Editor: When it comes to personal finance, what matters most? Is it all about right now or is it all about the long term? In today’s guest post, Dr. Joshua White discusses what he thinks is the most important financial decision you’ll make. He’ll also tell you all about the steps it takes to get there. Dr. White, take it away!
As a PGY-2 in emergency Medicine, and given the recent market volatility, I have reflected on how I have observed others make financial decisions that have made all of the difference.
I recently had a patient in the Emergency Department who presented with severe abdominal pain and who was concerned that he might have an appendicitis. Although the CT obtained was unremarkable, his measured blood glucose was over 500. He did not seem too concerned.
Like many patients, he was more worried about his acute pain as a source of potential pathology than one of his known chronic diseases. However, for most people, the chronic medical problems are the ones that will likely be more life changing.
Long Term Over Short Term
And so it is with personal finance. Many prioritize short term gains over long term habits because the short term is so much more tangible and visible. After all, it is human nature.
In William Bernstein’s book If You Can, he states, “We’ve evolved to think about risk as a short-term phenomenon: the hiss of the snake, the flash of black and yellow stripes in the peripheral vision. We are certainly not designed to think about financial risk over its proper time horizon which is several decades.
Know that from time to time, you will lose large amounts of money in the stock market, but these are usually short-term events – the financial equivalent of the snake and the tiger.
The real risk you face is that you’ll be flattened by modern life’s financial elephant: the failure to maintain strict long-term discipline in saving and investing.”
It’s All About Intentionality
The most important financial decision you will make will not be about picking the right stock, real estate venture or even job opportunity. The most important financial decision you will ever make is to choose to be intentional with how you spend your money.
You can either deliberately choose your financial behavior consistent with your individual goals, or you can passively see what happens. Just as our physical bodies become cumulative records of all of our life’s decisions, our net worth will likely be more indicative of how we choose to live every day and less to do with one big financial decision.
How will you think about money? What is your tolerance for debt? What will your priorities be? Will you continue to be dependent on your weekly paycheck or will you become deliberately financially independent?
These questions will be answered by your actions if you think about them or not, the choice is yours to be intentional in how you answer these in your life.
If handling long term risk is against our nature, what can you do to fight against your nature in order to become financially successful in the long-term? Here are four things you can do to improve your financial behavior:
1. Start Small, But Be Consistent
If you have to choose between making big changes and being consistent, choose consistency. Often when we try to make big changes at once, it becomes overwhelming and difficult to maintain.
Henry B. Eyring taught that an important key to personal growth is to find “small changes we could make in things we do often.” As you do this, you will find increased motivation to change and an increased confidence to do what you determine to do.
Do not be discouraged if financial progress seems stagnant, success is measured based on your commitment to maintain your financial behavior, and the growth will come.
2. Create Your Investment Plan and Follow It Regardless of Market Volatility
“If investing is entertaining, if you’re having fun, you’re probably not making any money. Good investing is boring.” George Soros
It is easy to want to make decisions based on what you think is going to happen in the future, but when it comes down to it, no one is good at predicting the future or the market.
Consistent investment in a widely diversified portfolio with index mutual funds is the surest way to develop long-term return on investment. It will be really difficult to behave differently than your instincts, emotions and against the actions of the crowd. That is the beauty of a written investment plan. Have the feeling you want to withdraw money when the market crashes or want to time the market?
Follow your written investment plan instead. This plan should change based on where you are in your career and how well you are able to tolerate risk and losses.
3. Measure Your Behavior Change and Celebrate Any Progress
We all love pleasure. Our brains are pleasure centers and are programmed to be focused on short term rewards, which is sometimes why we find it difficult to sustain long term change.
Growth can be so slow; it might even be imperceptible unless you measure it. Measuring your behavior will keep you accountable to the only thing that really matters: are you changing in the ways that you want to?
Tip the scale a little in the favor of long-term behavior change by first measuring, and then deciding to celebrate your progress. Taking the time to celebrate progress helps reward your brain for the discipline. Pay off all your student loans? Meet your investing goal for the year? Made your first written investing plan?
Any progress is a win, and the best part is when you recognize that, you will be more motivated to keep improving your financial behavior.
4. Remind Yourself of the “Why” You Have Your Financial Goals
Do you ever forget the why? Why do you save, budget and plan? Do you want to retire early or just retire? Maybe you want a boat, a big house, or a nice car? I think the specifics are different for everyone, but it essentially boils down the same reason: increased freedom.
Both freedom now and in the future. We all want freedom and flexibility to choose and be able to follow our heart’s desires. To feel trapped or stuck is against the nature of our happiness. Are your financial goals making you happier? If not, then I suggest you change your financial goals.
Maybe you decide the strict budgeting you do isn’t worth retiring early if you are miserable and conversely, maybe you are spending money on things that don’t bring you happiness that you’d be willing to sacrifice for more future flexibility. Everyone has to find a personal balance of creating a future of freedom they want while also learning to enjoy and appreciate the present. The clearer you make your goal – the easier it will be to get there.
I invite you to take time to reflect on what kind of freedom you want in your life, and what changes you need to make today so your behavior is consistent with your desires. The choice is yours!
Wherever you are in your journey of financial independence, I encourage you to keep doing the small things that are becoming part of the most important financial decision you will ever make.
Special thanks to Dr. Michael Brodeur for reviewing and editing this article.