Since separating from my husband and dealing with the financial consequences thereof, I’ve been grappling a number of financial regrets. I wish we had waited another year to get married. I wish we had bought a cheaper car. I wish I had built a larger emergency fund, instead of thinking, “if anything goes wrong, I’ll still have my husband’s income”.
I made mistakes when I should have known better.
I’m not the only one that wishes they could get a do-over with some of their finances. I get emails every day from readers who wish they hadn’t borrowed so much in student loans, wish they had started saving for retirement earlier, wish they hadn’t bought a house or wish they did, wish they had gone back to school or wish they hadn’t.
I have only one response to those regrets:
You might wish that things were different. Remember, they’re not different.
What I mean by that, is there’s no use wishing for an alternate reality that you will never occupy. You cannot change the past. Your only choice is to deal with your present, and you can do that much better if you’re not wasting any time wallowing over things you can’t change.
You made your decisions with the information you had
It might seem hard to believe now, but your past self was not intentionally sabotaging you. They didn’t charge 3 textbooks for a class they would later drop thinking, “I am really going to regret this in 5 years!”.
Your past self was making decisions based on the information they had available to them. Sometimes they didn’t have all the information. The information they definitely didn’t have was how you would feel about their actions now. If they did, they probably would have made different choices. You have to know you never set out to make your own life difficult. The choices you made were based on the information you had at the time, however incomplete it was.
Remind yourself that you are doing your best
Comparison is the thief of joy, and it’s easier than ever to let in with the internet. Like you, I read a multitude of personal finance blogs, and get a glimpse into other people’s finances. Even though there’s at least as many people worse off than you as there are better off, you probably tend to focus on the people that are better off. The ones who had no student loan debt, or were able to buy a home in an affordable real estate market. The ones that lucked out in the stock market or received an inheritance that let them seed their retirement funds at a young age.
Everyone is doing their best with what they have, and that includes you.
If you had a higher paying job, no debt, rich parents, and more financial luck, you’d probably have more to show for it, too. Some things are in your control, some are not. Remind yourself that you’re doing your best with what you have. If you’re not doing your best, change it.
Treat yourself kindly
If a friend came to you and confessed their financial woes and regrets, your first reaction probably would not be to berate them for being an idiot.
So you should refrain from talking to yourself the same way.
You are not your mistakes, and you don’t deserve to be put down for them from anyone, including yourself. For that reason, it’s important to make sure you’re not calling yourself stupid or careless, even in the quiet of your own head. Negative self-talk will do nothing except make you feel worse about an already bad situation, so don’t even start.
Focus on the future
The easiest way to get over the past is to turn your attention to the future. Instead of lamenting the mistakes you made before, focus on what you’re going to do next.
You have no control over the past, but you do have 100% control of the future.
Your financial future is not yet determined. You will get to debt-free. You can become a millionaire. The mistakes you made in the past might make some of the steps you take towards the financial life of your dreams more difficult, but they don’t mean you can’t achieve them. Making a plan for how you’re going to remedy your situation and manage your money going forward will not only fix your past mistakes, it will help you feel more motivated and optimistic about what’s to come.
In short, don’t beat yourself up to badly, the best is yet to come.
Ack, I’m sorry this happened. Life is messy, and so many things happen that we can’t plan for. Marriage is about relying on each other, and it’s easy to look back on that trust with regret.
I regret taking out student loans for a fancy-pants private university and having a horribly expensive $450/mo car payment. But those mistakes are in the past, and I’m taking responsibility for them today. And that means in the next two years I won’t have student loans any more. It’s far better to use that energy to plan instead of beating yourself up!
Agreed! This has definitely spurred better planning after 2-3 years of being a little lazy because I felt so financially secure in a two-income household =p I guess that’s the silver lining in all the chaos!
I was in the same situation as you. I left my husband and at first it was very hard financially and emotionally. I had a lot of regret for investing so much into our relationship, again emotionally and financially, but instead of focusing on that regret I upped my hours at work, I picked up my old relief job and got a roommate- oh and took time to work on me. That regret made me work harder to feel better again. I’m happy to say it’s been 3 years and I am more financially stable and happier then I ever was when I was with him. Things will get better for anyone who wants it and is willing to work towards it!
I love this! Thank you so much for sharing Nikki, this makes me feel a lot better.
Can you make a post about mental illness and debt at some point? I feel like the majority of my debt is related to my mental illness and it is super depressing and debilitating!
Examples: Having to repeat courses in uni because half way through my mental illness got so bad that I couldn’t complete all the coursework in all the classes
Having difficulties working extra jobs … there is a fine line to balance between being super productive and paying debt off quickly and getting overwhelmed by the schedule, becoming too depressed/ work performance and attendance issues result.
This is a great idea for a post. I haven’t personally struggled with mental illness (but I definitely suffered a depressive episode in the summer when my marriage was breaking down… though this was circumstantial more than mental illness I guess?) but I know it can really wreck your finances AND make it hard to recover. It’s two bad hits in one. Thank you for the idea, I will get to work on it!
I wonder if it may work more to tie it into mental health, not a diagnosed mental illness? I’ve recently been going to a therapist to deal my poor relationship with food, and finances actually have come up as something I need to work on as well. I am using new ideas I have learned about in therapy to help me rebuild my finances in a healthier way.
Yes, yes, yes. I do my best frequently to not dwell on where I would be today had I looked out for myself more, set better boundaries, not been such an enabler in the past. For not waking up to the signs of financial abuse and acting sooner. It’s really hard to let go of the money I wasted, not to mention all the emotions tied up in it when your spouse truly lets you down. All I can do is ensure I learn, and keep moving forward.
100% agree. It seems extra complicated when there’s another person involved.
I regret all the decisions we made that got us into this much debt. We are in our early 40s and it is going to take us a very long time to get out of this mess. We have just started to get serious about debt repayment this year…better late then never I hope!
Better late than never is absolutely true! Even if your 40’s you still have decades before retirement, which means plenty of time to get on the right track financially.
Wow, what an amazing, uplifting story. We all go through tough times and this helps to see that this is so true.
Thanks Denise! Glad you found it helpful.
I had a marital breakdown in my mid-20s that definitely set me back financially, though I was grateful that despite being the sole breadwinner while my husband was in school, I was still saving some money on the side in an account that was only in my name, and taking care of #1. It wasn’t much, but it helped ease the sting afterward. Coulda woulda shoulda! It took the past 5 years to dig out of that and get ‘ahead’, and I held on to some resentment for a while about the setback. But in the end, I try to remember that it was only 5 years out of my whole life, and had I stayed with my husband I likely would have ended up in a bigger financial hole in the long run. Setbacks are just setbacks, they aren’t the end of the line. Thanks for this, Bridget! Hope you’re on your feet again soon, financially and emotionally.
Very encouraging video! Thank you!
This definitely hits home. I thought about the ring I bought my ex-fiance and the amount of money I spent on a relationship that ended up being a sham. The best thing to do is invest in yourself in every way possible so you can sustain and persevere through the hardships. Whether that comes as a hard lessen or not is up to you. I have learned a lot about trust and what people’s true intentions are. I believe I am a better person for having gone through it. Thanks for the moments of reflection!
I like to see that we only have 80% control of the future, just like what happened in the past, it wasn’t 100% us. 80% is a good chance of getting out just alright.
When we learn from our mistakes we are making progress. And some of the most valuable lessons we learn in life are learnt the hard way.
I haven’t checked in on your blog in awhile, mostly because I’ve been burying my head in the sand when it comes to my own finances. Remember how we both dropped out of our PhD programs and were twinsies on that? Well, this, too – I separated from my husband after a year, and we just completed our divorce. It had awful financial implications, and this post was a really good reminder to just start where I’m at, be kind to myself, and to go back to the things that I know have worked for me in the past. If you ever want to talk about post-separation finances, or just life, you know where to find me on Facebook. <3
ahhhh! Why do we lead hilariously parallel lives?? I’m sorry you’re suffering the same negative experiences I am haha, but happy to hear you’re making it through =)
I remember getting in a particularly un-fun fight with somebody a few years ago because they considered their spouse’s income an emergency fund. I came at it from the sense of ‘our family is here to support us, but there are limits and you don’t know the future.’ They took it as I didn’t believe in their marriage. But there are so many things you don’t know. What if your partner loses THEIR job too? What if they get sick and can’t work (which happened to my partner) and need to take a leave or disability? What if it DOESN’T work out? It’s hard to see the future but hopefully people can at least listen to those who’ve already been in tricky situations and learn steps to mitigate if they ever get there.