Stay in Your Lane

Anika Hedstrom

MICHAEL PHELPS and South Africa’s Chad le Clos had an intense rivalry. In 2012, le Clos took home the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly. In 2016, they met again in the finals of the same event. A photographer captured the moment when Phelps was intent on winning gold, while le Clos seemed intent on watching Phelps.

How many times in life have we been more focused on what others were doing and how they’re doing it? How much more (fill in the blank) someone else is or how much more (fill in the blank) someone else has, causing us to lose our own focus and stumble? Research tells us that more than 10% of our daily thoughts are devoted to making comparisons of some kind.

This is precisely why I despise those charts and spreadsheets showcasing how much you “should” have accumulated for retirement based on your age and income, or how much the majority of people have saved by some specified age.

So what? So what if you don’t have the exact amount you “should” have by age 40? What good is it going to do to spend time and energy focused on why you don’t measure up to some arbitrary barometer of financial fitness? And what assumptions are used in determining the numbers to begin with? Does the chart account for the fact that you took two years out of the workforce to put yourself through graduate school? Or that your career has been non-linear? I doubt it.

Instead, let’s take a cue from Michael Phelps. Stay in your own financial lane. What have you already accomplished? What can you do more of? I’m talking about micro-actions that compound over time, like investing in yourself. Take the $6,000 you had earmarked for your Roth IRA contribution. Why don’t you use it to obtain additional qualifications or certifications? Your future earnings growth will likely far surpass the growth of that Roth contribution.

How can you spend more time doing what you’re good at? What systems can you put in place to make this happen? Where are you not strategically spending money that could make a crucial difference?

This is something I think about a lot. To date, I’ve allocated a good amount of money and time toward continual growth and self-improvement—coaches, fitness, books, conferences, certifications and formal education. But I don’t feel I’ve been as effective as I’d like in capturing, organizing and sharing the ideas, insights and connections I’ve gained through all these experiences, so that’s my focus today.

Perhaps one of the first micro-actions we can all take is removing “should” from our vocabulary. It’s such a limiting construct. Playing to someone else’s scoreboard is easy, which is why a lot of people do it. The harder thing—playing our own game—begins when we turn our focus and energy toward what we’re capable of and how we can improve ourselves. Sound simple? Yes, it is—but it isn’t easy.

Anika Hedstrom’s previous articles include Known and UnknownTrek to Retirement and Simple but Not Easy. An assiduous researcher, Anika Hedstrom is a Certified Financial Planner who writes on the motivational and behavioral aspects of financial planning. Follow Anika on Twitter @AnikaHedstrom.

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R Quinn
R Quinn
2 years ago

I think you miss the point of those charts. While I agree that their numbers and accuracy can be questioned and certainly are not personalized to reflect each situation, they are not a game of who can do better than the other guy.

Rather, many provide measures, benchmarks to be used toward hard goals. If a person sees they are far behind their peers in saving for retirement, it may be a helpful message. Their inability to match a saving measure, may give a message to maybe to look at spending.

Allocating money “toward continual growth and self-improvement—coaches, fitness, books, conferences, certifications and formal education” is certainly worthy … after the hard money goals are achieved or are on track, but they are not going to pay the bills or provide financial security 30 years in the future. The “so what” may be a more stressful future.

2 years ago

Spending money on obtaining additional certifications or qualifications may or may not be money better spent that allocating it to a Roth.
I would add that a big word of buyer beware caution is in order when spending money on “coaches, fitness, books, conferences, certifications and formal education.”

2 years ago

Charts are like a roadmap. They’re helpful in showing where you started, where you are and where you want to get.

I’m all for an education that has actual work life earning potential. Ultimately, the books have to give way to generating income and savings. You can’t fritter away youth with endless self improvement. The time value of money only works if you save early and regularly.

The most valuable indicator of financial success isn’t found in any book, college or online course. It’s called “a work ethic.”

Roboticus Aquarius
Roboticus Aquarius
2 years ago

While I’m on team charts (I’ve found them very helpful); I agree with you that there is more than one road to Dublin.

One can invest in oneself, or invest in a business.

Some people have one or even two pensions, plus social security awaiting them in retirement. Others may have trust funds or other resources. These folks may not need much in the way of retirement savings at all.

Then again, different people have different goals for retirement, and the cost of attaining those goals can be very high or very low.

Typical charts don’t factor in these points, and may also be comprised of partial data (i.e. avg 401k size. I don’t remember most such studies ascertaining how many 401k accounts the average worker has to correct for the fact that many workers may have 2 or 3 accounts.) Data is good, but one has to be aware of the source and construction of the information.

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