You might be too tol­er­ant of your poor choices

Want to fix that? Don’t set­tle for small changes

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - MONEY - Pete the Plan­ner

In the fall of 2017, my doc­tor changed my life by de­mand­ing I quit ly­ing to my­self. And over the last year, I’ve learned to be hon­est when I look in the mir­ror, bet­ter un­der­stand my pri­or­i­ties and hope­fully dis­cov­ered a valu­able les­son about our fi­nan­cial lives.

I went to see my doc­tor for heart­burn med­i­ca­tion, but he had dif­fer­ent plans.

“You don’t have a heart­burn prob­lem,” he un­leashed in a flurry of irony, hav­ing just di­ag­nosed the symp­toms as those con­sis­tent with heart­burn. “You have a tol­er­ance prob­lem.”

He said my body and I were too tol­er­ant of bad health choices. For six months, my chest had hurt af­ter I placed any­thing in my mouth. It had fi­nally per­suaded me to take action.

“If I give you heart­burn med­i­ca­tion, your tol­er­ance prob­lem will get worse, much worse, and you’ll con­tinue to gain weight,” he said.

“Con­tinue to gain weight? How dare ... ” I in­ter­jected while clutch­ing my imag­i­nary pearls.

He then said I ate ter­ri­bly un­healthy foods and ex­er­cised about as fre­quently as I changed my fur­nace fil­ter.

He was right.

Which brings me to these ques­tions: Are you too tol­er­ant of your sub­op­ti­mal fi­nan­cial de­ci­sions? And how do you mask your un­healthy habits?

Let me fo­cus on one fi­nan­cial de­ci­sion that can trip up many Amer­i­cans: emer­gency funds.

Emer­gency fund

Per­sonal-fi­nance ex­perts love to de­bate how much of a fund peo­ple need.

“I think peo­ple need 12 months worth of ex­penses saved, with 30 per­cent held in cash in a fire­proof safe,” some will as­sert. Oth­ers are com­fort­able rec­om­mend­ing peo­ple ac­cu­mu­late and pre­serve any­where between three to nine months worth of ex­penses to deal with what­ever life wants to throw at them.

I’ll let other folks de­bate it, but I think three months worth of ex­penses in a sav­ings ac­count is ad­e­quate. Use this ex­act goal, or use it as a place­holder for some­thing big­ger, or smaller.

Sav­ings statis­tics sug­gest you don’t have a proper emer­gency fund. There­fore, by at least one def­i­ni­tion, you lack fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity. As it stands now, you’re tol­er­at­ing that, just as I was fine hav­ing heart­burn every day for six months.

Res­o­lu­tions

I think peo­ple read per­sonal-fi­nance columns hop­ing to glean a slick nugget that will in­con­spic­u­ously change their tra­jec­tory. But I’m fresh out of slick nuggets. Be­sides, I’m not one for sub­tlety. If you’re go­ing to change your life, change your life.

Here’s how change worked for me. In Novem­ber 2017, as my best friends pulled out of my drive­way on their way home to St. Louis, I strapped on jog­ging shoes (to call them run­ning shoes would be a dis­ser­vice to, well, anyone who ac­tu­ally runs) and be­gan to put one foot in front of the other. One hun­dred me­ters in, along with a com­mit­ment to make dras­ti­cally dif­fer­ent food choices, I re­solved to work out every sin­gle day for one year.

Plant your flag

You, too, can stake your claim, draw your line in the sand or plant your flag. Do some­thing ab­surd, im­pos­si­ble: Don’t spend money for a week. Don’t spend money for a month. Get a sec­ond job. Sell your car. Move. Rock your sys­tem.

Small changes are over­rated. Make ab­surd changes.

Every sin­gle per­son in this world is on a fi­nan­cial path plot­ted by the math of their choices. Again, based on nearly every avail­able sta­bil­ity statis­tic, Amer­i­cans don’t need sub­tle fi­nan­cial changes. We need ab­sur­dity.

What if not hav­ing three months of ex­penses set aside as an emer­gency fund wasn’t an op­tion? You’d be­have dif­fer­ently, wouldn’t you? You’d wake up at 4 a.m. on days when you have a cross-coun­try flight be­cause you wouldn’t have any other time to ex­er­cise, and you wouldn’t want to break your streak. You’d get on the tread­mill for 30 min­utes – like an id­iot, a com­mit­ted id­iot – for three days in a row, even when you had the flu. And in the end, you’d re­gret noth­ing.

At 5:30 a.m. on Nov.6, 2018, in a Port­land, Ore­gon, fit­ness cen­ter, I put the ic­ing on the prover­bial cake – one that I would re­cently think twice about eat­ing – and com­pleted my 365th work­out in a row. I knew what was next for me – Day 366.

Do you know what’s next for you?

Peter Dunn is an au­thor, speaker and ra­dio host, and he has a free pod­cast: Mil­lion Dol­lar Plan. Have a ques­tion about money for Pete the Plan­ner? Email him at [email protected]­teth­e­p­lan­ner.com

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