When I was saving up money for grad school, there was a lot of stuff we had to say no to. No to eating out with friends after church, no to the concert, no to the vacation, no to new furniture, and the list goes on. In some ways it felt like we were taking a step backward instead of forward in our post-college adult life.
And to tell you the truth, there were days, seasons even, when saying no got really old. Even today I don’t look back on those times with a sweet fuzzy-memory fondness, romanticizing the “poor but in love” truism (still in love, for the record). I’m GLAD not to be sprinting to a second job after a full day’s work and ending the day at 10:00 pm after mopping a 5,000 square foot store floor. Nothing I miss about that!
But I think there is something to be said for hindsight’s perspective, so I wanted to share a little encouragement with you if you’re right in the middle of where I was a few short years ago. Maybe you’re laser-focused on your debt snowball, or maybe you’re saving aggressively for school or a house. There’s a lot of sacrifice in the journey, isn’t there?
I promise it’s worth it. You’ll never look at this time with regret but with a big sense of accomplishment. Even though you’re making a lot of sacrifices now, you CAN love your life as it is, and I’m not talking about finding a silver lining. I’m talking about real joy, right now.
Set a SMART Goal
Start with identifying a very specific goal. Don’t haphazardly put extra money toward debt or look at the tuition and say, well I guess I’d better get to saving if I want to graduate sometime this century. It will feel like FOREVER if this is your approach. Make a timeline for yourself so you know how long it’s going to take to complete this goal. It won’t take forever, but you need to establish a firm start and end date, or it will seem that way! Bonus: most people find they end up finishing their goal way faster than their initial estimate. Determination breeds creativity.
The best guide to goal-setting I’ve come across is the SMART goal. It stands for specific, measurable, agreed-upon, realistic, and time-bound. Here’s an example of a typical goal, which is really a wish: I want to be out of debt. Here’s an example of a SMART goal: By March 2019, I will have paid $28,500 of debt.
Here’s a breakdown. Specific: there’s a dollar amount and an action, pay, instead of want to be. Measurable: The dollar amount gives you a measuring stick here. You could even break down the goal into smaller monthly goals to pay off $1295 of debt each month over the next 22 months. This lets you measure your progress toward the goal. Agreed-upon: Are you committed? If you’re married, is your spouse committed, too? Realistic: Is this doable, and what’s required to reach this goal? If you think of all the ways to save and earn extra money, is it enough to reach your monthly goal? Time-bound: March 2019. There’s that glorious finish line!
Celebrate the Victories
Within your goal, set some milestones and celebrate your victories! What’s your favorite way to celebrate an accomplishment? Go out for dinner when you pay off a credit card, get a massage when you rock final exams, take a day trip to the mountains to commemorate the halfway point in your debt snowball. This will help prevent burnout and makes a special occasion that much more special.
Surround Yourself with Positive People
Celebrating success will help keep you going strong, but you’re going to have plenty of naysayers who learn of your financial endeavor. They’ll say you’re being unrealistic, that you need to enjoy life while you’re young, that you need to buy a house (even though you’re ($38,000 in debt) because that’s what people do, that you DESERVE a vacation for goodness sake and why won’t you go to Starbucks with us?
Hard truth: these people aren’t interested in what’s best for you; they’re interested in what they want out of the relationship. A lot of these friends and family are most likely well-meaning and just don’t understand the bigger picture, so have some grace for them, but do put clear boundaries on the discouraging comments, because all that nay-saying is toxic, and you can’t spend your emotional energy battling the pressure to spend.
Conversely, you’d be surprised by how many kindred spirits you find when you share your story and the journey you’re on! And best of all, your story is going to inspire someone else. These are YOUR PEOPLE, so stick close to them. Let yourself be surrounded by encouraging words and can-do attitudes. It makes a difference.
Express Gratitude Daily
Celebrating success and surrounding yourself with positive people are inward-facing things you do for self-care, to fill yourself with energy and renewed determination. Equally important are outward-facing disciplines that cultivate deep joy and will help you to maintain perspective of your life and circumstances. The first one is expressing gratitude.
I believe in the power of gratitude so strongly because of how it shaped my perspective on life when money was really tight. Here’s the key to unlocking gratitude’s influence in your life: don’t just feel it, express it. If I asked you if you feel thankful for what you have, you’d say yes. It’s kind of a gut reaction, like that’s the obvious “right” answer. Virtuous even. But gratitude is so much more than a virtue.
Here’s what I figure: my brain can only actively focus on one conscious thought at a time. If I choose to fill my mind with what I’m grateful for- in this season, in this day, in this moment- there’s no capacity to feel sorry for myself or sad for what I don’t have.
Try this simple exercise: take 5 minutes on your work break, in the evening, or as you drink your morning coffee to write down what you are thankful for right now. I dare you to see if it doesn’t make a difference!
Have an Others-Focused Outlook
Last but not least, use this time to be others-focused. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in my own agenda and priorities- don’t let your drive to achieve a goal isolate you.
The number one myth about living on a tight budget is that your social life will be dead. This is only true if you limit your concept of socialization to spending money in restaurants, bars, and concerts. There’s more to life than entertainment and having nice stuff!
Instead of sitting at home bored because you’re meager entertainment envelope is empty, visit a nursing home. Volunteer with your church’s youth group. Have a friend over for dessert and board games. Think of what you can do to make someone else’s day better. It doesn’t require money, and it’s beats sitting in a cold movie theater eating overpriced popcorn.
It can be intimidating to start tackling a big financial goal, so be proud of yourself for making it this far and having the determination to stick it out! Just remember, hard work and sacrifice doesn’t have to make you miserable. There’s joy to be found right now.