going the distance: the key to long-term financial success

“Financial success doesn’t happen overnight, but is the product of years of work.” That kind of pithy saying is obvious almost to the point of being painful, so why point it out? Well, I wouldn’t bother, except for the fact that most people don’t actually act on it; they don’t seem to know what thinking in the long term actually means. So let’s get into specifics, shall we?

Spending trends are more important than events. Did you spend more than you earned in November? Who cares? What matters is, are you spending more than you earn over time? One month isn’t going to make or break you; what matters is the long-term trend. Does your spending go up faster than your income? When you get a raise, does it immediately go to improving your lifestyle — or do you set aside some of that raise to pay off your debt faster or bump up your monthly 401(k) contribution? Do you have a plan to not only to save a certain amount, but to increase that amount year after year?

This is one of the reasons why a buffer should be your very first savings goal. When you’re no longer swamped with the day-to-day stress of wondering whether you can pay the bills, you can spend more time looking at the trends — both external (like the price of gas) and internal (like how much you decide to put aside each month).

“Always in motion is the future.” Ten years is a long time from now — so why base your plan on a bunch of assumptions about where you’re going to be? Instead, you need to make flexibility a priority, which in turn means building up discretionary income by resisting lifestyle inflation, paying down your debts, and saving up for new purchases, rather than taking on new debt. The more discretionary spending you have available, the better you’ll be able to handle whatever life throws at you.

Your investment plan can’t be based on occasional luck. So you (or your financial planner) predicted the latest crash and pulled all your assets out of stocks just in time, or invested in Apple stock when it was at 200, or made a killing selling covered calls while the market was going nowhere. That’s great, but…that’s not what’s really important. What’s really important is whether you (or they) perform well consistently, year in and year out, for decades. The flip side is also true: don’t be too quick to dump a strategy or planner for underperformance, either. A conservative portfolio looked like foolishness in 1999…and sheer genius in 2001.

See what I mean? The long-term view means ignoring events in isolation, and looking at patterns and systems instead. Not why you spent $300 on electronics last month, but how you’re controlling your spending over the year; not how you’re going to pay your recently-raised rent, but what your plan is for maximizing your discretionary spending; not what the market’s doing this week, but what it’s doing this century.

And if that kind of systematic planning just isn’t your thing, well, that’s what geeks are for.

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self-compassion over self-esteem (in finances and beyond)

Many of us born after a certain year have had “self-esteem” drilled into us since we were children. “Good job!” is still ringing in our ears after the innumerable times it was said to us — to the point where the words have almost  become meaningless. And why not? Confidence seems to be the underpinning of almost every form of success, even more so than intellectual ability, and the best way to build confidence in someone is to continually tell them how awesome they are, right?

Wrong.

Per the book by Dr. Kristin Neff of our very own University of Texas, this is more like “stuffing ourselves with candy.” We get a brief “high” of increased self-worth…which then crashes in despair when reality tells us something different. We try to pump ourselves back up by more “positive self-talk”, ignoring our faults and placing the blame for failures on something (anything!) outside of our responsibility…which sets up a continual high/crash cycle that ultimately goes nowhere. After all, how can we improve — really improve — if we refuse to learn from our mistakes?

This affects every aspect of life — including finances. Full of confidence in our ability to stick to a budget, we get aggressive in cutting back on perceived luxuries like new clothes or electronics; the next month, we stare in horror at our five-hundred-dollar Nordstrom or Fry’s bill, and give up budgeting entirely in despair. Full of confidence in our ability to time the market, we load up on “sure-fire winners”; then the bubble pops, and in the ensuing financial and emotional crash we pull our money out of the market entirely. It happens everywhere, all the time; self-esteem not only blinds us, it hobbles us and keeps us from growing.

The alternative? Self-compassion.

Self-compassion goes by several names, like humility or perhaps intellectual honesty, but it is, in its basic essence, deciding not to judge yourself. This does not mean refusing to evaluate your performance in any given area; rather, this means separating that performance from your worth as a human being. It means allowing yourself to make mistakes, with the knowledge that we grow by making those mistakes and allowing ourselves to embrace and learn from them. By acknowledging that we can and will make those mistakes, we can better deal with the consequences.

Of course, this applies to finances as well. When making a budget, we might set more realistic spending limits, or create an “oops” category for mistakes, or set aside a regular time to adjust next month’s budget based on last month’s spending. When designing a financial plan, we might be more willing to seek outside help and opinions, more able to take the right amount of risk, and less likely to panic and “sell everything” in the face of the unexpected.

So, great; how do we do that? The first step, of course, is in acknowledging that self-compassion is a valid choice — perhaps the hardest step for many of us, with our artificially-inflated egos that are more afraid of giving up that false self-esteem than we are of the inevitable real damage that it causes. But by taking this step, we are allowing ourselves to take the next: to surround ourselves with compassionate people. By choosing friends and advisors that judge our actions without judging our character, that compassionately tell us what we need to hear rather than what our egos want to hear, we are setting ourselves up for real growth.

And the more often we hear truth delivered with compassion, the more our self-compassion will grow, our egos shrink, and our lives improve.