People talk about getting ahead financially as if it were a race or a game, but I don’t think that is accurate. A race implies that participants start at a set place and have to cover the same distance. A game has rules and instructions that all players agree to follow in order to reach the stated goal. Financially speaking we clearly don’t all start with a set amount of money in life and we don’t have the same end result in mind to identify the winner. Some people are born with advantages that others can’t even fathom. Advantages that put them far ahead before the gun fires to signal the race has started. If getting ahead financially were a game then some players received the rules in advance while other obtained the instructions in a language they do not understand.
I like to think that getting ahead financially is like a toolbox. Each new tool we learn about and gather can be placed in our toolbox and used at any time to improve our personal finances. The more you learn about debt reduction, interest rates, investment options, the more tools you have at your disposal to build upon your personal wealth.
I remember learning a saying many years ago that went something like “if your only tool is a hammer then you tend to see all of your problems as nails.” I found a similar quote credited to Abraham Maslow “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” And Abraham Kaplan “give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”
Imagine if the only tool in your toolbox was a hammer and you tried to use it to fix everything that needed fixing in your home. Did you ever try to use a hammer:
- To sand wood?
- To change a light bulb?
- To cut down a tree?
Well if the only tool in your financial toolbox is a hammer and that hammer represents decreasing expenses, you will use that hammer to try to meet all of your needs. That works about as well as using your real hammer to cut down a tree. You might make small dents in the tree but it simply will not get the job done. If your only tool is a screwdriver and that represents increasing income then you try to use that screwdriver to meet all of your financial needs. You can make a million dollars a year but if you spend more than you earn you are still broke.
Clearly we need more tools in our toolbox!
Common toolbox problems:
Some toolboxes simply lack tools. People who lack financial tools complain about their finances, debt, lack of money but are doing nothing to improve their financial life. They think they are doing the best they can given their situation and do not see that using a variety of tools can help them improve their financial life.
Some toolboxes have damaged tools: People who do some research, run out and buy the shiny new tool, assemble it but never read the directions on proper use. It gets used for the wrong task, it gets broken, it gets left out in the rain and ruined. These folks set up an IRA and HSA but never make any contributions. They withdraw from their 401K to take a vacation, not understanding the tax consequences.
Some toolboxes are filled with shiny new tools with the price tags still on them. People who gather as many tools as possible by reading everything under the sun on creating and building wealth but never actually use any of the tools in their toolbox. They get bombarded with information and everything sounds really scary or just overwhelming. These people have done a ton of research but never take any significant steps toward improving their finances. They know about all of these really cool tools but they never actually use any of them.
If you have no financial tools you will never improve your finances.
If your financial tools are laying out in the rain you won’t make significant financial gains.
If your financial tools are sitting in the toolbox, in their original packaging with the price tags still in place they are not helping you build wealth.
What if the most important tool in the toolbox, is the toolbox itself? What if the toolbox represents WHY you want to build wealth, WHY you want to get ahead financially. Once you have the toolbox in place you start to understand how all of the shiny tools can be used effectively to reach your financial goals and your dreams. You start to understand the importance of getting new tools and taking proper care of them.
People can get caught up in thinking this isn’t the right time or place to make financial changes. They wait for a new job, a pay raise, a bonus. I think you have to create the right time and place – hint: it is NOW. Procrastinating and making excuses will not help.
Books on improving personal finances and self-help books often are full of really good exercises designed with self-improvement and personal growth in mind. Exercises to help you better understand your values, what makes you happy, what is important to you. These types of exercises can help you figure out your WHY. This will take some soul searching, some personal work – but it is worth it.
When I started to actually do the exercises found in the personal finance and self-help books is when I started to figure out WHY I wanted to improve my finances. I wrote down what I valued, what made me happy, how I envisioned my future, how I wanted to spend my time. I wrote my personal mission statement, my vision, and my chief initiative. Once I had a better understanding of what was important to me I stopped making excuses and I became fixated on living my life on my terms. Since that time I paid off the final $30,000 of school loan debt, I decreased spending and my income dramatically. Yes – I said I decreased my income dramatically.
My WHY led me to my happy place! My Little Blue Kayak in the middle of the lake.
You see when I figure out my personal WHY, I realized I didn’t care about accumulating more stuff. I didn’t care about earning big bucks. What I cared about was getting out of debt, decreasing my expenses so I could spend more time doing what I love to do.
My personal toolbox is my desire to have flexibility and freedom over my daily schedule. Now I spend a significant portion of time at my family’s cottage in the Finger Lakes. I get to hike, bike, kayak and swim. I have time to garden, have game nights with friends, play ping-pong with my honey. I still work but it is on my terms. I am not opposed to earning more money, but as long as I can meet my financial needs and contribute to my financial future I feel like I am living the dream.
Go figure out your WHY – I promise you will be happy you did. It will make filling your toolbox and taking care of your financial tools a breeze.