This past month I did something I had never done before- take a long vacation with no pre-planned destinations. On the day of the out-bound flight, all we had was a one-way ticket, rental car reservation, and the place to stay on the first night. As a Type A person, this posed a real challenge. The result, however, was surprisingly liberating, and I think I learned a few life lessons through this experience.
The main lesson for me is this: being in control does not equal controlling everything all the time. That sounds like a no brainer, but for someone who makes “plans” for a living, I have to constantly remind myself to enjoy life rather than focus on logistics. Suddenly I can relate to those who can track their budget down to the cents, but have trouble envisioning how to use their money to fulfill their goals in life.
Truly, planning should help us enjoy life more, not less. This applies to all aspects of our lives, especially to our finances. So here are some of my reflections on how to be in control, not controlling, of your finances.
#1: Focus on the big picture
There are many possibilities in life. Where do you want to go? What do you want to achieve? And do you have a road map to help you get from point A to point B, C, and D? The answers to these questions are vastly more important than knowing where to save $5 for your next meal. The big picture guides your every financial decision.
On vacation at our first-night’s lodging, we opened up a map and tried to decide where to go. (Yes, we used a large folded detail road map, literally.) There were several places we haven’t visited in the region, but there were also places we would like to go back to. We didn’t even need to leave from a particular airport. (No return ticket yet.) We ended up plotting three potential routes to go from here, and left the eventual decision to the weather.
When we started I had no idea how the trip would unfold, but we had the general idea of where we could go next at every step of the way. Following the big picture gave me a sense of control of where I could go, but also freed me from worrying about all the days I hadn’t planned for. Similarly, planning for your finances one step at a time with your overall goals in mind can rid you of a lot of stress from the unknown.
#2: Know your priorities
Another aspect of our financial life that brings stress is all the cost-benefit evaluations we make each day. One product is cheaper but doesn’t have as many functions; the other fits your need better but seems too expensive. The shoes look good on you but don’t feel comfortable; the food is delicious but has too many calories. Without having a set of guidelines of what is most important to you, you will soon be bogged down with all the financial choices you have to make every day.
My Type A personality revealed itself the most on this trip during the inevitable hotel search. Even though we only needed to decide one lodging at a time, it became a drag because I wanted to find “the one” that fit all our combined criteria. And of course, there was none that checked all the boxes (at least not at our budget level.) Even on vacation, I was so consumed by making the “right” choice that I wasted several hours being frustrated.
Eventually I made the decision to keep to three criteria, and took the first option that met all priorities. Did we still have complaints about our final decision? Yes, but at least in return we won additional truly relaxing vacation time. You won’t be able to make perfect financial decisions every single time. You just need to get good information and counsel to make the important decisions, and live with the consequences of the inadequate but ultimately unimportant ones.
#3: Expect changes and accept losses
Change is a constant in life. Even though we may have a perfect financial plan for the future, somewhere along the way life will throw us a curve ball and we need to adjust. Holding on to the past that could have been will only prevent us from refocusing on the altered but equally exciting future.
Two times during our trip we decided to leave for the next destination before we wanted to in order to get ahead of snow storms. Both times our decisions were vindicated as the roads were badly effected or closed by the snow right after we’d left. If we had stayed, we would have been stranded for extra days instead of being able to explore other destinations.
I didn’t really want to change my “plan”, even though it was a plan decided the day before. But being flexible paid off, even when we actually lost some deposits for leaving early. You need to embrace changes and losses in life. That is why having a financial cushion such as an emergency fund is so important. It gives you not only the financial but the mental capacity to be in control facing the unexpected, even though you can’t control what comes your way.
As I was writing this blog post, I came across this verse in the Proverbs:
“In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”
Whether you believe in God or not, I think it reminds us that we are responsible for planning our finances prudently, but we don’t always have the full control to fulfill our plans. Accepting this reality will make our lives happier and simpler.