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Even if you are a natural optimist, there may be times when your financial future will seem dim to you. The cause could be as dramatic as a job loss or a medical emergency that completely upends your financial plans.
It may be the sudden realization of a long-brewing problem — a career (and salary) that has stagnated or a debt load that only grows.
Or it may be a persistent, gnawing feeling that while nothing is critically “wrong” per se, nothing is quite right either.
You’re just not feeling on track to meet your long-range goals. Whether a new-found issue or an old sore, your gaze into the crystal ball is met with fog.
Let’s clear things up, shall we?
Step One – Determining the Root Cause
Our opening move is to answer the obvious question: “Why do you doubt your potential to achieve your financial goals?” But we need to get down to the root cause.
For example, if you have turned pessimistic because you lost your job or your business failed (and who wouldn’t be in that circumstance!), we need to understand why this happened.
Be honest with yourself and record your responses to the following questions:
- Were you impacted by changes in the economy? If so, describe what changed.
- Did some circumstance unique to your business or industry turn south? If so, explain those situations.
- Were your own actions (or inaction) in any way complicit in the loss? If so, spell out what you did (or failed to do) that led to your current condition.
If your financial prospects seem grim because you’re carrying what feels like an impossible debt load, let’s interrogate this further:
- Is this debt an artifact of a past decision or circumstance? Could this circumstance re-appear? Record what caused the situation and describe what conditions could cause a similar problem.
- Is the growing debt load symptomatic of an ongoing imbalance in your cash flow?
- Are you tracking expenses and budgeting? (Avoid these common budgeting mistakes)
- Have you clarified your needs vs. wants?
- List the circumstances that are leading to your cash flow problem.
In each of the instances above, we need to understand at a granular level what problem we’re trying to solve before creating an action plan.
While confronting missteps in your journey may be a painful exercise, your path forward will be much straighter with the time spent in self-reflection.
Step Two – Setting Actionable Goals
Staying with our examples above, let’s consider our next step: You need a goal…or rather, a few goals. It’s all about the process.
If your grim outlook stems from a lost job or job stagnation, your “get out of your funk” plan is to articulate (in writing again, please!) the concrete steps that you will take next:
- “I will update my resume by ____ (date).”
- “I will update my social media profile and make sure my online community knows I am looking for work by ____ (date).”
- “I will complete X number of ‘informational interviews’ to learn more about my intended dream job by ____ (date).”
And so on. Reflect back to the “why” you asked and answered in Step One. Your actions need to respond to the root cause of your job loss or business failure.
Should “I will enroll in online training to increase my marketable skills.” be on your list?
Maybe you should include a goal such as “I will attend an upcoming networking opportunity to grow my small business.”
Key point: Note that these are all actions completely within your control.
Moving forward and taking control
A crucial part of moving to a more positive mindset about your future is embracing your agency and focusing your actions on what you can control.
If the problem is debt, your action plan starts here: Forgive yourself. Whatever you did or did not do that got you to this point, leave that in the past.
- If your hospital bills are the consequence of an uninsured emergency, what have you done since then to ensure that you are not caught without again?
- Does “I will get a quote for health insurance from healthcare.gov.” or “I will set up an automatic transfer of $X to a savings account.” belong on your to-do list?
- Is your credit card balance growing steadily because there’s a persistent gap between what you spend (including what’s spent servicing other debts) and what you earn?
- Then your next process step may be, “Scrutinize every element of my spending in the last month and identify specific changes that I will make to lower my spend.”
- Another option might be, “I’m committing to using the Tiller Money App and all its expense tracking and budgeting tools for the next 90 days.”
In either case, a written plan (if only to yourself) that specifies your “get out of debt” strategy to deal with the existing mound of bills is essential to moving towards a positive mental outlook.
There are different tactics you can employ to eliminate your debt (for example, prioritizing smaller balance debts first or “debt snowball” versus starting with the highest interest rate debt, the “debt avalanche” method).
But let me introduce one more process goal before you get down to brass-tacks tactics: “I will recruit an accountability partner.”
But it may just be a friend or family member with whom you share your goals and who holds your feet to the fire.
Dialing things in
On the other hand, are things in your financial life kind of, sort of “okay” for the moment, but when you look out over the horizon — your retirement, your first home, or your children’s college education —you just don’t see how you get there?
If your glum stems from a more pervasive feeling that you just aren’t on track to meet your long-term objectives, your initial process goals need to center on attaching a tangible number to your aspirations:
- “I will use an online calculator to understand exactly how much I need for retirement and if my present savings rate is adequate.” (Give this one from SmartAsset a try and see if the figures from Vanguard and Schwab’s retirement calculators are similar.)
- “I will investigate neighborhoods or types of homes that I had not previously considered that may be more attainable. I will visit open houses on the weekend, even though I am not ready to buy.”
- “I will discuss a joint plan for financing their education with my older children.” (Before your talk, read – What Are the Best Ways To Save For College?)
- “I will complete my basic Estate Planning Documents to protect myself and my loved ones.” (A great reference is a book by Women Who Money co-founders, Estate Planning 101!)
In short, there may be a need to move from a vague feeling of unease to a more specific, perhaps more realistic, articulation of the end goal so you can create an action plan around that.
There's just one step left: Celebrate your wins.
Hopefully, you will be rapidly ticking items off your list — “done, done, done.” Each and every time, take a step back and acknowledge your forward progress.
Your ability to stay optimistic about your financial future will be rooted in staying motivated in the here and now.
As you work to get your financial house in order, you will want to investigate other areas of your finances and improve your financial literacy.
Here are some articles we recommend you read as you continue your journey to becoming financially independent.
- Why is Adopting an Abundance Mindset Important?
- Creating a Financial Plan: What, why, and how
- Financial Mission Statement: How and Why To Create One (*this includes a free template you can download and print!)
- Love Thyself: Practice Financial Self-Care
- Why Women Need to Invest and Not Just Save
Article written by Lisa Whitley, AFC®, CRPC®.
Lisa enjoys having money conversations every day with people from all backgrounds. After a long career in international development, she brings a cross-cultural dynamic to her current work to help individuals and families achieve financial wellness.