My first lesson in first things
When I was younger, in my teens and college years, I worked labor jobs. Being male and strong, these were the best paying jobs available. Auto plants, loading docks. It’s very physical. You’re moving and using that young strength the entire shift. Using machinery and loads that weigh hundreds or thousands of pounds. These jobs taught me a whole variety of things about what it means to work, and what it means to truly labor. They also taught me something you might not expect compared to serving tables at a restaurant: the power of forced habit. Walk into any work environment that uses heavy equipment, and you will immediately notice placards posted that say “safety first!” with a reminder of relevant procedures. It’s even baked into the language used. These are hard people, but they won’t hesitate to say something to you with a “hey! safety first!” pointing out a miss if they see something wrong. Hard hat. Steel toed shoes. Safety glasses. And every job or piece of equipment has a specific way it is to be used, usually with a safety procedure before and after. One forgetful moment can cause horrible life changing injuries to you, but also the people around you. The only way to ensure things don’t get forgotten is to make it a forced habit. Safety comes first, and everything else comes after. It is priority one. Every time. All the time. The entire blue collar work environment knows that this is the only way it works. The lesson is this: The order you do things dictates the probability of what ends up happening.
The order you do things in real life can steal your money
What does this have to do with personal finance? Well, what you do with your money first, second or fifteenth says a lot about where it ends up going. Most people prioritize paying bills first. Rent, car, electricity, phone bill. Things like that. Makes sense right? You miss those and life kind of comes to a halt real fast. And after that, food, gas, insurance and everything else that makes for a normal adult existence. Nothing extravagant. What’s left over you wholeheartedly intend to put into savings. Because saving money is important. So savings ends up being number 8 for some people. Or number 20. Is savings really an important thing in this list? Let me tell you from my experience working with manual laborers, and dangerous machinery—savings might as well be last because it isn’t going to happen.
When something gets put a dozen steps down on your priority list, they tend to happen almost never. Not because you didn’t try or care. You had big goals and heart-felt intentions. You want them to happen. It’s just that 10 things already happened, and the unexpected birthday party got added to that list, and well...that’s just what there was time and money for. Next month will be different.
But next month ends up the same just for different reasons. Saving and getting ahead on your goals is still mucho importante and you haven’t forgotten what it means to you. You’ve worked so hard. And the whole year passes and now you are looking at holiday time and there is just no way, so you are promising to yourself that come January, things will be different. It’s frustrating. You are embarrassed and angry at yourself that saving and getting ahead on things isn’t actually happening. Oh sure, work is going well, everything is getting paid, and life is really pretty good. But you know the saving part is a real miss and it is really hurting you financially and spiritually. You want saving money to be a habit in the worst way. But life keeps getting the better of you, and it just isn’t fair.
Habits need to BE forced
The only way to truly make something a habit is to make it non optional. Remember safety first? There are some parallels in your own life. You wouldn’t leave the house without getting dressed. I mean, even in a crazy I am so late and running out the door way, you still find time to put some pants on. You make it happen and everything else follows. Or when you jump in your car, first thing you do is buckle up that seat belt. If you didn’t treat these as non negotiable they wouldn’t happen either. Thankfully, most of us are wearing pants, so we can do this. Savings and financial goals are no different, and will only happen if they are treated the same way. You must force saving to come first.
The easiest way I know how to do this is to set up automatic withdrawal to a savings account or 401k directly from that check. Make it the FIRST THING. This way it isn’t up to you to protect that money and put it somewhere when you get the chance. I like this technique because you don’t even get to see it or touch it this way, and the amount is predetermined. Whatever works for you, the point is it needs to be moved to the very top on your list, right up there with putting on pants first. This turns the tables on the order of money events in your life. Now, everything else in your financial life happens after the saving part. If you got paid, you got savings.
But what about rent, mortgage, utilities? You might be thinking this sounds sort of foolish or even selfish to keep back money first, and then pay these after. Ah, but this is the beauty. Now, since savings is first, you view the rest of your life through a different lens. What you agree to pay for where you live and the car you drive and everything else must now fit in the amount left after you’ve deducted for your savings goals. When the order you pay for things comes after you already took your savings, the saving part never gets left out. Amazing. What you decide you can afford regarding everything else in your life is subject to this smaller amount. But it’s the only amount you let yourself see. The order you do it is key. It’s far easier to say no to things when the money just isn’t there in your checking account. You see, if savings is what’s left over, it’s very hard to say no to things, because obviously, you have the money. When savings is forced to come first, you run out of money quicker, making you say no, or limiting spending by artificially keeping your visible funds smaller than they actually are. And when something truly unexpected comes up that you need more than what fits in your budget like a car repair, guess what, you have money for that.
Do it first. Do it first. Do it first.
So to review. 1. The only habits that you can expect to keep are the ones that are forced and first. If it isn’t first, it might as well be last. The best intentions will not keep you safe. Or put your pants on. 2. Getting paid needs to equal getting saved. Bills and everything else must come after. The order determines what and how those things happen. If spending comes first, it will win every time. So remember this simple rule to stay out of financial danger and not get hurt: Savety first.