In the past couple of weeks, I wrote about how it’s more important to be accountable to a coach rather than simply seeking advice, and how a coach can help you form good financial habits. Today I want to explore how a coach can help you grow, and it really only makes sense to hire one if you want to grow.
In other words, it’s not about whether you are good or bad at managing your finances right now. It’s about getting better with your finances.
Growing up I was never very good at sports, so I have very limited personal experience with being coached in a sports team. However, I have been coached in a sport I never competed in, and saw how big a difference it made in my skills.
The sport is swimming. Since I run awkwardly and slowly, very early on I decided that swimming is a better exercise habit for me to keep in the long run. I took swimming lessons in the summer in elementary school, and learned the basic breathing techniques. Once I was able to swim across a standard pool without stopping, I was on my own. I could swim at a pretty slow pace and not stop, so that was good enough for me. I was better than a lot of people who didn’t know how to swim, so I even felt proud.
This continued until my junior year in college. I had one PE class left to take, and I chose beginner swimming. I though it was going to be an easy pass, but I was wrong! For the first half of the semester we only practiced how to keep our head above water in an upright position with only arm movement, and I couldn’t! It’s a technique to help you feel the pressure of the water and develop proper strokes. Even though I was able to swim pretty far at that point, I had no feel for the “flow” and how to catch it. The day I was able to do it I felt like I graduated to a whole new level, and we hadn’t even begun “real” swimming!
Eventually we progressed through stroking, kicking, and breathing. At every step, the coach was able to give me a quick pointer on how to do it better, and teach me the practice routine that helped me turn the new techniques into habits. My time improved dramatically. I didn’t have to breathe every two strokes anymore. And more importantly, for the first time I developed a feel for the water. When I swim freestyle, it’s no longer just waving my arm through water. It’s like climbing a ladder – I can apply pressure to propel myself forward – albeit horizontally.
If not for this coach, or rather this experience of being coached, I’d never have this new revelation of what swimming feels like – climbing through water. This allowed me to progress on my own for quite a while; however, now I can only keep up with what I’ve already learned. I know for sure if I can get some one-on-one guidance on how to improve my skills, I can swim even faster and more efficiently. One day, if I have a chance.
Does my story of improving swimming technique sound like what you’d like to have happen with your personal finance skills? Most people may view managing their finances like a chore – begrudgingly doing it while dreaming about not having to do it when they’re rich. You can probably be mediocre and get by, never having great losses or great reward. But there is a group of us who look at managing our finances prudently as an ongoing challenge, a skillset we can continue to improve on, or even a mandate on how we should live our lives. We spend so much time and energy on improving a company’s profitability at our job, shouldn’t we apply the same effort, if not more, on our own finances?
Many people think that you only seek financial advice when 1) you are already in a bad place, 2) you don’t know what to do next, or 3) you are in a good place where you can afford financial advice. If you think about it, don’t all of these three situations basically apply to everyone who wants to get better at their managing their finances? It doesn’t matter where you are. What matters is that you have determined that you want to get better. There is always someone that can help you get better, to help you grow. That someone won’t be you, because you need outside influence to help you see new things, to compensate for your blind spots or reveal information you might not discover on your own. You need someone – a coach, either in person, or through a book, a course, even a TV show.
If you don’t yet have a coach to tell you where you should focus next to get better, here’s a general trajectory:
At some point you will be really good at what you know how to do now and move on, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t move on to the next level until you master your current one. The important thing is to recognize where you are, know when to move on, and don’t jump the ladder too much. If you try to do too much too quickly, eventually you’ll need to drop back to fix some basics. This is when having a coach is really helpful.
So lastly, how do you know you are growing in your personal finance skills?
Since we are talking numbers, we should really let numbers do the talking. Although not all of your growth in financial aptitude can be quantified, you should see a positive, even accelerated, change in your net worth. Either you’re paying down debt faster, earning more, saving more, investing better, or spending less. All of these reflect in the increase in your net worth. Maybe the only exception is the short-term losses in your investments, because that is a risk you take for the long-term gain. If you track your net worth over time, you should see an unmistakable upward trend, with some ups and downs in the middle to account for “life” – family emergency, a new baby, market down turn, etc. Like all investments, your net worth may not sky rocket in the beginning; but time is on your side. Your continuous investment in growing your personal finance skills will grow your value over time.
However, like a treadmill gives you many different parameters to measure your workout, net worth is not the only measure of your growth. You may find that you have more time on your hands to do what you enjoy, more energy to play with your kids, or simply greater satisfaction in understanding how all the different puzzle pieces of your finances work together. Just like the image below from my recent workout, if any one parameter is missing from the equation, you will feel like all of your effort has gone nowhere. (Hint: check the mileage.)
Usually when I have low energy during a workout, I’ll use all the different numbers on the treadmill monitor to motivate myself. I’ll just make it to a mile, then to 15 minutes, then to 150 calories, then to two miles. This helps me get further than I anticipated I had the will for. When you only focus on net worth, it’s like you are just pass the one-mile mark, and the second mile marker seems so far away. Being aware that every small financial habit you form just gets you a little bit further – more efficient, more energetic, more knowledgeable – makes a huge difference.
This concludes the three part series of my newly strengthened belief of what financial planning should be. More than getting a short-term answer to fix your current problem, financial planning is about continuously developing better habits that utilize what you own (money, time, energy, skills) to achieve your goals and dreams, facing an uncertain future and through your emotions. You may want to do it on your own, but it’s much easier to have a financial planner to do it with you.
So are you ready to take the challenge? To grow, no matter where you stand.