My heart picked up its pace to CODE RED DANGER ZONE-levels as I looked again at my old, cheap, oversized analog alarm clock with the big, dumb red numbers which was blaring mockery in my dizzy face. “How… how could it be 8:27am? I know I… didn’t I set it for 7:15…?” I was dazed, spinning, and trying to understand what was happening.
It was the final semester of my senior year at Texas A&M University, and my final paper for some awful business class, for which I’d stayed up until 3:30 to finish, was due. Now. Like, in 3 minutes. Or the prof, as she promised, would close and lock her door. No grace for late papers. You don’t get your paper in at 8:30, you fail the class. Is this what a heart attack feels like?
In some way or another, in various categories of life, we’ve all been there. We might be there at this very moment. You may have experienced that very same face-slapping feeling of having overslept the first time you intend to do some retirement planning…at age 45. Or maybe you’ve thought, “Well, my daughter is turning 16 this year. I suppose I should think about doing some college saving for her…”
Oh, boy. Yeah, it’s 8:27, and you should’ve been up no later than 7:15.
The astronomical numbers that will be thrown at you by the average online retirement or education savings calculator are enough to make you throw up your arms and hope for a miraculous quadrupling of your social security benefits (which, uh… ain’t gonna happen, compadre.) Of course, doing nothing, and being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the problem of having started too late leads, at best, to golden years filled with ramen noodles and government cheese, and at worst to outright destitution. But what kind of action should a man take when he’s slapped upside the head with the unpleasant BZZZ! BZZZ! BZZZ! of that metaphorical financial alarm clock?
Well, much like the screaming demon that was my old alarm clock, today I’d like to stun you with three HOPEFUL steps towards righting the financial ship that you’ve delayed launching up to now. You’re still stuck in the harbor. But do this right, and I think you’ll be sailing alongside your peers in no time. Come, let us climb aboard. (I…I can’t do anything else with that boat metaphor, and I apologize I even let it go on that long. OK, just…let’s keep going.)
*I must have hit snooze like… 18 times??! I don’t remember doing that at ALL! What can I…? Am I doomed? I’m doomed! I want to get OUT of this crappy, hot, dry town! I don’t want to stay here and repeat this stupid class! NO, NO, NO, NO, NO…”
I surveyed my situation, thought of where my car keys were, the paper was, and my prof’s office loomed. Then… I made a decision. I went from bed-wetting despair to a mad frenzy of Terminator determination in about 4 seconds. I would GET this paper in, by hook or by crook, even if I had to run down 3 engineering nerds on the way to the business building. IT WAS EXTREMELY ON.*
Step 1: TIME FOR A REALITY CHECK
Yes, whether you’re considering your life savings, your retirement assets, or your kids’ education fund… those really are some big numbers you’re looking at. And yes, they might make you want to just ignore the problem of your financial readiness. But please, let’s remember the important point that that’s how we got into this mess. So please don’t walk away.
The first step for anyone who purposes to move from ignorance (that’s where you were before you came to this jarring conclusion) to readiness (that’s where you’re headed), is to have a reality check. Jesus taught this very idea: in Matthew 25, He tells a story of three servants, each of whom were entrusted with some money. The first two set to work right away and invested their master’s dosh, so that when he returned, he was pleased with them. The third fella didn’t do that. We’re told that, when it was time to give a report, this do-nothing bro stood in front of his master and said:
I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.
The master’s response was, well, let’s just say that it was NOT an attaboy. And there is one very important lesson here that could be easily missed. The master wasn’t upset about the lack of returns! I’d venture to guess that if our anti-hero here had taken a swing at investing his master’s money, and failed, at least the master would have said, “Well, Cleetus, you at least knew I was going to expect some returns, so thanks for trying.” But no, the real sin of this servant was that he feared the responsibility that he had, so he decided to bury the cash and ignore it. That strategy absolutely did NOT play when the master asked for an account, but it did temporarily solve the problem by pushing it out of eyesight. That’s what you and I have so often done when we feel ill-equipped, underprepared, out of our depth, or just ignorant.
If you’re just now waking up to a moment of panic—whether it was self-inflicted like our money burying servant, or the result of some circumstances that you couldn’t control—the first step in Finance 101 is to take a good hard look at reality and confront your own ignorance. No, I don’t mean you’re stupid, I’m just saying that for one reason or another, you’ve been ignoring your own need to save money up til now.
How might you go about this “reality check?” Great question. Here are four big ideas:
- Set up an account at one of the free budget tracking devices (I like Mint.com and EveryDollar), and connect your bank account, credit cards, etc. to that tool. It’s not hard, just make some time and you can easily get through it. DON’T start trying to make everything look good; just plug in your accounts so that your spending and earning will be tracked and so that you’ll be able to know what you’re actually dealing with.
- Round up all of your debt and figure out:
a. How much do I owe in each account?
b. What is the interest rate on each piece of debt?
c. At my current monthly payment level, is my debt shrinking, growing, or staying the same?
- This one might be painful, but do a quick Google search for a retirement calculator and get a sense of what it is going to take to hit your goal. Don’t worry, we’re really just looking for a horizon here, not a super-specific target—that won’t be useful at this stage anyway. The point here is that we’re not burying the master’s money out back, we’re getting ready to start deploying it.
- Throughout all of these steps, keep a close watch out for one of the biggest winning strategies your enemy has ever employed: shame. Shame and ignorance are close relatives, as they both seek to keep things under wraps and out of sight. This isn’t the way God wants His kiddos to live (see Psalm 18:19), and it’s not a way into any kind of financial prosperity. PRO TIP: It can be really helpful in this phase to find a friend or two and let them know that you’re making a move to confront some hard realities when it comes to your finances, and you’d appreciate some support. Steps like this tend to send shame shrieking off into the darkness with its tail between its legs.
The good news is that once you’ve taken a couple of the above actions, you’ll be ready to move on to Step Two.
Step 2: CREATE ORDER
Did you know that God likes order? Well, He does. Just go watch a science and nature program this week—you’ll see OUTRAGEOUS order involved in everything that the Lord has made for us here on Earth. He also likes order when it comes to your money, and because you’ve now moved beyond ignorance, you’re ready to put some ducks of your own in a row.
The reason we spent all that energy rounding up a clear and accurate picture of your financial situation is that now we’re going to ask you to do some ordering. How? Well, in Personal Finance 101, we call ordering, “BUDGETING.” Remember that big hairy number from the financial calculator that said you’re gonna need a million bucks for retirement (or whatever it said)? Well, your job now is to figure out just how much wiggle room there is in your monthly budget. Here’s another step-by-step for you to work through:
- Now that you’ve got a good idea of how much you’re earning and how much you’re spending each month, it’s time to put some boundaries on specific categories. Your goal here is that every dollar you spend is allocated to somewhere in the budget, even if it’s an “I don’t know where else to put this I’m calling it SPENDING” category. Keep working at this until you’ve allocated allllll of your monthly income into buckets.
- Now ask yourself, “what’s missing?” Did you forget to include that car insurance payment that only comes due every six months? What about the tires on your car that you only have to pay for every few years? If you don’t budget for these less-than-monthly expenses, they’ll bust your budget when they happen. Common misses include: automotive (maintenance, repairs, insurance), home repairs & maintenance, travel/vacation, clothing, etc.
- Next, take a look at the bucket labeled ‘savings’. What’s that you say? You can’t find it in your list? Go back to the bullet point above. We’ll wait right here. OK, savings bucket—if that number isn’t big enough to get you to your goals, keep iterating on the budget to see if there are areas where you can make some sacrifices in order to get back on track with your savings. You may not be able to get all the way there, but if you’re telling me that you need cable TV and a $5 latte every day but can’t find room in the budget for savings, then why are we having this chat to begin with?
- While we could write a whole post on this bullet alone, let’s just assume that for any debt beyond a reasonable mortgage, a student loan plan that ends up paying off your student loans before you’re retired, and (if you MUST) a small car payment—all other debt will be attacked first with all excess monies under your purview. Kill it, and then we can get on with the building of a war chest.
- Now there’s most likely a gap between what you’re able to find in your budget today for that savings category and what you need in order to hit your goals. That’s OK! We’re miles ahead of where you were when we started this process, and you haven’t even moved money around yet! Now that you have a goal to point towards, you’re about 100x more likely to stick with that budget, and you’ll be looking for opportunities to ratchet up that savings goal as we move forward.
So what if your math (or your retirement calculator, or your financial advisor) tells you that you need to be putting away $2k per month if you want to have any hope of retiring, but you can only squeeze $300 bucks out of that budget today? Then what?
I’ve got a Bible verse for ya:
Whoever works his farmland will have abundant food,
but whoever chases fantasies will become very poor.
What’s a fantasy? A fantasy is, “I bet I can keep saving this $300 bucks a month and hit a long shot in the stock market. I’ll be fine.” We ain’t doing that. You’re a farmer in the above proverbial metaphor, and so you’re out there digging up hard soil and getting it ready to grow things. You’re simultaneously sucking that budget in to ne’er before seen levels, asking for raises and/or testing the job market to maximize your earnings, perhaps even engaging in the recently popular phenomenon of the side hustle. The old you (you’ll remember him, he was the guy who was reading this article way back at the beginning, all confused and dopey) would look at the small amount he can save today and the big amount he’s supposed to be saving and just call it impossible and head it to the local brewpub. But NAY, I say unto thee. That is not you, cowboy! Today, armed with reality and order, you’ll begin moving in the right direction and will likely find yourself accelerating towards your goal in no time. No more of this “I’m too late so why even tryyyyieieieyeyeyey” nonsense! No more of the “I don’t even want to LOOK at my financial situation” foolishness. That is the language of the former goober who doesn’t live here anymore. Be done with that cowardliness, forever.
So onward, soldier: gone are the days of tax return money blown on whimsy, but here ARE the days of watching your household increase daily in…
Step 3: BECOME(ing) READY
Know what they call a cat who has created a budget with specific goals in mind and then faithfully submitted to that plan over a long period of time? They call fella or lady READY. (And, in many cases, financially flush.) That’s the result of this whole process. Once you unplug your head from the sand and confront reality, then, armed with the truth, create a doable plan for how you’ll spend and save over time—you end up with extra money. I’ve said it before: becoming an expert at budgeting will make you rich. As crazy as it sounds, it’s true.
You are now ready to take what you’ve learned in Finance 101 and start cranking funds into that puny-looking retirement account, or education savings plan, or whatever. Even if you’ve only got 5 years… it will be WORTH it, and you’ll start seeing money accrue, and quickly.
So here’s to you and your household moving from ignorance, to order, to readiness. Whether you need to walk that path for a single, specific goal you have your sights on or for your entire financial life—take heart, confront reality, create some order and watch as you move into more strength daily.
Well, I don’t know how I did it–outside of the grace of God, but I DID get that paper into my prof’s door… just as she was closing it. Yes, I was double-parked, and my laces were untied, and I may or may not have had a nervous pee pee spot on my jeans. But I made it.
Thrive Financially. Grow Spiritually.
Finances will always be stressful, no matter where you are in life. The good news is that you can escape the bondage of financial stress and experience the freedom that God has for you.
Catch the Crossroads Weekly Series FreedUp, available now.