly back on track.