As I chronicled on Erin Shanendoah’s The Dog Ate My Wallet blog, I spent a year without much income (roughly $12,000). This lit a collection agency fire to the huge mound of debt I’d already wracked up, wrecked my credit rating and emptied my savings.
During this period I was renting a house in a nice neighborhood for far less money than I would have paid to own a home.
I hated the house.
It was a leaky, old 800 square foot bungalow and our young family of four was shoehorned in. I enjoy a small house, but this the double feature: small and unattractive.
When my twins were in kindergarten a friend of my daughter’s came over and said, “I love your house. It reminds me of our cottage. It’s tiny!”
Kids say the cutest things. Yeah, right.
Once my income picked up, I wanted out of the house but I was trapped by those piles of debt. One day at lunch I was flipping through the newspaper and found another option: a house around the corner was up for rent at only $200 per month more than our current house! Better yet, it was 1,200 square feet and a bazillion years newer and more attractive.
I immediately imagined living there. In my mind, that felt like a palace compared to our house. I was motivated. I called the owner and talked it over. Things looked promising. Cheryl, initially worried, became excited too when we walked through the house. The kitchen was brand flippin’ new. There was a basement rec room where the kids could escape (or we could escape from them!) This was a dream come true. We could rent a nice place while we sorted out our debt troubles.
No more cottage. Hello real world.
I’ve been lucky to surround myself with people who aren’t like me. They think differently than I do. I suppose I’ve done this on purpose. I like a good discussion, and I don’t get angry when people disagree, as long as I understand the logic of the argument.
I told a close friend about this, very excitedly, and she didn’t seem as fired up. In fact, she didn’t get excited at all, even though I was flailing arms and explaining just how awesome this house was going to be for us.
I asked her what was going on in her head. Her answer changed my view then and still colors by lens when I approach financial situations today.
“Do you want to live in a nice place while you’re still buried in mountains of debt or do you want to come home to the reminder of why you need to change?”
She might have well punched me in the gut. I was desperate to change. I wanted to be free from the stomach-clenching thoughts of how long it was going to take to repay my lenders. She knew that the house would be pretend things are a-okay, and under all this enthusiasm, so did I.
Cheryl and I discussed the woman’s concerns. We decided to stay where we were.
Motivating Yourself to Change
Popular motivational speaker Anthony Robbins says that change happens because of desperation or perspiration. In most cases, people only change because they aren’t comfortable with their current reality.
That was the case for me. In other areas of my life, such as this blog, it’s still the case today. I’m not happy with where I am now. I need to motivate myself to continually improve and respond.
It may be the case for you now.
Are you living in reality or pretending things are okay?
Are you okay with “everything’s not okay?”
Case Studies: Confronting Change
When I was a financial advisor, if someone was single, they were coming to see me because they felt something wasn’t working correctly. Unfortunately, with many married couples, they would come in only because one of them wanted to change.
In essence, one saw the true picture and the other was in fantasyland.
You could tell when people didn’t want to change. They’d talk about “baby steps” and “getting comfortable” with one tiny recommendation I’d made before implementing the next one. When you dig to the root of this thinking, it’s easy to see what’s going on in their head:
Change is more scary and difficult than staying the way I am.
To bust through this wall of inactivity, it’s important to ask yourself a few questions. Here are the ones I’d use with myself and with clients:
1) If I stay where I am financially, where will I end up? What will the world look like down the road?
2) If I change, how will my world look down the road?
Often, when people actually analyzed their situation, change was less painful than staying the same. The future looked far, far brighter.
3) What systems can I put in place to automate the change and decrease the pain?
4) How long will the pain of change really last? Will it be hurtful for a long time?
5) If it does end up being more uncomfortable then I wish, can I come back to “the way I’m doing it now”?
Once people realized that they’re better off with the new strategy than the old, they became open to change. They still were understandably worried about the pain of change.
We’d discuss the actual immediate pain. There was never a time that change didn’t come with some pain. It was like ripping off the band-aid. Some hairs under that thing were going to die. We all feel better when we can identify exactly how it will hurt and for how long.
I still believe that if I’d actually moved into that house to dress up the present and pretend things were wonderful, my future wouldn’t have been as bright as it has been since.
I can’t say things aren’t perfect, but I’m glad I became okay with “things aren’t okay“ and faced the short term pain of achieving the freedom I was after.
Being an advisor myself there is no doubt people don’t like change. We get comfortable with what we know and we often view change as bad. Heck, I hate it when Google updates something on their sites or Facebook or anything else for that matter.
To your earlier point I think the Anthony Robbins thing is right on. Most of us learn the hard way and it isn’t until we’re uncomfortable that we’re willing to do something different. I often say that there are 80% of people that learn the hard way and 20% have common sense are just see/understand the proper path.
I also have people in my life that will tell it to me how it is and challenge my thought process. It makes for good conversation but if you’re not being challenged then you MUCH more liable to make mistakes. If I did everything I thought was right I’d be in for a world of hurt. I have about 3 different people in my life that are much wiser than me and all come from different perspectives. I love it!
Average Joe says
I’m definitely not in the 20 percent. In fact, I’m envious of those people. Surrounding myself with people who disagree with me isn’t just for balance…it’s to minimize the fact that I tend to hit every wall I see. I love it, too. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jason!
Roshawn @ Watson Inc says
It is my goal to be in the 20%. Everything is painful. I do understand that it shouldn’t be embarrassing; sometimes when I realize something (after I have pondered the error of my intended path), I am so annoyed that I didn’t see it earlier. It is definitely a process.
Average Joe says
So true, Roshawn. Once we realize that everything is painful then we stop worrying about the fact that it might hurt, too.
Financial Conflict Coach says
It’s VERY difficult to make lasting financial changes when only ONE person in a relationship thinks there’s a problem.
People are very defensive when they’re accused of “doing it wrong”. Understandable.
If you can reframe the concept of “doing it wrong” to something empowering, like “use a more efficient way”, “do it to be happier” or “doing it this way will be less stressful or easier” can subtly help someone move forward with difficult change.
Great post, Joe!
Average Joe says
Excellent points, FCC! That’s some great advice from an expert in this area. Thanks for contribution.
Shannyn @thefrugalpreneur.com says
Great post! I’m currently debating what’s financially feasible for me as I graduate from grad school in a few weeks and build my business. The place I’m at now sucks, no perks and a bad location but it’s cheap enough to not have to worry about a slow month with business. I’m pretty unhappy here, but I have to find out what I can realistically afford to relocate, a lot to consider!
Thanks for the great post!
Average Joe says
Thanks, Shannyn! I remember one time when I was in a similar situation. A mentor asked me if I was going to cash in my chips at this level or push them across the table and play for more. I still think about that analogy when I’m in similar situations….not sure if it will help in yours, but I hope so.
Your friend’s comment was absolutely brilliant. Having a reminder every day of what you’re working toward getting out of can be very motivating.
I can’t think of any extreme, fascinating examples in my own life, but when I was in college, I owned a horrible beater of a car. I cringed every time I started ‘er up to the sound of a missing catalytic converter and the screech of belts against my failing water pump, but I realized that the pain of living with an embarassing car was worth the benefit of having it paid off and having low insurance rates.
Average Joe says
That’s funny, Christa! I had a horrible beater car, too. The exhaust system was so loud I sounded like a NASCAR driver. Except in a minivan.
I think that many times people are content with “I’m Not OK” because they are afraid of failure. Many times when we are in that state of getting by, things are working just not the way we would like them to be. By changing, we introduce the unknown and that opens up the possibility of failure. If we can get over being scared to fail I think many people wouldn’t mind putting in some effort into getting to that “OK” point. Great post!
Average Joe says
You hit it on the head, Shawn. For me it always seemed I had to get more afraid of staying the same than I was of the change.
It sounds like you made a very unpopular decision, but it was the right thing to do. I think most people would have rented the bigger house. 800 sq ft for a family of 4 is tight, but I know in big cities like New York…there are many families in smaller spaces, some with bigger families too. Had you already told your kids about the bigger house? I hope not. That would have been difficult.
Average Joe says
We hadn’t told them Michelle. I know. Imagine if we had…ugly.
TB at BlueCollarWorkman says
Wow, this was pretty awesome, especially the part about people talking about taking baby steps and getting comfy before doing anything big. THe question of what’s the best option down the road… it’s just freaking brilliant. I think you guys turning down the bigger house was the right choice for you both financially and as parents. It’s a great opportunity to explain to your kids about financial decisions and consequences. Sounds to me like you made the right choice!
Average Joe says
Thanks, TB! In the end it was clearly the right choice, but I still remember just how f-ing horrible it felt at the time.
Wow. I would not have liked that friend in the moment. Even though I knew she was right. I’d say I’m that person within our relationship, though. I don’t have anyone outside really telling me that. Either I’m super strict with my budget or I need to get a friend who’s willing to tell me what’s up. I think it’s a bit of both.
Shaun @ Smart Family Finance says
I definitely have no idea what I would have done. With my own family of four, I know that I’d have been very tempted to move out. To the point where I would have made all kinds of justifications like: “the increase in family happiness would be more than worth the extra $200. I admire your and your wife’s ability to restrain and think rationally about your financial goals.