Hope: The unexpected tool that can create financial success.
Last week, I shared the epic announcement that we had eliminated our consumer debt. No more credit cards. No more car loans. In that post, I attributed our success to the three miracles of persistence, patience, and paperwork. Today, I want to talk about those three factors, and an even more important fourth miracle, that helped us to pay off 5 digits worth of consumer debt in 10 months. WARNING: Despite the cheerful title, we get a bit dark in this post...
A friend of mine who's achieved some admirable athletic goals (both in weight lifting and distance running) often advocates that sustained consistency is key to fitness results. This is true for major financial goals as well.
Paying off a substantial amount of debt required persistently making decisions that brought us closer to our goal. It meant scrambling to cover unexpected costs without using the credit card, working for six weeks to break a paid parking habit, returning purchases that hadn't been used, renegotiating many of our monthly bills, and putting extra dollars that came our way toward our credit card payment or our home repair fund. It meant quitting the gym and taking our exercise into our own hands. It meant wearing broken glasses until our yard sale generated some cash to replace them.
Persistence was the sometimes tedious dedication to shopping and cooking-cooking-cooking for the week on Sundays to keep our food costs low. Persistence was continuing to challenge the cost of the lunches we packed when we started to get comfortable in our routine. Persistence meant constantly working to align our actions with our values on decisions both big and small.
The journey was not always exciting. After awhile, there were no more quick wins -- no easy achievements to provide instant gratification. We often went from month to month with less spending money and just our regular slew of payments. Sometime progress is a routine. Sometimes it feels incredibly boring (this might be especially true after the roller coaster of money anxiety followed by exhilarating financial quick wins). We had to be okay with months of same-old-same-old in order to be successful.
Patience was also helpful when it came to making decisions of all sizes. Some of the decisions we wrestled initially felt huge -- like whether to repair or replace our ten-year-old car. Practicing patience meant waiting until we came to peace with the choice that was right for us before moving forward. Patience also helped me avoid impulse purchases. When I wanted to buy a hatchet, upgrade to a hiking back that would keep my back from becoming a sweaty mess, or replace a fraying work bag, I didn't just jump to it. I added these things to a list and let the drive to buy them cool. When I did eventually buy that hatchet, I had a member refund AND a coupon at our local outdoors supply co-op. Lots of things are still sitting on that list, and my life is no less without them.
ERMAHGERD. The paperwork. Student loan income based repayment forms. For two students. Submitted twice because bureaucracy. Home refinance. Student loan refinance. These sentence fragments are a very small number of words to express the massive avalanche of paperwork that we took on (and will continue to take on as income based repayment has annual renewal). However, it was worth the work. This paperwork created flexibility in our month-to-month bills that allowed us to focus like a laser on our consumer debt.
Okay... so maybe these are hallmarks of being determined to reach a meaningful goal, and not true Godly acts at all. Fair enough. I'll give you that one, but...
The miracle I didn't mention:
Paying down debt as quickly as we did was partially the result of persistence, patience, and paperwork, but it never would have happened without a great job and a healthy paycheck. The career growth that I've experienced has provided me with an income above the median for my age group (Find out how your income compares to others your age with this super nerdy and totally awesome calculator). Our rapid pay off of consumer debt would not have been possible without it.
Part of my career growth was, like the "miracles" above, a product of determined effort:
- I dedicated myself to a meaningful career path instead of just holding any old job
- I weathered a huge drop in income to go back to school when I was a single mom in order to have opportunities in a field I was passionate about.
- I seek opportunities to take on additional responsibility, and I'll take on the tasks no one else wants.
- I deeply enjoy hard work and the sense of value it gives me.
- I went back to school for a Master's Degree when I sensed it would be necessary to keep moving forward in my work.
The reason that I still believe my career growth has been an actual miracle is this: Many people have put great effort into their careers with very little change in their income. In fact, wages have largely remained stagnant over the last decade and underemployment is so prevalent that it feels like an epidemic in some communities.
The United Health Foundation reports that underemployment remains higher than it was in 2008 before the Great Recession hit. In some states, it remains as high as 15%. That's roughly one of out of every 6 people. Nationally, the figure is just over 10%.
The United Health Foundation defines underemployment as people who are unemployed or employed part-time while seeking full-time work. This means that the percentage would be even larger if we counted the people who have found full-time work, but at a lower wage then they are qualified to be making.
From the numbers, we can see that the career growth I'm experiencing right now is the unfortunate exception and not the rule for many, many Americans. In short, it's a miracle.
(Pretty cheerful post so far, right? It's okay. Stay with me...)
While many are struggling to find full-time work at a decent wage, opportunities of one kind or another are happening every day. There are great careers with solid pay out there. Someone is going to be on the receiving end of the world's opportunities. If you are someone experiencing underemployment or low wages, it is important to believe that it might be you. In fact, if you believe that you can achieve a better life, it's quite possible that your belief could become a self-fulfilling prophecy:
Some psychologists and economists have found that hope itself is a force powerful enough to lift people into higher income brackets.
According to Psychology Today, "Hope is not just a feel-good emotion, but a dynamic cognitive motivational system." In other words, looking at the world through a lens of hope is some seriously powerful shiznit.
This new research on hope has its roots in earlier studies, including those by University of Kansas Psychologist Doctor Charles Snyder. Dr. Snyder defined hope as "believing you have both the will and the way to accomplish your goals, whatever they may be."
Dr. Snyder found that this kind of hope was necessary for many of life's successes, but it wasn't inherent in the majority of us. Unlike the age old saying ("Where there is a will, there is a way"), only about 40% of people in his study indicated that had both the will and the means to achieve their goals. Roughly 20% felt they had the ability, but not enough will. Another 20% felt they had the will, but no means to achieve their goals. The final fifth of respondents lacked both components of his definition of hope.
"It's not enough just to have the wish for something," said Dr. Snyder. "You need the means, too. On the other hand, all the skills to solve a problem won't help if you don't have the willpower to do it." (New York Times)
Are you in the high-hope category?
Dr. Snyder found some common attributes among people who had high levels of hope:
- People with high levels of hope are more likely to turn to friends for advice on accomplishing their goals.
- They have positive self-talk, and "they tell themselves they can succeed at what they need to do."
- They are optimistic about what the future holds, even in hard times.
- They're flexible and can find multiple ways to achieve their goals if needed.
- When the likelihood of a goal dims, they set their sights on another: "Those low in hope tend to become fixated on one goal, and persist even when they find themselves blocked," Dr. Snyder said. "They just stay at it and get frustrated."
- They break up formidable goals into bite-sized tasks that are less intimidating.
Important side note for my FIRE friends: This post focuses on the power of hope when lifting people into greater financial success and more rewarding careers. High hopes can lead people who have already achieved financial success to make lower-risk investments that hurt them in the long run in some situations.
I'm not an entrepreneur. I don't work in a position where I can help create high-paying jobs. I cannot impact American jobs shifting to the traditionally lower-paid service industry. However, all of us can sow seeds of hope.
I've met people in the personal finance world who started out with very little and now have masterful financial plans. Some of these people are on track to reach FIRE (Financial Independence/Retire Early) status in short order. It takes persistence, patience, and sometimes paperwork, but it can happen.
Normally on Mindfully Spent, the story that the contributors and I share is our own. However, in a future post, I will be sharing the stories of others who found themselves in a life where the odds were against them. In each of these stories, they found a way to rise up and be savvy commanders of their destiny -- financial and otherwise. These inspiring stories are the hope that I can share with the world.
Too often, our limits are set by the stories we tell ourselves. Let's shatter the restrictions we've created for ourselves. Let's embrace the mighty power of hope, dream big, and become something more.