David Allen in “Getting Things Done” compares productivity to the martial arts. He gives instruction on how to become a black belt in your personal productivity with a “mind like water” that allows you to handle anything that comes your way with a balanced response. When a stone is thrown into a pond, the water reacts with perfect balance. It reacts just enough to disperse the energy, no more, and then returns to a calm state. It doesn’t over or under react.
Becoming a black belt and having a “mind like water” in your personal finances is very similar. It means you can take whatever is thrown at you without knocking your finances out of control. You can respond to any situation with perfect balance. Unexpected events or changes in your finances, good or bad, can be handled with optimum efficiency, and little or no stress. It means you can direct the flow of money where you need it almost effortlessly.
In an effort to help people gauge where they are in their personal finance development, I’ve defined what people at the various “belts” might look like. Where are you?
You’ve recognized there is a problem with your finances and have committed to taking control. Recognition that there’s problem may come as a nagging doubt that you’re not meeting all your financial goals or a harsh reality check as you face mounting debt. You have a lot of stress concerning finances (even if you’re living within your means). You tend to fight with your spouse every time you discuss financial matters. You recognize your spending isn’t in line with your true values. You have no idea where all the money goes from month to month. You may be living paycheck to paycheck. If you saved $5 on your phone bill, it would just disappear somewhere but you don’t know where. Your idea of an emergency fund is a credit card or Home Equity Line of Credit. You frequently pay late fees on your bills and unnecessary bank fees. Net worth? What’s that?
Despite your lack of financial control, you have a strong resolve to take action even though the thought of facing the “deep mess” of your finances seems overwhelming. You and your spouse have agreed to work together. In an effort to get your spending under control, you’ve started using cash for your “out-of-control” budget categories. You’ve stopped using credit cards somewhat reluctantly and possibly out of the sheer pain of your dire financial straights. Despite some complaining, your family has agreed to use cash as well. You’ve taken initial steps to figure out what your basic monthly income and expenses are and have tried budgeting for at least one month even though it doesn’t match reality yet.
Most importantly, you’re no longer willing to BE IN DEBT!
You’re no longer willing to constantly WORRY ABOUT MONEY!
You’re no longer willing to FIGHT ABOUT MONEY!
You’re no longer willing to PAY LATE FEES!
You’re committed to TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR FINANCES!
You’re committed to WORKING THROUGH FINANCIAL ISSUES TOGETHER WITH YOUR SPOUSE!
White belts come in many shapes and sizes. Of course, those steeped in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy can be white belts, but so can those who are living within their means (see below). Being a white belt means you don’t have total control over where your money goes. Your spending doesn’t reflect your true values and is not conscious. The white belt is about recognition and commitment. You’ve recognized a need to change and are committed to doing what it takes to change.
You’re well under way implementing your financial-management plan. You’ve budgeted for at least 3 months in a row and have worked many of the kinks out. Your budget actually reflects reality.
You meet with your spouse about every two weeks to keep things on track. You often have to implement the 30-minute rule and meet several days in a row to prevent total melt-downs.
You’ve taken all credit cards out of your wallet and are using cash for all of your “in-person” spending. As a result, for the first time you feel like you have control over your spending. You’ve even started developing your own unique ways of managing your cash and have a tendency to give spontaneous testimonials about the virtues of cash whenever someone acknowledges your use of a cash envelope.
You’re well under way saving for a short-term emergency fund. You may not have it fully funded yet but you already notice feeling much less stressed having at least something in place. For the first time in your life, you may have even experienced an emergency and had the money to pay for it. You have created an initial net worth statement and have a general idea about your overall financial status.
If you saved $5 on your phone bill, you could probably redirect it rather than letting it disappear. You no longer pay late fees or bank fees. If necessary, you’ve made major changes in your lifestyle to ensure you can live well within your means.
You’ve been on a zero-based budget for over 6 months and things are really humming. You may have occasional refinements, but things are mostly on cruise control. You’re able to manage your finances on one meeting a month and are able to get through most meetings without any arguments.
You’ve gone through at least one set of envelopes. You find that you’re keeping the cash envelopes the bank gives you when you cash a check or make a withdrawal because they are a better size than regular envelopes.
You’re friends have started noticing that you pay cash all the time and have asked you about it. You find yourself preaching the cash gospel and sharing your success whenever you can.
You have a fully-funded short-term emergency fund and have started reducing consumer debt or increasing retirement savings. You have a strong sense of control over your finances and can see significant improvement every time you refresh your net worth report (which you do at least once a quarter). You and your spouse have reconciled your financial differences and have a new-found sense of unity when it comes to finances. You’ve created a list of rules concerning what you both consider to be an emergency as well as what you want to do with any unexpected windfall money. By making these decisions ahead of time while you’re calm, you avoid big arguments when these events occur.
You laugh in the face of emergencies (mua-ha-ha) and can easily and confidently deal with anything thrown at you. Seriously, for all practical purposes financial emergencies don’t really exist for you any more. If you save $5 on a phone bill, you’re financial system allows you to know about it and easily redirect it exactly where you want. You have complete financial control over every dollar.
You no longer worry about finances. Instead of worrying about how to pay the bills on time, you think about what investments to make or which debt to pay off next. You’re amazed and shocked that people even pay late fees (you obviously are having a bout of selective amnesia). You are aggressively on track to pay off all consumer debt and/or save for retirement. In fact, sometimes you find it hard to spend extra funds because you’re so excited to become debt-free that you want to reduce your debt instead.
You finally feel like where you spend your money is a reflection of your true values. You and your spouse see eye-to-eye concerning finances. You only have major financial discussions when your financial situation changes dramatically.
You not only calculate your net worth quarterly, but also have calculated when you’ll become financially independent.
You kind of wish you’d get fired so you could find a job you really like (you have a full emergency fund and could get by for 3 to 6 months without any income). You only have to spend about 30 minutes a month on average managing your finances. You’ve cut up all your credit cards because you just don’t need or want them anymore.
Your belt level isn’t about debt, savings, or your net worth.
Some of you may have noticed that my description of the belts didn’t include savings percentages or require you to be debt-free. Your belt level isn’t about debt, savings, or your net worth. It’s about your ability to control your money, ensuring that each dollar is directed where you want. I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flack for saying this. Of course, savings and debt elimination are cornerstones of a solid financial foundation. But to enable you to save and pay off debt, you first have to get a handle on your inflows and outflows. As you gain greater levels of financial control, you can easily reach your savings and debt-reduction goals at an ever-accelerated rate.
The good news is, you can become a financial black belt even if you still have debt or haven’t reached your long-term goals. Of course, if you are a black belt, it won’t be for long before you do. As you progress in your career and get raises, or as you receive windfalls, you will be able to direct those extra funds with great focus and power to eliminate debt and reach your long-term goals. That’s the power of a black belt.
Take your finances to an “11″
I can’t avoid referencing this segment from This Is Spinal Tap. If you haven’t seen it, you should take a look.
I know many people who live within their means, pay off their credit card bill every month, and think they have arrived in terms of financial management. But the fact is, you can do these things and still be a financial white belt. I know this for a fact because I’ve been there.
There was a time when our income greatly exceeded our expenses. We saved ten percent and gave to our church. We also lived large and bought just about anything we wanted and were still living within our means. For the most part, we just accumulated a bunch of “stuff” and made a lot of emotional, at-the-register purchases. As we look back we kick ourselves for not using that money in a more conscious way. Had we been financial black belts, we could have greatly accelerated our journey to financial independence. Today, even though we have downgraded to a single income and increased our expenses (mortgage, child), we are doing more with what we have now than we did with two incomes, no children, and low living expenses. As a result we have been able to reach financial goals with tremendous speed and ease.
I’m not saying you have to choose between having fun with your money and saving it for later. As a black belt, you can set aside funds for frivolous spending and still aggressively meet your financial goals. The key is to spend consciously, making decisions as they relate to your values and your finances as a whole. If you plan wisely, you can have the best of both worlds.
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