Last week an old MarketWatch story went around recommending that people should have two times their salary saved up by the time they are 35 to be on track for a secure retirement. Many of the responses were so incredulous that MarketWatch asked me to write a response story outlining how this is actually possible to do. Which I did, focusing largely on automation, 401(k) matching and ratcheting up your savings as your income goes up. Nothing Earth-shattering there. I used sample numbers that are average incomes for early career ages, to make it accessible to normal earners, not only high earners.
And while plenty of the response to the piece was positive, what struck me was that the folks whose feedback was negative sounded so dejected and powerless in the words they chose.
“I could never do that.”
“I save a little, and then another bad thing happens to me.”
“Easy for you to say, because you made lots of money.”
The same was true in the responses I saw to the original story. Which prompted me to tweet this:
This post isn’t about that sentiment exactly, that regardless of what obstacles we face or what systemic barriers we’re up against, it’s up to each of us to decide to be active participants in our money and our lives. It’s about the sentiment that is often the next step when making a fatalistic assertion like the ones some made in response to the retirement savings recommendation:
I could never do that, so why bother trying?
And that’s what we’re talking about today: Letting the impossibility of achieving perfection stop us from trying at all, and how to overcome that thinking.
There Is No Perfection
Though I try to make each podcast interview I do different, so that it’s not just rehashing the same talking points (let’s be real – that’s boring for me, too, not just for listeners!), one of the things I consistently try to do is point out the mistakes I’ve made along the way with my money. (The recent BiggerPockets Money interview is a good example of this.)
In the grand scheme of things, my money mistakes are fairly tame: spending too much in my early career years, financing a new car 100 percent (though it was a $15,000 Honda Civic, not something fancy), not getting the company 401(k) match or maxing out for several years early in my career, and being a little too willing to take out the credit cards. None of those mistakes put me on the verge of financial ruin or even so much as threatened my credit score – I’ve been 750+ since right after college. But I make a point to talk about them because I want people listening to see that you don’t have to be a financial overachiever to reach big goals. You don’t have to be naturally frugal, a supersaver from birth or a rejecter of all things consumer-oriented to retire early, but for folks who aren’t doing a deep dive into multiple early retirement blogs, that’s not a message you will come across very easily.
Naturally, stories about early retirees to focus on the bigness of the accomplishment, and on the details of how you did it. And how the people being featured did it is always with the good habits they’ve developed. But focusing only on the good habits and not mentioning the mistakes that nearly all of us make renders the whole story less accessible to folks who think, “I could never do that,” or, “I could never do that, so why bother trying?” And if you couple that habit of focusing on the good habits and not mentioning the bad habits with the line that’s so easy to hear slipping out of your mouth – “If I can do it, you can too!” – the impression we can accidentally leave people with is that people who retire early or reach some other massive financial goal are financially perfect, which makes what they did unattainable to normal people, but also, if you can’t do it, too, then you’re not [FILL IN THE BLANK] enough. (Not good enough, not hustling hard enough, you don’t want it bad enough, etc., etc., etc.)
And as it happens, both of those conclusions are entirely false. Because in reality:
People who retire early are not financially perfect. They’ve just found ways to build on their strengths and deal with their weaknesses.
There are a million reasons why most people don’t retire early that aren’t remotely about not being good enough. Some of those reasons are things you can easily overcome if you set early retirement as your goal and change your mindset around some key money things, and some of the reasons are much harder to overcome, like the wage gap, family obligations, student loans, generational poverty, and on and on.
If we can remind ourselves of this fact – that there’s no such thing as perfection – when we hear about people who’ve retired early, but truly also with everything we come across that stirs up pangs of envy, it’s much easier to decide to move forward even if we know we can’t ever do what they did in the same way they did.
Embracing Imperfection in Money and Life
I totally get the fatalist mindset that creeps in so invisibly.
“Well, I’ve already had a big dinner and blown the diet today, so I might as well have a big bowl of ice cream.”
“I failed on my New Year’s resolution in January, so I guess it’s dead. I’ll try again next year.”
“This trip already turned expensive, so what’s another cab ride or dinner out?”
All of those quotes are things I’ve said to myself, more than once. If the big goal feels out of reach, the “why try?” thought is never far away.
It was that thinking that let me stay in credit card debt longer than I should have, because I let the thought, “I can’t pay it all off, so I might as well just pay the minimum and not make myself suffer,” dictate my spending habits.
I let the fact that I couldn’t ever be perfect stop me from even trying to be better.
Which probably seems like the antithesis of my gold star-seeking tendencies. But I think they’re one and the same: If you’re a person who believes it’s perfection or nothing, it’s easy to put your effort into the stuff where perfection seems possible, and get all nihilistic about the rest. At least that has often been my tendency.
But whether you’re a perfectionist or not, it’s easy to fall into that trap of, “That big goal doesn’t feel accessible to me, so I won’t even let myself work toward the smaller version of that goal.”
To reach big goals in any area of life – and to allow ourselves to dream big and set those goals in the first place – we must accept that perfection is not a real thing. If we can do that, and embrace imperfection, we can stop letting this mythical notion of perfection mess with us and interfere with our intentions.
Moving Forward Toward An Imperfect Goal
It was only when I embraced my imperfections that my financial life started to improve meaningfully. By recognizing that I was never going to be naturally frugal, I forgave myself for being so susceptible to shopping temptation and stopped wasting time and energy beating myself up for the debt situation I’d gotten myself into. Instead, I focused on creating systems for managing my natural tendencies (mostly ways to avoid temptation), while finding more ways to use my strengths to my advantage. That’s what ultimately led me to start tracking everything, because I’m naturally competitive, and it turns out that competing against myself to pay down debt and to save was a perfect motivator.
That motivation will look different for each of us, but I never would have figured out mine if I hadn’t decided to stop letting the inaccessibility of perfection hold me back.
So if you’re stuck in that place of either letting perfection hold you back or of thinking that a goal is so inaccessible that it’s not even worth trying, what can you do? Here are some ways you can get out of that mindset and let yourself move forward toward big goals:
Accept your circumstances, but don’t let them define you – Plenty of folks are born into hardship or come into it later, and the “Anyone can do this!” pronouncements can easily make someone in a tough spot feel invalidated. So validate that stuff. Acknowledge everything that feels like it’s holding you back, whether it’s low pay, high debt, disability, living in a place with bad job prospects, lacking the skills or education that would let you earn more, or whatever else it might be. All of those things are real, and don’t ever let anyone tell you that they’re not. But they’re also not the full story. Decide to write your own story in which those hardships are chapters or side plots but not the main narrative.
Forgive yourself – We are so good at beating ourselves up, often for years after doing something that feels like a mistake. But don’t let the disappointment you feel in yourself dictate your future. Know that you’re an imperfect person, just like everyone else is, who was doing the best you could under the circumstances, and forgive yourself. Then, pledge to do better.
Remember that delays and derailments are different – If you’re on a train that gets delayed, no one assumes you’ll never get to your destination. It takes a derailment to do that, and that’s both a huge freaking deal and exceedingly rare. You know that train will move forward again, just with a later arrival time, but you adjust your plans and don’t give it too much thought. Treat setbacks that way. You spent too much today? Don’t derail the whole budget for the month, just accept the delay and stick as close to your plan as you can after that. Remind yourself as many times as you have to that delays only become derailments if you let them.
Figure out the next best option – Let’s say you hear of someone who’s retired at the age you are, and you have very little saved. Obviously achieving the same thing is straight up impossible. You’re never going to reach that particularly definition of perfection. That shouldn’t stop you from trying for a big goal, it just shouldn’t be that big goal. But what is the next best thing you can aim for, that works in your circumstances? Aim for that instead.
Don’t take everything on at once – Whether you’re a perfection seeker or not, many of us have the tendency to jump straight into the deep end and get over our heads quickly – or to let the thought of getting in over our heads stop us from jumping into the pool at all. Instead, go stick a toe in the kiddy pool. Get wet up to your ankles, or your even up to your chest. Figure out what steps you can take that don’t feel overwhelming or push you into that “I can’t do all of it so why try to do any of it?” thinking, and take those. It’s fine if you’re not doing everything you know you need to do to reach your goal – start by building good habits or dealing with challenges you’re facing one at a time, and add more steps as you build up confidence and strengthen your position.
Do you ever let yourself fall into that trap of seeing perfect as the enemy of the good? Do you get overwhelmed by the size of big goals and not even try to reach them? What has worked for you to shut down that thinking and get you moving forward? Share your stories and your tips – so many readers don’t comment, and what folks share here is helpful to those folks in a big way! (I’m still a bit slow on comment responses while finishing the book, but will be back to responding to every comment within a day or two as soon as I’ve submitted the manuscript next month!)
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