The Importance of Telling Yourself a Great Story

We’ve all read articles about the importance of positive thinking, and a lot of us have probably read articles outlining how to stop the negative thought-cycles that can exacerbate apathy or depression.

 

 

When I was not-so-recently divorced and worried about my future, I remember reading advice along the lines of Think Happy and Happiness Will Follow, and thinking that those people obviously never had to feed their kiddo cheese tortillas for three days straight because there wasn’t anything else until payday, or ride a bike for an hour just to get to the bus stop because the car broke down again, or lay awake at night wondering if life would ever get back to “normal”.

It’s easy to see now that my emotional health was not the best during that time — but an important lesson from that period in my life was that my brain literally did not see a way out of that fog. I could tell myself a thousand times that I could get through this, but it didn’t seem real.

 

It’s the same for me and finances. 

It took me years to pay off my former debt. Years of feeling deprived, even though I was still spending on lots of little unnecessary things that felt needed at the time. Years of feeling inadequate as an adult and mom for not having it all together. Self-induced guilt that, if I could have only retrained my thinking, would have been better served in figuring out strategies for spending less. And so forth.

I knew logically that my mindset wasn’t working in my favor, but my next tactic of looking for external inspiration led me to grand stories of 20-somethings paying off tens of thousands of dollars in mere months by cutting out cable, selling some shoes, and dropping the bar tab from the weekly spend. That didn’t help 😉

Somehow I never stumbled on the well-loved references like Your Money or Your Life, or the Tightwad Gazette, or The Millionaire Next Door. I was relying on my not-seemingly-spendy-but-secretly-very-spendy peer group of mamas for my financial outlook, and their purchasing decisions were definitely based on form over function. I didn’t buy into the hype with my wallet, because I didn’t have the money, but it should have occurred to me that I could find equally healthy food choices at the corner store (instead of the spendy co-op) or I could bring my own coffee and snacks to the playground (how many hundreds of dollars did I spend on “necessary” coffees and pastries?).

I kept trucking along, my habits and social groups reinforcing the idea that I just didn’t make enough money for the lifestyle I “needed”.

Eventually I changed jobs, and was now surrounded by stereotypical middle-class Americans – two mortgages, new cars, vacation to the tropics or Mexico at least once per winter, new phones every year, season tickets to sporting events, and new clothing every season. It helped that I am more interested in camping and hiking over watching sports or TV, so I avoided the culture creep when my income started rising.

By summer of 2015 I was finally in a position to see my way out of the chronic debt cycle. It was the first time in maybe ten years that I felt like I was on the right path. In fact, I was feeling pretty darn smug. I’d saved cash for a car, but after weeks of shopping and hating the entire process, I financed part of my current vehicle. During that process, I refinanced my mortgage through the same credit union, for a slightly higher monthly payment but slashing a huge amount of interest by the final payment.

Then in a span of months, I had dental surgery and other dental procedures, and my son had a series of urgent medical appointments leading to urgent surgery. We kept our vacation plans and by simply not paying attention, I racked up enough debt to nauseate myself when I finally faced the bill.

Once again, I found myself in negativity-land, berating myself for getting into a deeper hole than I’d ever been. I took a second job that worked around my odd hours, and contemplated selling my car and using Car2Go on the days I took call.

I spent a few months slogging along, until I stumbled across a blog that talked about living frugally as a choice, in order to save a large enough portion of income to be able to retire early.

For some reason, this clicked. Instead of telling myself that would be impossible in my situation, I had the sudden thought, “I could hike almost every day if I did that!”  Instead of wishing that were me, I found myself thinking in terms of the actions being taken. I’d found my quest — and as anyone who’s read any story of a grand quest knows, it has to be BIG. And hard. And glorious when you reach the goal.

My whole mindset shifted — it had never occurred to me, in my few years of making a modest but livable salary, that I could choose to live as frugally as I had in the lean years. I could choose to ride my bike to work instead of drive – and realized it was not only fun, but way less stressful than driving in traffic! I could choose to eat the same thing every day, and save money, with the wonderful side effect of not worrying what was for dinner. I could choose to love the clothes I already owned, and suddenly I stopped noticing clothing ads, freeing up that subconscious slot for something more meaningful to my life.

I’m choosing to be someone working toward financial freedom. Always before, I would wish I had the money savvy of “those people” but never really saw myself as anything other than slowly paying off debt. I’d never stopped to envision the why of being financially free, so when I stumbled across an example of people living a life very close to my ideal, it just made sense.

Last night when I was tempted to stop by the store on the way home, “just for eggs”, I reminded myself that I’m now a savvy menu planner that shops on Saturdays, and I’d be just fine for one day without eggs. I saved myself the effort of not buying anything else (oh look goat cheese is on sale, and oh hey I haven’t had Pringles in ages and ages), and my oatmeal was just fine this morning.

I tell myself I’ll be financially independent in ten years, because it sounds AWESOME. I tell other people sometimes too. According to calculators, I am off by about, oh, only 73 years 😉 but when I started documenting my progress a couple months ago I had almost 90 years to go — so I’m already narrowing the gap in a rapid fashion!

Telling myself that I’m a frugal goddess has resulted in me being happy with my choices. I don’t feel deprived, I feel like life is so much simpler and easier now without all those spending decisions cluttering up my mind. 

 

This is working in other areas of my life, too — I told myself a year ago that I could be a cyclist like my son. I bought a bike, got a little practice on city trails, then we rode our bikes from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C. and I loved every moment.

I told myself I am a cyclist, and then I told myself that even though I’m an introvert, I’m awesome, and I joined a monthly group ride. I’m definitely the slowest rider in the group, but luckily these rides are at exactly my pace and they’re all about the love of biking and meeting kind souls.

I told myself it’s perfectly okay not to want to date people right now, because I’m having too much fun creating my amazing life, and it’s become so much easier getting to know folks without that awkward social pressure — or spending money needlessly, ha!

 

I can’t create a formula for how to get from the point of mild depression and an inability to see a grand life, to finding the joy in the journey, because we all have different experiences that lend a subconscious hand in our thoughts and habits. I simply stumbled on an internal road map unlocking a whole new section of my world I hadn’t previously imagined, and I’m so glad I did.

I’d never been one to make long-term goals, even though I know it’s a key component of attaining success in many realms. Even at work I found it pointless to make serious 5- and 10-year plans (since my position is static, aside from continuing education). I do sometimes wonder, however, if I would have taken a moment (in likely disbelief) to really consider the answer to “What Is My Ideal Week?” ten years ago if my attitudes and habits would have started to shift earlier.

What is the best story you’ve told yourself about yourself? Take a moment to let it sink in that you already are that fantastic!

 

 

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4 thoughts on “The Importance of Telling Yourself a Great Story”

  1. This just makes me happy! Thank you for that : ) In a matter of months, you’ve shaved 17 years off of your FI date. Imagine what a few years will do!
    My husband and I have started talking about plans to travel North America and to hike in Great Britain . . . It used to be a pipe dream, but now, it’s just 3 years away. After 5 years of nose-to-the-grindstone debt-reduction, I can hardly believe it : )

  2. Your story is so inspiring, thank you for sharing! That moment of realizing you have the choice not to be bound as everyone else seems to be is so empowering. I love that hiking every day was your first thought – it’s mine, too!

    You’re so right that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are incredibly important. The same life situation can seem deprived or empowered-ly frugal depending on the story you’re telling!

    1. It’s humbling to realize that our conscious selves have incredible power over our brains and physical bodies. I’m glad I’m finally making friends with mine 😉

      Yay hiking! I can’t wait to see dirt and green leaves again.

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