Published December 26, 2012
“If only I could win the lottery,” you say as you face a stack of bills on the kitchen table. Suddenly, you’re making a mental list of all the things you’d do with a million dollars.
It happens to the best of us–and I’m as guilty as the next person. I say this with love: We sound like idiots.
Brett Graff is an economist–formerly with the U.S. government, and currently writing a column for The Miami Herald–who is a much nicer person than I am. She doesn’t think you’re an idiot, but she does think that wishing and fantasizing aren’t necessarily the best use of your time.
“The wrong dreams can be downright destructive,” says Graff. “While you’re sitting on the sofa dreaming of the millions falling into your lap, someone else is out there implementing your idea.”
Worse, this magical thinking lulls you into a sense of complacency–and the illusion that positive thinking can pay the bills. “You end up spending without saving, and racking up debt while shackled to your day job,” she says. “You’re creating your own biggest hurdle to making those very dreams come true.”
Moving forward is all about your mindset. And about not being, well, stupid.
So here are the five things that my friends know better than to say around me when it comes to finances–and some advice on how to avoid saying them yourself:
1. “I’ll do that when I win the lottery.”
Your chances of winning the jackpot are 1 in 175,711,536 or .000000005%. For comparison, your chances of being struck by lightning are 1 in 10,000 or .01%. Do you think that you’re going to get struck by lightning? No. But it’s a lot more likely than winning the lottery.
What You Should Act On Instead: Who needs the lottery when you have a savings goal? Admittedly, it isn’t as glamorous as a check that won’t fit through your front door. But a comfy savings goal has its own appeal: You get to anticipate the trip/house/car of your dreams (and we all know the anticipation is the best part) as you get closer–and you get the satisfaction of knowing, once you have said trip/house/car, that you did it all yourself.
2. “I’m going to write the next ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’”
I say this as a writer who’s had books published, who writes every day and who has friends who’ve had their novels optioned by movie studios and still have to worry about the mortgage. Sure. It could happen. But that’s not the wisest plan nor is it the most likely scenario. If I had a dollar for every time that someone at a party told me that they’d have a bestseller if they just had the time or a ghostwriter …
My point is that there are people who have made a mint self-publishing fan fiction, monetizing their blogs and creating Etsy shops. But unless you’re willing to devote as much time to those things as you would to a full-time job, they’re not going to pan out. So before you use this as your get-out-of-debtor’s-prison-free card, make sure you understand what it really means.
What You Should Act On Instead: Act like you’re already the woman in your fantasies. “Aspiring writers think about writing,” says Graff. “Writers write. Act as though it is your job and, rest assured, one day it will be.”
3. “I’m going to take my small business on Oprah.”
Congratulations on starting a small business! Guess what? Oprah is not a business plan! You can write to her ten times a day for the next ten years and she will not care one whit about your coconut flan delivery service.
It’s true: Everyone who goes on Oprah becomes an instant bestseller. But you’re more likely to win the lottery. (See above.)
What You Should Act On Instead: Don’t wait for Oprah–just get started. Create small goals, and pursue them every day (even if it only takes you five minutes). It works: Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Fields cookie company, broke her business’ earning goals down to the hour to keep track of her progress. Genevieve Thiers, founder of SitterCity, stresses the importance of presenting your business before it’s perfect–the trick is just to have something, anything at all.
4. “It’s okay to splurge on this because I deserve it.”
What you deserve and what you should buy are two different things. Everyone who goes through labor and delivery deserves a “push present.” That doesn’t make it a smart purchase nor does it really make any sense. If you have the cash to spend, then great. But “I deserve this” statements reek of ill-earned smugness.
Yes. You deserve it. We all deserve it. That doesn’t mean you automagically get it.
What You Should Act On Instead: The occasional splurge isn’t a bad thing. The trick is learning how to splurge right. Splurges should be purposeful and give you joy, which will flare and fade at the same rate regardless of whether you spend $5 or $500. So the trick is to make your “splurges” small and frequent–to extend the fun without breaking your budget.
5. “I’m going to marry rich.”
“Becoming a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills is nice,” says Graff. “But it’s not a career goal.”
It really drives me crazy when my friends act powerless even though they actually have the keys to the success they want right in the palms of their hands. You don’t have to be Snow White, waiting for your prince to come. You can be Dorothy Gale, and click your heels together three times whenever you want.
What You Should Act On Instead: Become your own support system. Whether or not there’s a prince in your life, prioritize building the vehicles that will get you where you want to go: your emergency fund, your retirement fund and your savings account. Don’t know where to start? You’ve come to the right place. The 50/20/30 rule can help you set up a budget.
Amy Keyishian has been a staff writer for Cosmopolitan Magazine, a freelance writer for Glamour, Self, Maxim and other magazines, and now blogs for LearnVest as well as Recipe.com and Kveller. She lives with her family in San Francisco.