Marriage, Money, and Goals

In business classes, we’re taught to think and plan in terms of SMART goals.  The acronym S.M.A.R.T. stands for


Learning to think this way helps immeasurably when you’re making a plan, especially one that requires several steps and moving parts.  It forces you to put your nebulous vision into concrete terms.

For instance, if you want to ‘find a better job,’ a SMART goal might be to send out three applications every week to companies where you think you’d like to work.

A SMART way to say you want to lose weight and get healthier would be, “By next month. I want to drop one pant size and be able to run one mile further than I can right now.” In my case, when I set the goal of saving money back in December, I immediately jumped to the SMART goal setting process. “In 2011, I want to save at least $100/month by spending less on convenience foods.” I felt like a good little business school graduate with my finger on the pulse of what needed to change and my smarty-pants SMART goal.

As is often the way with me, I chose the wrong move.

It’s true that I had a goal, and it was very specific, measurable, etc. etc., but I’d skipped the most important part – the vision!  Without vision, a goal has no heart, no passion, no steam, no fire. No staying power. The thought struck me in the middle of a spring repainting project, and I admit I felt a bit moronic for not having realized it sooner.  After all, my entire marriage  hung in the balance of this issue some years back…during wedding planning.

If you ask me, any couple that can survive planning a wedding on a shoestring budget and still say ‘I do,’ in the ceremony has a pretty good shot at marriage.  The argument my husband and I had over wedding invitations lives in infamy in our house.  I was a full-time student at the time, working 2 part-time jobs with only 3 months to plan, and $3,000 to work with, I was wracking my resourceful little brain to figure out how to accommodate the seven hundred people my darling husband insisted on inviting.  That’s what I said. Seven hundred. Seven hundred hand-made invitations had to be made so that seven hundred of his closest friends could be contacted.  If they came, I needed to seat them, feed them, and entertain them for the evening. He printed his contact list onto the invitation labels I’d given him.  No stylish font, no forethought, just:

‘Last Name, First Name,

One of the honored invitees was someone he’s never even met or spoken with, but he is (allegedly)  the only other person in the world with the same first and last name, and so he must be invited.

Yes, that’s the man I married. I almost didn’t marry him, though. Our complete inability to agree on a scope for our wedding was so exasperating that I worried we’d never learn to make a life together.

His parents hired us a wedding planner to help. Thank goodness for Flava!  The very first thing she asked us was to, “Describe your ideal wedding in one or two words.”

“Intimate. Elegant,” I said.
He said, “Superbowl!”

And there it was.  We had a common goal (plan a great wedding), but we had very different visions.

What does this have to do with money? Only everything.
So much of what we do involves the exchange of currency that you can hardly separate money from any aspect of your life.  While planning the wedding, three thousand dollars was on my mind every day.  Three thousand dollars, and three hundred confirmed guests (many of the 700 lived quite far away, to my relief), and I needed a decent plan…What could I do?  I did my best. I converted a warehouse-style room in an office park into a ballroom, and we asked each guest to bring a dessert.  It was lovely. Truly.

But, it wasn’t my dream.  My vision got lost the moment we charged ahead with the mechanics of planning.  What we should have done was spend an evening talking about our different visions until we started to dream together. We should have started with broad strokes, and then filled in the details.

I had completely forgotten this important lesson about the distinction between goals and vision.  Then it struck me that I haven’t been motivated to save recently because I don’t have a vision for it. I have a goal – spend $100 less every month on convenience foods than last year – but…..why? A retirement account isn’t enough of an immediate reward.  I need a different kind of payoff.

What I need is a vision of this new me – the one that doesn’t just save on junk food, but saves a full 20% of her after-tax income, no matter what.  What does that me look like? How do I feel?  The specifics I need at this point are not specific mechanical goals. What I need to do is to fill in the details of the dream I want to dream for my life.

Once I’ve fallen in love with a vision I have, I’m a very hard worker.  I pay attention to detail, accepting nothing less than my personal best in every way.  Without the dream, I don’t have the will to push against fatigue and misfortune when they come.

Did I learn to make saving into a game this week? No, I didn’t. (See previous post for context). Instead, I figured out that I’ve missed an important step along the way, and I want to back up, and spend some time dreaming.  What better time for hatching new visions than Spring!


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.

Introduction: A bit overdue

I was raised by a teacher and a social worker, so when I decided to study personal financial planning I felt as if I was turning my back on my family’s entire cultural identity.  As a child, my parents taught me about the injustice they saw and experienced each day as the lower classes (us, and the people that they served at work) were left behind while the rest of society chased after industry.

My grandmothers, on the other hand, were both trust-fund babies – daughters of men of science who made great advancements in the film and energy industries.  The money my family had in previous generations served as a thorn in my parents’ side as they watched their mothers dwindle away in loveless marriages, and yet cling to the ‘society’ that money allowed them to keep.  Remember, they were women in the 1950’s – not a time of great tolerance for ‘subversive’ women. By the time I was born, there was a clearly defined culture in my home that assumed money was a necessary evil, but was not something we were permitted to desire, respect, or focus our attention on – if we were to be ‘good’ people.

It is no great wonder, then, that I was a financial mess well into my twenties.  I had no financial training, but what’s more I had been indoctrinated into the message that so many of us hear, “You either care about money OR you care about people.  Your choice will define who you are.”  It was this message that blocked my way to personal financial progress for many years.

At 27, I held a degree in Mathematics, so I couldn’t blame a lack of ‘number sense’ for my financial disorganization. I wanted to get control, but it wasn’t a budgeting class that I needed, it was a new way of thinking about money. Only when I was exhausted from the strain of financial worry did I finally defy my family culture and take the plunge into financial education.  The personal journey I took from hand-to-mouth living and massive credit card debt to becoming a financial counselor and educator is just as important as the financial skills I’ve gained along the way.

I had to challenge one of the most basic messages I’d ever been taught.  I had to decide to believe that I could care about people AND still care about money.  I believe firmly that we cannot create lasting financial change in our lives without personal reflection on how our money attitudes and habits were formed.  It is my experience that drives me to reach out to others.  We have a culture that marries financial success with personal value, yet many hard working people will die of starvation this very day.  It is my opinion that financial education must address the human side of money if it is to make any deep or lasting impact. Not everyone will become a financial expert, but I work hard to both teach and empower people to have a stronger, healthier relationship with money so they can work with all of their resources to create the world they wish to see.

Because we each have a unique personal history, this type of introspection is not easily taught in a classroom or consulting format.  Couples facing bankruptcy in their mid 50’s through debt or business investments that didn’t grow as expected need more than a budgeting course.  Teenagers looking to find their place in the working world need something better than “Spend less than you earn,” to guide them.  I have little confidence in traditional money management classes to create lasting change in people with destructive spending habits.  Those who need it most are usually the least likely to listen.

However, as I have worked with the community over the past 2 years, I have seen teenagers, young adults, business owners, and couples connect deeply with the topics I raise.  The sense I have overwhelmingly received from clients and students is a sense of relief that they can finally talk about money in a way that is relevant to them.

I am especially grateful for the tears that near strangers have shed when speaking about their feelings of failure, inadequacy, and helplessness when dealing with money.  I take care to connect with people where they are at, and empower them to take the next step toward financial freedom by looking deeply into how they got where they are – not just through circumstance, but thought, attitude, and emotion.   I believe that we need to consider the whole person when talking about a financial plan.

I hope that my future studies will serve to put science behind my theories as I test my hunches against the scientific method.  My greatest fear these days is that I’ll find out I’m completely wrong, and I’ll be back at square one.

And who are you – reading this?


Waxing philosophical in this, the latest snowstorm of a very snowy winter.  I found this quote from Kafka, “Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made.”

I taught a finance seminar last Saturday.  I was expecting nearly 20 people from the number that had emailed me for details and directions.  One problem: There are TWO Corbett Halls on the University of Maine campus.  Corbett, and DP Corbett (the newer one in the School of Business building).  My seminar was in the second one, and only three of the 20 found the room.  I was shaken, but undeterred as I faced these three women who had wandered the campus, found each other and saw they were looking for the same thing, and then walked another quarter of a mile together in the snow to be there.

We sat and had coffee in the classroom together and instead of presenting at the whiteboard, we had a great conversation for 2 ½ hours about how we feel about money and society and who we are, and who we want to be – how we want to be seen vs. how we believe we are seen by others – and how it interacts with our spending habits.  We laughed a lot together, and there were some tears, and expressions of feelings of failure and inadequacy.  It was a true Oprah moment for me as I saw for the first time in my (quasi)professional life that I really can reach people, and help them move forward toward the personal changes they’ve been wanting to make.  All of the fears of failure I was struck with when I resigned myself to the reality of such a small group were gone.  I’d done it.  I’d taught my class to three complete strangers, and they’d walked away moved. Small

They were wonderful women.  A young professional, looking for direction as she branches out into the world to make her mark. A divorcee with two children who has decided to make a statement by leaving a higher paying job for one that meets her personal needs for autonomy and peaceful work relationships.  She faces the stress of coming up short every month, while needing to express herself and live her life in a meaningful way that honors the value of relationships more than the value of money.   The third woman wanted to learn more ways to pass on good financial habits to her nieces and granddaughters so they can take good care of what they have all worked so hard for.

They were each in search of the next step for them – and they wanted to remove the road blocks they saw that were holding them back from their own progress.  Sometimes, the roadblocks we face are external or circumstantial.  Sometimes they have their roots in our perspective, and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we are – or are not – capable of.  These three women all believed in progress, even if it had not yet been made in their lives.  They walked away more confident that they will reach their goals, and for that I am very, very grateful.

I decided that small groups simply have to be a bigger part of my work.  Presenting a class makes a small impact on a lot of people, but Saturday, I made a big impact on a few people, and it brought with it a very different, and deep sense of satisfaction.  Sigh.


Back to Kafka –

“Believing in progress does not mean believing that any progress has yet been made.” And another,

“By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it. The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”

And so I’ve seen this month that if I’m going to continue eating out less, I have to embrace the transformation stage.

Transition is the hardest part of childbirth.  As I labored with my daughter, I heard my midwife say to my mother (a mother of four – all naturally, bless her heart) “Transition is the part where your body shifts from the muscles that open to the muscles that push. It can take hours, or it can take 15 minutes, we’ll just see how she does.”  Zoe was born 45 minutes later, in the living room.  It was intense, but because I was surrounded by people who loved me, people I could trust with my life, I could let go and have my baby in peace.  It WAS peaceful in spite of how much it hurt.  That’s the best kind of transition I think we can have.  The kind where we breathe deeply, gather our courage, and move forward through a transformational experience.  Breaking a habit (at least for me) requires that I let go of something I’ve been holding on to.  Doing things by habit is just easier than changing your life.

But the truth is, breaking a habit WILL change your life.  It just has to.  You’re going to have to come up with new things to do when you’re not shopping (or, in my case, when I’m not eating out).

As to progress – we can’t make progress if we don’t have a goal.  Otherwise, it’s not progress, just movement.  Progress is movement toward a goal.  My goal: To save at least $100/ month by eating out less.

January: SUCCESS!

I think we spent less than $100 eating out in the whole first 3 weeks!  We’re slipping, though.  I’m getting lazy about planning my days to include homemade food.  I never did gather my ladies lunch group together.

As far as progress – I need to move my target.  I reached the $100 goal easily by changing my attitude about convenience food.  I’d rather have quality than convenience.  Ok, what now?

I think I need to get a plan for the savings.  Decide on a goal for how to invest that $100 savings each month in a way that’s going to maximize my ability to reach my non-material goals.  That way, when I’m tempted to eat out just because I can, I’ll be more motivated to save the money and invest in my goal instead.  Maybe I’ll put the savings into the publication of the book I’m endlessly editing?  Maybe pay off my car loan sooner?  I think the more I get excited about the goal for the savings, the more stable and lasting this change will be for me…

Enough for now.  Back to watching the snow.

Facing It

Sometimes, it takes me a while to get myself fully motivated behind an idea, but this time, I was pretty excited.  It’s nearly two weeks into the year, and I’ve had a real shift in my attitude about convenience spending.  I was right about the boredom part, but not in the way I had thought of it before.  My experiment with saving money on lunch had me digging a bit deeper than I’d expected.

See, I didn’t work for most of the first week of the year, and so my Ladies Who Lunch group wasn’t fully formed yet.  I didn’t have a back up plan, and I was traveling.  Airports, car rides, rest stops, family trips to tourist attractions – What a time to be trying to cut down on convenience/restaurant foods!  Isn’t that always how it is, though?  You set your mind on something, and all of a sudden, you’re faced with ten great reasons why, “Now’s not the best time to try to make this change,” seems reasonable.  But, I’m documenting my experiment, so I had an extra incentive to stick it out for the two weeks.

December 30th, we were at an airport (maybe it was Detroit?) waiting for a connecting flight, and hungry.  We went to the restaurant across from our gate.  Since I have this on my mind, I was more scrupulous, and felt that we should have gotten much better food and service for the price we paid.  It strengthened my resolve that this kind of spending is NOT a habit I want to continue.  From then on, every time I was faced with a decision to buy for convenience instead of quality, it gave me pause.  I thought about each option longer and found myself enjoying NOT spending more than I enjoyed spending, even if it meant I had to wait longer to eat, or make it myself, or go without a cute whatever -it-was that caught my eye for a moment.  I was surprised at how often I had the impulse to buy something.  By examining my reasons, I started to see more clearly how I’ve been coping with boredom.

I thought I was bored by routine – predictable food and having to plan ahead to make my lunch and bring it to work, not to mention that the food isn’t fresh by the time you eat it…that’s what I THOUGHT was the problem, but ho, ho! NO!  I’ve seen that for me, convenience spending has not been about food AT ALL. I haven’t been eating out because making my lunch bores me.  I’ve done it because I just get bored with work in the middle of the day, and I’ve wanted something different to do. Did you know that going shopping can be a great cure for boredom?  You can engross your mind in the thrill of the hunt for a while and forget all about the deadlines and busywork and the other less-inspiring aspects of having a job.

I think I’ve turned a real corner, and my momentum is good, but I can tell I’m not out of the woods yet.  It would still be easy to ease into my old habits again.  I still need my ladies who lunch!  I will check back in soon…

How are your plans going?  Have you had any moments of insight connected with your spending habits yet? Any struggles or victories you want to pass on?  Leave a comment!

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!

Next Newer Entries

%d bloggers like this: