Use the Tools You Have Now Instead of Dreaming of the Tools You’ll Have Later

I had a great conversation recently with a gentleman in his early fifties who, upon being introduced to me and learning that I had been a full-time personal finance writer for several years, had been looking for a chance to have a conversation with me privately. Let’s call him Gene.

It turns out that Gene had never put a single dime into retirement savings during his entire professional life. He had assumed all the way along that he would save for retirement “someday” when he had the resources to do so, and now he found himself around 15 years from when he hoped to retire and with what seemed to be an impossible task before him.

Yet, he still persisted on the “someday” train. As soon as I asked why he didn’t simply go into work the next day and set up his 401(k) plan, he began to talk about other things he’d rather be doing. He and his wife had a kitchen remodel planned, for starters, and they were also “helping” both his son and daughter “get started” with what seemed to be a lot of regular cash gifts.

His belief was that those things would “someday” not be expenses for him and then he could save for retirement, but that he simply didn’t have the resources now.

Here’s the honest truth: If you’re waiting for “someday” to come to make a change to your life, “someday” is almost assuredly never coming. Gene had been thinking about “someday” for more than 20 years. I thought about “someday” for several years before my own financial turnaround. I’ve bought into the “someday” mindset with many things in my life since then.

“Someday” needs to become today. That is the single most important step when it comes to having the things you want in life.

Do you want to retire with anything more in hand than Social Security? You can’t start saving “someday” or else you’re going to find yourself in your late sixties facing down what life is like making ends meet on a small fraction of your salary. It needs to become today.

Do you want to save for your child’s college education? If you wait until “someday,” they’re going to graduate high school and you still won’t have a dime in that 529 plan. It needs to become today.

Do you want to start a different career? If you wait until “someday,” you’re going to find yourself in a pit of misery and regret a decade from now, still working in the same career path you’re unhappy with right now. It needs to become today.

Do you want to launch that side business you’ve been thinking about? If you wait until “someday,” it will still just be an idle daydream in your head. It needs to become today.

In all of those situations and countless others, people will always respond in the same way: “I’M NOT READY!” There are lots of reasons why people believe that they can’t do it today. Usually, it comes down to having commitments with their money and time already in place.

There are two possible things that are true in that situation.

One possibility is that you truly cannot spare a dime or a moment of time. You truly are that overbooked, or you truly do have your budget stretched that thin. In that case, your main priority should be to address those specific problems. If your time or your money is stretched that thin, you’re walking along a tightrope that’s destined to utterly collapse. That requires a completely different set of solutions.

The other possibility – the far more likely one – is that you’re wasting a lot of time and money without really noticing it. You spend an hour doing a task that would take twenty minutes except you keep getting distracted by social media or texts on your phone or the weather outside. You spend lots of money in drips and drops on forgettable things, like a cup of coffee at Starbucks or a quick lunch somewhere or a hobby item that you add to a collection or an automatically paid bill for a gym membership you’re not using.

That second possibility – the one that most of us fall into – is the real dangerous one. It’s the one that convinces us that we don’t have the time or the money to change anything about our lives, even though we have plenty of time and plenty of money. It allows us to look over the surface of our life and see no room for more expenses or more time commitments, but the truth is that under the surface, things are actually quite hollow.

The most valuable thing anyone can do in their personal finance journey – or any other life journey – is to start keeping track of how you’re actually using those resources in your life. Keep track as tightly and carefully as you can.

Not sure how you’re burning so much time? Try installing time-tracking software on your computer, like RescueTime. Look through the reports that it generates.

Another great strategy: Try turning off your cell phone for a few hours at a time, just to make yourself get by without that constant source of distraction at your side.

Yet another great strategy: Take a television break for a week or a computer break for a week or a tablet break for a week. Turn off whatever your primary device is that you use when you “veg out” in the evenings and don’t turn it back on for seven days.

Take the results of those practices and see how much time you really have and how much time you’re wasting on truly unimportant things.

Not sure how you’re burning so much money? Go through your credit card statements and bank statements item by item and look at where the money is going. Go through each item, entry by entry, and ask yourself whether that item really made sense. Some larger entries might be made up of a mix of useful purchases and wasted purchases – like a grocery bill, for example – so keep that in mind, too.

Another great strategy is to use a pocket notebook and write down each and every expense in it for a month or two. What I’ve found is that the pocket notebook is really, really effective at showing you how often you spend money frivolously, but it’s also really, really effective at convincing you not to spend so you don’t have to write down that frivolous expense in the book.

Again, take the results of those practices and see how much money you really have and how much money you’re wasting on truly unimportant things.

It’s only with this kind of information that you can take on the idea of “someday.” The truth is that almost all of us have the resources to tackle that “someday” challenge right now.

If you go through those time exercises and realize that you’re just burning four or five hours a day on complete nothingness – which is a pretty typical result – just replace some of that time with something truly useful, like an evening class, and replace another portion of it with meaningful leisure, meaning time spent in a genuinely relaxing way. (I find that I like to “save up” my free time and spend it in long days of meaningful leisure, so most days I don’t even watch television, for example, but I find time for long days with my friends.)

If you go through those money exercises and find that you’re spending a shocking portion of your money on stuff you just completely forget about – which, again, is a pretty typical result – just actively choose to cut some of those little wasteful expenses. Stop going to the bookstore and hit the library instead. Stop going to online shops and actually use some of the stuff you have. Start paying at the pump at the gas station instead of going inside for a “snack.” You’ll find, pretty quickly, that you have some money left over at the end of the month.

“Someday” is just an excuse to not have to take a hard look at your life right now. It doesn’t mean that the big item you have in mind – retirement savings, a career change, debt repayment, whatever it is – isn’t important to you. It just means that the idea of evaluating your life and making a few changes to make this “someday” thing work is scarier than the prospect of just putting off that “someday” thing.

Stop putting it off. Take a hard look at what you’re doing with your time, your money, your food intake, whatever it might be. Make some choices – ones that are, surprisingly, not very painful, especially in the light of what accomplishments you know that it’s leading to.

It’s time for “someday” to become today.

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