When you start becoming interested in managing your personal finances, the first thing you’ll probably feel is overwhelmed.
There’s too many things to do. You have to track your spending, manage a budget, pay your debt, save for retirement, save an emergency fund, invest in the stock market, negotiate your salary, and on and on and on. You’re mired in debt but every personal finance blog you read is singing about financial freedom.
The number of items needing “urgent” attention can be so paralyzing you default to doing nothing at all. The journey you need to take in order to be financially independent is so long you doubt you could get there in three lifetimes.
Thankfully, you don’t have to.
You only have to do one thing with your money at a time
You might not have a clue about managing your money at the start of your financial journey. That’s ok, that’s what beginnings feel like.
Your only task is to tackle one or two things that seem most important to you. For many people, that’s getting a handle on their debt. For others it might be saving an emergency fund or a down-payment on a house. For many it might just be creating a budget so there’s more money coming in than there is going out.
You can’t win the war all in one go, but you can pick your battles.
Start with the easiest step
No matter what your financial goal is, the first step is probably so easy you’re putting it off until you actually have the resources to accomplish steps 2, 3 or 19.
For example, my sister recently lamented, “I have nothing saved retirement.”
I told her to open an RRSP savings account and put $50 in it. “There,” I said, “now your problem is you have very little saved for retirement, but you no longer have nothing.”
Opening a retirement savings account can be done online in less than 2 minutes, but I would guess my sister wanted to wait to take that step until she had a more “respectable” sum to tuck away — something that would feel more like real retirement savings than a stray $50.
I knew that if she opened the savings account and put some money in it now, she’d see it every time she logged into her online banking. Maybe she can’t afford to dump hundreds of dollars per month into the account because she’s a new graduated focused on paying down her student loans, but I bet seeing it on her screen once or twice a week will sometimes make her think, “I’d like to see that balance over $100, maybe I can put $50 in this week”.
When it comes to managing your money, inertia might be the real secret to success
The first step to paying off your credit card debt is to stop adding to it. The next step is to make more than the minimum payment. The third is to pay it off. You don’t have to tackle all these steps at once. You really can do one, then the next, then the next, and you’ll still get to debt-free. The same is true for all other financial achievements.
A lot of financial achievement comes merely from building momentum, by doing one successful task after another rather than all at once.
We don’t have to feel bad about ourselves for not instantly mastering all the financial skills possible.
Once a good financial habit becomes second nature, it frees up mental bandwidth to tackle something else. Can you learn how to invest in the stock market while you’re trying to get in the habit of tracking your spending? Maybe, but maybe not. Attending to too many financial tasks at once is cognitively taxing. Give your brain a break and take the easiest step now, then you can tackle the rest later.
Even if your finances are all wrong, start by doing one thing right
You might be mired in credit card debt. Maybe your credit score is awful. It’s possible you’re working 3 part-time jobs to make ends meet. It could be that you aren’t even really sure what a stock is, let alone how to buy one. It doesn’t matter. You can — and should — master one task at a time.
Once you do one thing correctly until it’s a habit, then you can move onto the next thing. Instead of feeling pressured to scale a financial mountain, you should focus on the next hill to climb first. After all:
- Getting out of debt is hard. Paying off one credit card isn’t.
- Saving for retirement is hard. Opening a retirement savings account isn’t.
- Sticking to a budget for a month is hard. Sticking to a budget for a week isn’t.
- Saving 3-6 months living expenses in an emergency fund is hard. Setting aside $500 for emergencies isn’t.
We all start at the beginning, but you only have to do one thing right at a time to move forward.