I’m No Superman.

I’ve recently discovered Scrubs. Please, don’t ask me to comment on how old it makes me feel when I think about the fact that it’s 2011, and I’m ‘discovering’ a show that ran in 2001. 

Actually, it’s a good time for me to be discovering Scrubs. In 2001, when it first aired, I was only 23 and I hadn’t dug into college and career yet.  Now, I’m finishing a Master’s and planning out a doctorate. I’m publishing my first book, and I’ve had a couple of years’ experience counseling and consulting individuals and businesses.  I’m in a state of quasi-professionalism. I have the training, but limited experience.  Every case is still new.  Every puzzle is still a complete mystery at first.

Still, I’ve seen some things, and I’ve done some things, and I believe now that I actually do have a deeper understanding of finance and economics than most.  I can help people get to their goals faster than they could alone. Scrubs follows the budding careers of medical interns and residents-in-training as they come to grips with the responsibilities, and anxieties of being doctors.  It’s all the same.

Most of all, I think it’s J.D. the hero of Scrubs, that I react to most.  J.D. is the kind of anti-hero we’d expect of Superman’s insecure twin.  J.D. is hero, alter-ego, and arch-enemy, in concert.  He is his own worst enemy, and his only hope for happiness.  That’s what I love about coming-of-age. It’s a terrifying, and exhilarating process!

It’s the same when we come of age financially.  Accepting more responsibility over our financial lives means growing up to the realities we face as people who cannot realistically work until we’re 80, but we may live until 100.  How can we prepare for that?  If you have kids, you know that you can’t teach something you don’t understand yourself.  Eventually, we realize that if our parents/teachers/mentors didn’t teach us about money, then we have no choice but to teach ourselves.  Don’t you know it, though; as soon as you decide to be your best, you’re faced with your internal obstacles and your conflicting desires. I think we all have a Superhero, an Alter-Ego, and a Supervillian/Dark Side that play in our minds.

Financially, my Superhero self is daring, creates lots of value from simple things, and gives to those who have great potential and heart, but need a leg up. My Alter-Ego is diligent and responsible, making sure that I stay on track with slow and steady progress in the right direction, and my Supervillian hangs out in the tropics, wears Prada, and drives a Benz.

How would you describe your inner financial Superero, Alter-Ego, and Supervillian?


Staying Power

The Tortoise and the Hare is a fable a lot of us have heard, and I know that we’re supposed to admire the turtle’s steady determination, but I’ve always liked the rabbit better.

I’m a sprinter, just like the hare.  When I do something I do it full-force, but I can’t keep that pace for long. I’ve seen this aspect of my personality show itself in countless ways over time – I can repaint and redecorate a room in a day. I can write a decent report in just a few hours. I can psych myself up to take on enormous tasks … for about three days. Then I lose steam.

When we apply the fable to our financial lives, it carries a heavy judgment on us sprinters.  Supposedly, we’re lazy and irresponsible.  We don’t finish what we start, and we’re just not sensible like the tortoise.  If you’re a hare like me, you know the drill – You get going, crank out a huge chunk of progress, then get discouraged, distracted or just need to catch your breath.  Then comes the voice. “You did it again.” It says.  “You never finish what you start.  You’re a flake.  Everybody thinks so.” Try getting moving again under that kind of psychological onslaught. That’s when I wish I was a turtle so I could crawl into my shell and hide from the world for a while.

Today, I am standing up to defend my inner rabbit.  We hares are not immature, flaky people.  We have different weaknesses than the turtle, but we have different strengths as well. There are real advantages to being a rabbit. Speed, efficiency, flexibility, and the ability to turn on a dime when needed. The problem with the hare isn’t laziness, it’s the discontinuity that comes with working in short spurts.

It’s easy to get distracted in between sprinting jags, but when I’m focused, I can go very far, very fast. Because I’m a sprinter, I’ve learned to tackle projects I can finish quickly before I lose momentum. Usually, this works out well for me. The trouble is that many of the things I want to do take more than three days to achieve.  If I’m going to live the adventures I think about, I can’t sprint my way there.

“Slow and Steady Wins the Race.” But, I’m a rabbit, not a turtle!  If I act like a turtle, my inner rabbit will die! I can’t let that happen. I can’t make the decision to deny my inner nature long-term.  I’ve tried before, and the real me always comes busting back out, gasping for air. I can’t be a tortoise, even if Aesop says I should be.

If you’re a sprinter like me, what we need to do is to figure out how to be a rabbit,  but act like a tortoise when we need to. We need to learn the art of slowing down – but not stopping – when we need to rest or refocus.  We need  staying power.

Marathon runners learn to rest on their feet.  They don’t keep one pace the entire time. Instead, they vary their speed in order to take advantage of bursts in energy, and to allow themselves to slow down when they need to recover.

This is the hurdle I have to clear right now.  I’m at a point in my career where a lot is being expected of me.  I care very much about the quality of work I sign my name to. I can’t afford the luxury of inconsistency anymore. In my professional life and my financial life (they are intricately linked), I want to learn how to maintain a steady pace toward my goals in between spurts of inspiration and enthusiasm.

Consistency in pace and performance is a turtle kind of quality.  If I’m going to adopt it, I need to adapt it to suit my rabbity way of living.

When I was a kid, and I had chores to do, my dad would make it into a kind of game.  One spring, we had a community field to prepare for planting.  After the area was tilled, about 50 of us lined up along one edge and started to walk to the other side, picking out the large stones along the way so that the plants would have an easier time getting through the soil.  Anticipating the boredom such a regimented activity would inspire in his five and seven year-old daughters, my father invented a game on the spot.  We spent the afternoon ‘grocery shopping’ for rocks.  It is one of my favorite memories of playing with my dad from that time.  That’s the kind of mental trick I need to do now.  I need to make consistency in my work, and in my savings, more fun.

My question to myself this week: How do I turn, “Slow and Steady” into a game?  Tune in next week, and we’ll see if I figure it out.

Saving Money in the New Year – 3 Steps and 14 Days to Lasting Change

The holiday season falls during the darkest, sleepiest time of year in North America.  That may be why so many of us use winter as a time for reflecting on how far we’ve come in our latest trip around the Sun, and for envisioning the new life that’s coming in the New Year.  It’s energizing to imagine a squeaky-clean new version of ourselves: one that eats better, exercises regularly, drinks more water, less wine and coffee, and finally (finally!) starts saving more money.  Back here in reality, we all know how hard it can be to make that kind of change. After all if it were really so easy, we wouldn’t need a special occasion to get motivated.

“You have to find something that you love enough to be able to take risks, jump over the hurdles and break through the brick walls that are always going to be placed in front of you. If you don’t have that kind of feeling for what it is you are doing, you’ll stop at the first giant hurdle.” ~ George Lucas

The first part of commitment is desire.  If you don’t want it, you won’t fight for it.  The difficult truth is that some people just aren’t ready to save money.  If what you really want is more money to spend, or if you’ve got your eyes on a big-ticket luxury item at this very moment, you are not ready for saving.  On the other hand, if the idea of making peace with your financial habits sounds good, but you need help making a solid game plan, read on!

Step 1: Honest Self-Reflection If you do want to change your spending habits, it would help to know what specific changes you want to see in your own behavior.  What are the situations where you find yourself spending money, and then kicking yourself a little for afterward?  Think over 2010.  What did you ‘waste’ the most money on?  If you keep an electronic bank account, that’s even better.  You can probably see where your money went by category.  My husband and I were amazed to learn that we spent over $5000 on convenience food last year.  That is one area I intend to scale back on.

For my own part, in 2011, I want to

  • Save at least $100/month by spending less money on convenience foods.
  • Deposit the savings into our savings account so it doesn’t get spent on other things later.

Step 2: Motivation and Reward The typical approach to saving money usually means being less comfortable in some way. At the very least, we know that we’ll have to resist the impulse to spend the way we always do.  Why would we want to commit to something that’s a drag just to think about?  The bottom line: We spend because it makes us feel good.

Any new behavior you want to adopt must give you an immediate, positive emotional reward.

If we want to spend less, we need to find a way to feel just as good (or better) while doing something different from our typical, habitual spending.  Once you’ve picked one or two specific habits that are costing you more money than you want to be spending, you need to figure out what emotional NEED those habits have been meeting up to this point.  Everything we do is for a reason. If you have fallen behind on credit card payments but still spend $4/day on luxury coffee there is a reason, and irresponsibility is probably not it.  Does a latte bring you comfort during a stressful day at work?  Is lunch at a restaurant more socially gratifying than lunch in the break room?  Are new clothes a cure for the blues, or new tools a fix for boredom?

The key to change is pinpointing the emotional need you’re meeting now, and continuing to meet that need while spending less money.  If you really work at this, you’ll find that you feel better, not worse, than you did under your old spending habits because you’ll be getting your emotional needs met, and you’ll also feel proud of yourself.

Last year, I cured myself of $200 clothes shopping sprees by giving myself a few shopping rules.  I realized that I went shopping the most when I felt ugly.  With that in mind, I set out some guidelines:

a.     I dress my BEST when I go clothes shopping, and I make sure I feel gorgeous.  I never go shopping feeling frumpy.  Otherwise, the shiny newness of the mall itself will play on my insecurities, and I’ll buy more. Sometimes, just getting myself dolled up to go shopping is enough to boost my mood, and I don’t feel like buying anything anymore.

b.     I make myself a promise before I go: “I will not buy anything that I don’t love as much or more as my current favorite thing.”  Why would I want anything that isn’t better than the best of what I already have?

c.      I give myself a spending limit that I can afford without stress. I set this amount BEFORE I walk into a store.  If the most I want to spend on a given day is $15, then I have an exciting treasure hunt on my hands.  Finding something that I like more or better than my current favorite thing on a shoestring budget turns me into an extremely picky buyer.

These guidelines make me a hard shopper to please.  It feels good to me, because I work hard for my money, and I’m no longer willing trade my valuable efforts on forgettable or regrettable items. When I employ these rules, I like how I feel when I walk out of a store empty-handed.  I walk away feeling choosy, not deprived.  My shopping habits are now based on self-respect instead of self-sabotage.

When I looked at 2010, I saw that I spend a lot more than I want to on convenience foods.  Fast food, lunches, and dinners in the car on busy days…it adds up.  If I’m going to spend less on this, I need to figure out why I buy convenience foods so often.  Strange as it sounds, I think it’s boredom.  Just the thought of packing a lunch bores me.  I like to leave my home or office behind and go where there’s some action.  I like to watch people buzzing around through their day while I relax and eat, and I don’t like having to plan my menu ahead of time.  I’ve tried buying funky fashionable lunch boxes to make packing my lunch more fun.  That worked for about a minute.  What in the world am I going to do?

Step 3 – The Game Plan They say it takes two weeks to break a habit.  That means 14 days of calculated, controlled effort to change your habitual reaction under pressure.  Think about it. A 14-day change is a decent test-run.  If you feel deprived and unhappy after 14 days of spending differently, you can always go back to how you spend now.

To get me through my first two weeks of January 2011 without buying lunch out, I’ve come up with the following plan:

I’m going to ask a few friends who work near me if they would like to form a little lunch group.  As the Ladies Who Lunch, we will each pick one day of the week, and prepare a lunch for the whole group.  We’ll meet up someplace lively and eat, chat, and blow off the stress of the morning.  This way, I only have to plan my lunch one day out of the week, and I can pick the day that works best for me.  The rest of the time, all I have to do is show up and enjoy great food and company for an hour.  I think it will fix the boredom problem.  Preparing food for friends is always more fun than doing it for myself, anyway.

I spend an average of about $6 on lunch per day now.  If I spend $15 a week making lunch for my friends, I’ll still save $60 a month – more than half of my monthly savings goal!  Plus, I’ll get more face-time with my girlfriends. After my 14 day trial, I’ll take stock and see how it’s going.

I’ll need a solid game plan for cutting back on fast food trips, too, but you’ve heard enough from me for now.  I want to invite you to take this journey with me.  What one or two changes will you be making?  What’s your game plan?  Feel free to participate, comment, and ask questions or ask for support here on this site.  Here’s to reaching those goals in 2011!

%d bloggers like this: