What would you do if you didn’t have to worry about money?
That’s a fun question to help discover something you are passionate about. It can help you to think about long-term career plans and what you want to do with your life.
It’s also useful to think about how you could make that a reality. Because you may be closer to financial freedom than you think.
Maybe it’s a long-shot to become insanely wealthy and fly around on private jets.
But it’s totally within your grasp to achieve financial peace. Because you already have the most important tools to do so totally within your control.
I didn’t see things this way for a long time.
But when I realized that a lot of stress at work was built on a foundation of financial stress from home, it made a lot of sense.
I began to see that, while putting up with lots of things at work were stressful, they were more stressful because I felt trapped. I had to put up with whatever work threw at me because I needed the paycheck.
Like many people, I was stretched way too thin financially. My strategy had always been to earn my way forward. That next promotion, new job, or side hustle would always be the answer.
As long as my earnings were on an upward trend, I would be ok.
But that approach only looked at half of the equation. It didn’t look at spending enough.
Which is stupid, really. Because spending is the thing that is 100% in my control.
Someone else would decide if I got the promotion, new job, or bonus. But I would decide where to live, what kind of car to drive, and whether or not I really needed a Triple Venti Soy No Foam Latte.
First, accept responsibility for your money
What I learned was that I needed to take responsibility for my money. And I needed to do it now, in the present.
Many big decisions about purchasing a house and cars were behind me. But that didn’t mean I was powerless. All future decisions were totally in my control. And they are for you, too.
You can decide to move, sell your car, or do anything else that you want. And if your financial situation is dire enough, some of those options may be worth considering.
But for many of us a renewed focus on our situation and a determination to improve it can make a big difference.
For example, shortly after I accepted my responsibility to manage my finances, my car died. And it died after pouring $2,500 into various repairs. I sold it as scrap for $300.
Buying another car would have meant taking out another loan, which was the opposite financial direction I wanted to take.
I now had a lot of control of which car to buy, which was a way to get another shot at that “decide which car to drive” decision.
Buying a used car instead of a new car would help. And certainly what kind of car would make a big difference.
But I decided to open up the question a little further. I tried a little experiment.
Here’s what I realized. I had control over the car buying decision. I could buy whatever car I wanted, but I could also decide not to buy a car.
The eye-opening thing for me was to realize that by not buying the car today, I still left open the option to buy it tomorrow.
Knowing that I could buy a car any day, I began to wonder if I could get along without a car for a while.
We still had another car, and I could use that on occasion when my wife didn’t need it. I could take public transportation to work. I could rent a Zipcar for short trips around the area. Longer trips could be worked out with traditional car rental services like Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Taxis and Ubers could fill out the rest of the gaps.
Once I opened up my thinking to see more options, it became sort of a fun, creative problem solving situation.
Because I could back out and buy a car at any time, the game became to see how long I could go without a car.
My motivation was getting my financial house in order. That meant cleaning up all consumer debt, not creating more with a car loan.
A little motivation and an experiment mindset went a long way. I went three and half years before buying another car.
During that time, I paid off all debt and saved up enough money to buy the car in cash.
None of that would have happened if I hadn’t taken responsibility for my money. That’s the first step.
It’s one that you can embrace more easily, I think, if you see that connection between work stress and money stress.
You are working hard for your money. If you feel like money issues aren’t well-addressed in your life, it’s going to seep into your work stress one way or another.
Next, develop a plan of attack
Once you accept responsibility for your money, you can develop a plan of attack.
Here’s where most things fall apart. Like quitting a bad habit or keeping that new year’s resolution to get fit, simply knowing what to do isn’t enough.
As Derek Sivers says, if more information were the answer, we’d all be billionaires with perfect abs.
We don’t need information as much as we need motivation.
That’s why I think the link to work stress is important. It can be a source of motivation. Because one way to reduce stress at work is to feel more in control of your life overall.
You can take back control by shoring up your financial situation and making yourself less dependent on living paycheck to paycheck (which is the case for most Americans, even at very high income levels).
So your first step in the plan of attack is to make sure you are ready to clean things up. If you can find motivation in the way I’m describing, or in any other way, you have a real chance to make a big and fantastic change in your life.
Once you have that big picture motivation, you are ready to get started. But motivation doesn’t disappear from the equation.
Motivation is needed throughout any process of change. That’s why setting up little goals along the way is crucial. Each time you can check something off the list, you can see actual progress that you are making.
So while your big vision of less financial stress can help get started, you will need lots of little milestones along the way.
And they can be small. Like paying off a small debt. Or eating out less.
But the goals must be concrete and measurable. Which is why setting up and living on a budget can be one of the most effective ways to do this.
A budget helps you to plan at a specific level. Matching up your actual spending against what you budgeted can give you a good sense of progress. Every time you spend the amount you budgeted or less in a category, you win.
There is a secret to making this work well: You need to craft a unique budget every month. A “one size fits all” monthly budget won’t work.
You need frequent feedback on how your doing and working against averages takes too long. It’s also ineffective, because it doesn’t require detailed planning.
At a detailed level, your water bill may arrive quarterly. And your car insurance might be paid annually. Other expenses come up sporadically. Even unexpectedly (car repair).
Developing a budget for what is going to happen in the next month at a detailed level forces you to understand things at a detailed level. This is a good thing because it helps you to better understand what is really going on. And that helps you to prepare better.
You will learn as you go. And it will take at least three months to get the hang of budgeting in this way.
But once you get the hang of it, you will have much greater understanding of how your finances actually work. Which will empower you to make much better decisions going forward.
Then, learn to make money decisions in advance
As you become empowered by a clearer understanding of what is going on in your financial life, you can exert tremendous control over your situation.
Sure, many things like the rent or mortgage payment, your car payment, and student loans will be non-negotiable. But many other things like eating out, buying new clothes, and going on vacation are totally within your control.
Like most people, your budget may be tight. But once you know what is going on, you can see how you can shift things.
For instance, if you stopped eating out and cancelled your next vacation, you might be able to save enough money to pay off your car loan early. If you did that, the money you used to pay every month for the car loan now becomes available for discretionary spending like eating out and going on vacation.
You can temporarily sacrifice in the areas where you have more control (discretionary) so that you can eliminate more and more areas where you have less control (paying a loan). Over time, more of your budget shifts away from areas where you have less control and toward areas where you have more control.
Working at it this way, month by month, you can make progress. And you can see it happen in real time. That’s a motivating way to tie short term action into longer term goals.
And that motivation can be stress relieving. Because rather than feeling all down because the budget is tight, you can feel great that you are taking concrete action on something that is important to you. You can feel like you are taking more control over your destiny.
Putting it all together
Work and money can both be sources of stress. But while reducing stress at work won’t solve your money problems, it can work the other way around.
Improving your financial situation can go a long way toward reducing your stress at work. Because, at the end of the day, you work for money and you use that money to live your life. It’s a fundamental link that we can too easily ignore.
Most of us feel like things are out of our control. We can’t easily increase our income and we feel that life’s expenses simply are what they are.
But if we take a closer look, we can see that we are 100% in control of the spending side of the equation. And that can make all the difference.
Of course, like dieting or exercise, that knowledge isn’t going to help much unless we figure out how to apply it.
That’s why the first step is to accept the responsibility for managing our money. That means recognize that we have more options (like buying a used car, less expensive one, or none at all). Taking back that power and owning it will go a long way.
But we also need a plan of attack. We need to budget at a detailed level so that we know what is going on with our money. And that doesn’t mean quickly figuring out some average monthly expenditures. It means going through all of the various expenses in detail to really understand them. When they are coming, in what amounts, and how we are going to pay for them.
As we work up experience in planning and attacking things at a detailed level on a monthly bases, we can go to the next level. We can make more money decisions in advance. We can get out of the victim mentality and start making better choices. We can sacrifice discretionary spending in the short term so that we can end up with more of it later on down the line.
That’s control. And that feeling of control can spill over into our work life. With such a fundamental issue as money in better shape, a lot of work stress can be reduced. Because that money we are working so hard to get is going to much better use. And it’s setting us up for a better future.