As I’ve mentioned on here and elsewhere, several years ago, I started taking steps toward a better financial future. When I decide to do things and learn how to do them, I tend to be very gung-ho (at least at first), and getting my finances in order was no exception to that. With my husband and me working together, we saved a ‘baby’ emergency fund of $1000 and then paid off $17k of debt in one year. That was all of our consumer debt plus one of my student loans. We then proceeded to develop our full emergency fund (in our case, three months of expenses) and begin saving for retirement and other goals. We still have to pay off a large chunk of our student loans, which we’ll focus more on once my husband has finished his Ph.D. Oh yes, that’s the other element–we did all this with my husband in school full-time! (Sadly for me, his graduate research assistant take-home pay was not much different than what I got from social work until I got promoted this year.) We did sell my car, move to a smaller, less expensive apartment (in a more interesting neighborhood–good trade-off), and cut other expenses in a variety of ways. But we didn’t live an ascetic lifestyle at any point; we ate organic food, went out to good restaurants, and took a trip to Europe–Dan’s way paid mostly by school, my way paid by our savings–within that time-frame.
As I started taking care of myself this year, I began to see a pattern of taking skills from our financial life and applying them to my relationship with food, if not always consciously. Here are three of the key skills I’ve noticed myself transferring:
1. I have learned to embrace opportunity cost.
Opportunity cost is such an essential part of being alive. I had never heard the phrase ‘opportunity cost’ until a couple of years ago. Opportunity cost means that for every opportunity you accept, there are other opportunities you forgo by that choice. We all know opportunity cost exists, whether or not we know the phrase, but I truly believe there is a key to contentment and focus in actually embracing it–not fighting against it, not poutingly begrudging it, not tolerating it, but completely accepting it as a necessary and okay part of life. Learning to embrace opportunity cost has been key in me finally starting to interact with the world in a more adult manner than I used to do. I used to second-guess so many of my decisions (What if I had dated him instead? What if I had gone to that college instead? etc.) that I kept myself from being able to be happy with my current state of affairs, which was usually a good state of affairs. If I had learned, at a younger age, to embrace opportunity cost, I could have taken all of that energy that was scattered on ‘what if?’s and focused it on having a happier life. In my financial life, opportunity cost meant (and still means) that if we were going to meet our financial goals, I couldn’t expect to buy everything I wanted. I had to reel myself in. I had to pay attention to money regularly. Fortunately, getting to our first ‘big win’ (the baby emergency fund) and then proceeding to pay off our debts (the dissolution of each being a big win) helped keep me motivated. Early in the process of financial change, exhausted with the misery my previous actions had gotten me, I embraced the opportunity cost of handling my finances better. Now, opportunity cost in my financial life means that I share a car (an old one) with my husband. It means that I spend more hours every month inputting information into budgeting than I ever did before. It means that I can’t take that handsome sum of money sitting in our savings account, our emergency fund, and spend that on other things. But I’m okay with all of that because what I get in return–financial security, a positive financial future, and enough money to spend on the things I really need and want–is worth the opportunity cost of the other things I’m giving up.
The same is true for my relationship with food. There is an opportunity cost for getting in better shape and losing weight. My 6 a.m. alarms for running mean I can’t sleep late on those days. Taking care of myself means balancing out my meals so that I do not consume an enormous number of calories per day (opportunity cost: high-calorie lunch = lower-calorie dinner). Spending money on new running shoes next month may mean I can’t buy a cute pair of boots I’ve been eyeing. Eating healthfully requires planning my meals, which means I don’t have as much time and energy for other things that interest me. Honestly, some of the opportunity cost is only a win-win situation, as long as I always seek to remember that I am taking care of myself (not punishing myself). For example, the opportunity cost of eating too much is my inability to feel anything but grotesquely stuffed for hours. Why is that such a hard thing to give up? The opportunity cost for only eating the first three bites of the brownie is that I don’t get to enjoy the rest of the brownie, but the upside is I won’t ever regret those three bites. Embracing opportunity cost for weight loss has meant finding joy in what I can have and letting the rest go. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m getting better as I go.
2. I have accepted that moderation is key.
Sometimes you just have to kick your ass into gear and make a big move. That’s totally true, and in the case of my financial life, I had to jump into budgeting, sell some stuff on E-Bay, and make decisions like the one to sell my car. There were several big leaps I had to make. But those big decisions alone wouldn’t make my finances work out. Instead, I had to think about my financial life daily and make a bunch of little decisions along my long-term path. I had to track my expenses daily. I had to refrain from buying things that were not in my budget. I still have to do all these things, but they are much more habits now than they were for the first year.
Weight loss/exercise/getting healthy is like that, too. How many people want to jump in and do something big, something extreme . . . and then be done with it? But it doesn’t work like that. I once heard Oprah say that there was no magic weight loss cure at any price, because if there were, she would have bought it. I thought, You know, she’s right. She’s worth, what a billion dollars? And we all know she’s spent her adult life struggling with her weight. If some quick fix worked, Oprah would totally be on it.
Getting to healthy requires commitment. It requires planning. It requires rewiring our emotions and reconfiguring our lives. It requires a lot of energy spread out over a long time. It requires moving along slowly, gaining ground bit by bit. Sometimes you get to hit a big win and thrill over your victory. But more often than that, you’re just plodding along in a good direction. (Bonus: If you embrace opportunity cost, you can try to be joyful about that direction.) When you hit a rough spot, you just try to hold on, and you don’t hold it against yourself if you mess up. You just keep trying to move in a good direction.
3. I have come to understand that a temporary failure does not mean a permanent failure.
The first couple of months that my husband and I tried to budget together were disasters. We could have given up, said, “This just won’t work,” and left ourselves stuck in High-interestville (County: Nosavingsland) over the long-term. But we didn’t. We said, We can make this work. It just takes time. We had other set-backs, as well; our biggest one was that my husband, while crossing a street, was hit by a speeding car and was in a Level-1 trauma center for 10 days. (Then it took him months to recover.) We could have let that derail us, but we didn’t. It was a temporary set-back, if a frustrating one. We knew we were in our financial life for our whole lives and that as long as we kept inching forward (or holding our ground for a bit if that’s all we could do), we’d be okay. Even a step or two backwards, we accepted, was just temporary until we could move ahead again.
Somehow, in this year’s work at taking good care of myself, I’ve been able to take on that same mindset about creating good health. I don’t mean to imply I have never gotten frustrated–my 2-mo. weight plateau was a bit frustrating after a point–and I slip back into how society (and marketing, etc.) tells us to feel about weight from time to time. But I remind myself that I’m heading towards a good goal and that if it takes me a long time to get where I want to be, at least now I know I’m on a good path to it. Before this year, when I tried to lose weight, if I plateaued for a short while, I gave up. I went back to my former habits in a heartbeat. But no more. If I plateau for a couple of weeks, like right now, that’s me learning what I can do to maintain my current weight. If I lose weight slowly, I know that that means I am learning the habits that will enable me to keep it off. I’m not doing anything extreme; I’m actually enjoying what I’m doing, most of the time. I’m not making myself miserable, so there’s nothing to quit.
The nutritionist I visit pointed out to me that if I keep averaging a .5 pound loss per week, I’ll reach my goal in a year. My first thought was, “In a year?? That’s soooo long.” Then I checked myself. I’m so much better off now than I was a year ago. In another year, that will still be true–will be even more true. It’s not even just about weight anymore, but about giving myself compassion and gentle care. It’s about getting comfortable being me and keeping on a path to being the best me that I can. That might sound cheesy, but it’s just true.
*This post is brought to you by the fact that I have already written 2100 words today for NaNoWriMo!