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The Simple Dollar

Breaking through the frustration of personal finance

Frustration can lead to financial blunders. Here's how to calm down and make the best decisions for your financial future.

By Guest blogger / March 11, 2012

In this file photo, a man walks past a collage of copies of Chinese RMB, U.S. dollar and other foreign bills at a money exchange store in Hong Kong. Hamm argues that persona finance can be frustrating,but there are ways to get through it.

Kin Cheung/AP/File

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Personal finance can be really frustrating at times.

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The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two. Our busy lives are crazy enough without having to compare five hundred mutual funds – we just want simple ways to manage our finances and save a little money.

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For starters, money success can take a long time to achieve. If you’re in a big hole of debt, you’re looking at years of digging just to get back to zero. People are often encouraged to start saving for retirement in their twenties, even though most won’t actually retire until their seventies. The time frame for most personal finance moves is measured in years and decades, not weeks and months.

Another frustration is that every financial move you make costs you in some other regard. If you put away $50 a week for retirement, you’re now bringing home less money, and that means less money to spend on the things you need and the things you want. You’re probably giving up something like a dinner out with your partner or something else you’d like to have every single week in order to make that savings plan work.

I’m often frustrated by both of these things.

Whenever I look at my account balances, I really want them to be higher. I have big goals in mind and although I’m moving towards those goals, the progress is slow. The little devil on my shoulder will start agitating and whisper in my ear, “You’ll never make it to that goal. It will take forever.”

Each month, when I look at how much went into savings for various goals, I can’t help but get a twinge in my stomach thinking of some of the more immediately enjoyable things I could be doing with that money. Again, that little devil pops up and tells me that I could trim back on those savings plans just a bit and enjoy some things I’ve wanted.

When I mix those two feelings together, frustration is the result. I feel like I’m saving for something I’ll “never” reach, and that saving is keeping me from making some choices in the here and now that I’d like to make.

That moment of frustration is the point when I’m most likely to make a big financial blunder. I’ll listen to that devil on my shoulder a bit too much and before I know it I’m ordering something online that I shouldn’t be buying or planning some event that I shouldn’t be planning.

So, what do I do to make sure that the little devil on my shoulder doesn’t come out on top?

I keep a big visual reminder of my long term goals front and center. Right at my workstation, I have a large picture of a house in the country. It’s a nice house with a new looking barn behind it. It has a bunch of trees nearby and a small open field. There are two children in the yard playing catch.

Not only is this a picture at my desk, it’s also the desktop wallpaper on my computer and the start page on my web browser.

Whenever I’m at that temptation point, my eye will hit upon one of those three pictures, and I’ll remember, just for a second, what the big picture is. It causes me to stop and rethink what I’m doing and that little pause is enough to break down the mistake I’m about to make.

I spend as much time with my family as I realistically can. When I look at the long-term goals I have in my life, all of them revolve around my family. I want Sarah to have the country home she’s always dreamed of. I want to show my children some of the beauty of the world and, later, make sure that they can follow whatever career path they want. I want to be able to retire with Sarah and enjoy some healthy and happy years together in retirement.

Sarah and our three children are a living reminder of all of that. When I spend time with them, those goals feel real and alive and urgent.

When I’m alone running numbers through a spreadsheet or checking account balances, those goals feel less urgent, which leaves me more prone to giving into frustration.

My solution, then, is to spend as much time with my family as I possibly can. When I do that, the larger goals I have in my life become so natural and essential that when I’m doing that financial work, the reinforcement of those goals carries over and keeps me on the right path.

I focus a lot on the experience of day-to-day life. In other words, I simply try not to think about what may yet come and instead focus on the things my life holds for me today.

Even in the most dull of days, there are countless things worth enjoying and remembering. My one year old will come racing into my office and insist on a hug before returning to his play. I’ll play a board game with my wife and my friends, and the intellectual enjoyment of figuring out a good strategy pairs wonderfully with the social enjoyment of the people I’m with. Sarah and I will work together to make a really good supper and that first bite – loaded with fresh ingredients and spices – is absolutely delicious. My daughter and I will spend two hours sitting at the kitchen table creating a giant drawing of a warm summer day at the park.

Those are little everyday things, sure, but I make a conscious effort to reflect on and focus on those things. I keep a journal and each evening I try to write down the best little experiences of that given day.

What this does is it builds and perpetuates a strong sense that my life is really good right now.

It’s harder to get frustrated with what you don’t have when you know how much you really do have.

Don’t give in to frustration and impatience. Instead, spend some time each day focused on your goals and why you have them, and pair that with a constant reflection on how much you have right now. It goes a long way toward making the frustration of not reaching your goals quickly that much easier to handle.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best economy-related bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here. To add or view a comment on a guest blog, please go to the blogger's own site by clicking on www.thesimpledollar.com.

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