At the end of 2015, I sat down and did a big year-end reflection. I have this article by Dr. Margee Kerr to thank.
The short version: Resolutions don’t work because they force us to look at our shortcomings and failures. This focus on negative factors kills our motivation to do better. Instead, a healthier approach is to list successes and then, when focused on times we’ve been awesome, to list out our fears.
“Why make a list of fears for new years? Before you even think about your goals you’ve got to confront your fears and understand how they hold you back. This confrontation starts with admitting to yourself what you’re afraid of, and then figuring out if the fear is rational, and how you can overcome.”
Resolutions had never stuck in the past so this article really resonated with me. Yes, resolutions do suck. I would love to reflect on times I was awesome this year!
Instead of following their suggested format, I simply wrote down my successes from the year and my fears going forward. Two lists. I did this over the course of a few days, because things kept popping into my head. I would have left a lot out if I had tried to do this all in one go and then stopped thinking about it, which would not have been as useful.
I’ll point out here that at the start of 2014, my then-fiancée and I were both still grad students, living on stipends. While it was a great year for many reasons (I graduated from my Master’s program, eventually landed a good job, and we got married in the fall), finances were tight. I needed emergency surgery, there were a lot of expenses around the wedding, we moved across town, and I was “underemployed” in an internship for a few months after graduation, before my position came along. Beyond the fact that our limited finances were stretched thin, I’m a saver by nature. On our limited income, we couldn’t save the amount that I felt was appropriate, which made any purchase—every purchase—guilt inducing.
So by comparison, 2015 was a good year for us, and there were many successes to celebrate. My wife and I made more money than we have ever made, we went on an awesome honeymoon, my mental health ended the year in its best shape ever (thank you counseling), and a lot of hard work paid off when I got tapped for a promotion in December, less than 18 months after starting in my position. The fears list was much shorter (woo!), but there was one fear that had been nagging me for a while: that I didn’t have a purpose behind the financial goals we’ve been setting and pursuing.
In theory, your goals are driven by where you want to be. You have goals because you’re working towards something right? I felt like all of our financial goals were moving us forward, but I knew that I didn’t have a clear purpose in mind. It was generally setting us up to be successful, but it didn’t feel focused or purposeful.
There are worksheets and methods all over the internet that help you find your purpose and set goals. But that wasn’t exactly what I was after. These felt like the right goals. We had followed some good reasoning to come to these goals. So, instead of setting new goals, I went back to the step I had skipped. I asked myself why. If these goals are good, what am I really hoping to accomplish? Why am I pushing so hard to earn and save more money? If we’re making good progress, why does it all feel so damn stressful?
Here’s what I realized.
I was still in survival mode. Everything was dripping with urgency. I still saw a healthy bank account as the only barrier keeping me from living on the street. Every dollar saved was hopefully two dollars I would have down the road, when I might really need it. Spending any amount of money still caused me intense stress, and I wracked myself with guilt over even small indulgences.
There was always a purpose behind my savings goals. I was trying to prevent the possibility of ending up destitute, or at least push it as far down the road as possible. Even after combining finances with my wife, all of our money goals came down to one thing: pursuing security. Though my wife’s perspective is different from mine, I viewed our goals through the lens of my fear. The Psychology Today article’s outlook on fear helped me realize that fear was driving my financial goals.
This insight was hard to swallow. Security is not a particularly inspiring goal, and it isn’t a purpose I want to drive my life or my finances. I was running from potential problems that scared the hell out of me. Instead of exploring life, I was building a bigger moat.
My wife and I have achieved a lot financially at this point in our lives. We are living debt free, we are making steady towards our specific goals, we have positioned ourselves really well. But because we weren’t sitting on a pile of cash large enough to solve any and all problems we may ever come up against, I felt desperate to earn and save more. Looking back now, I can see pretty clearly that there never would have been enough.
This exercise was a turning point for me. I have spent the beginning of this year resetting my financial mindsets, reconsidering and reframing my financial goals. Security is not a goal I can get behind. I am tired of letting fear rule my life and my wallet.
My wife and I still feel good about our specific financial goals. We’re building a robust emergency fund. We’re saving amply for retirement. We’re starting to put money away for a down payment on a house. The goals were solid, but I needed to reframe my mindset. I needed to get to the point that every $4 purchase wasn’t stressing me out.
What I really want is to feel secure today. Not to use it as a goal, or something to chase. But to have the feeling now that everything is okay, and that I’m going to be okay for the foreseeable future. I want that sense of security to use as a touch point when fear and anxiety threaten to overwhelm me.
Feeling secure is not a goal I can reach by hitting specific milestones. If it was, it is one that I would have already attained. My wife and I both have steady jobs. We could live off of either of our salaries if we needed to. We have an emergency fund that would, if nothing else, pay our rent for a while. At this point I need to see that feeling secure is something that I can have now.
What this boils down to is that I was living life fearfully. I probably still am; this isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. But, instead of getting stuck in the cycle of ‘more income, more savings; more income, more savings,’ I’m practicing contentment. Of course I want to make more money, but I just got a promotion and raise. If it wasn’t already before, it’s time to stop freaking out about every small purchase. The ultimate goal is happiness. That’s something I can work on today.
Look at your own goals. Make sure they’re built on a solid foundation, one that represents your values and that you enjoy working toward. Then, relish the journey towards meeting those goals.
Thanks to Dr. Kerr and Psychology Today for the great article! I would encourage everyone to go through the exercise. It doesn’t take long, and it has huge benefits. What are your successes from the past year? Your fears for the future? This isn’t an exercise that loses value after December 31st. Do it today and please share your thoughts in the comments section.