I’m a beard on fire. A few months ago I discovered Mr. Money Mustache while reading one of my favorite non-money blogs, The Art of Manliness. Since then, I’ve read every single MMM post and I’ve continued to wander deeper and deeper into the forest that makes up personal finance blogs. I’ve also just started a yeard journey, which is a holy quest to achieve beard awesome. There’s a lot of rabbit holes on the world wide web to find yourself falling down in that niche, too. Basically, I’ve gotten obsessed with this stuff. So much so, that I created a silly little blog about growing a beard and my net worth. But is all of this obsession a good thing? If you’re like me and fresh on the boat to beardsession and money-neurosis, then maybe you know what I’m talking about. Are you wasting too much of your time?
Two things popped up recently that made me ponder this question. First, Frederic Killer asked the following question on the net worth update:
Do you find that by running this website and keeping track of your networth you are getting overwhelmed in it all? Seems to me like the more i write stuff down and think about it the less i can think about other things even when its time to goto sleep.
Not surprisingly, I read this comment at around 2 am while I was writing the one neat trick to a raise post. I also probably had about four excel spreadsheets opened outlining various scenarios for our plan to retire in 10 years.
Let’s see, I’ve published 10 posts (this makes 11) since February 28th. I’ve taken off exactly four days since then, and on some days I’ve written two posts. And I’m not talking normal, every-day blog posts, which average between 400-600 words. My average word count for my blog posts is about 1,800. I don’t think I have a single post on this site below 1,500. For comparison, the book I’m working on for my day job is projected to be around 60,000 words. If this blog was my book, then I’d be a quarter of the way done in 2 weeks. The book is contracted to take 1.5 years!
This site is eating some serious time, partly because I’m sort-of a perfectionist when it comes to writing. So not only do I “waste” forever slapping together thoughts for a silly blog no one really reads, but I also spend a LOT of time editing and proofreading. Looking at my bloggy colleagues, I’m pretty rare in that respect. The writing hang-up is mostly a product of my alternate identity as an academic writing grant proposals, journal articles, and scholarly books. I’m used to writing very detailed, long, and excruciatingly edited content that three people in the world will read.
However, I get paid ridiculous sums of money for that writing, and I get paid negative money for this blog (it cost money to run). So I think I might be a little too obsessed. The hours working on this site are still only about a quarter of the time I spend in that giant personal finance blog forest, so it’s even worse that it seems.
Now, here’s the second thing that got me thinking about this little obsession of mine. I have a consulting contract right now that pays me between $60 – $80 per hour. I can literally work as many hours as I wish completely independently wherever I happen to be, and I have enough work right now to last me maybe 6 months full time and a full year half time. I don’t even need an internet connection. Last month I invoiced over $3k, completely paid on top of my regular salary from my employer. I’m half-way through March, and I completed my first billable hours TODAY. What the fuckity fuck is wrong with me.
I’m literally reading about how to side hustle by wearing a chicken suit, while in the time it took to read that silly article I could have legally printed four $20 bills. I came up with a plan to retire early several weeks ago, but I’ve spent about $320 worth of time fiddling with the damn thing each day, basically coming up with the same results.
Who out there has sympathy for the guy who could be cranking out $3,200 per week in side work, but has been too busy writing a silly little blog and reading financial blogs about saving money and retiring early? Yeah. No one.
Here’s the point. Be careful with your obsessions. They can be a good thing in moderation. Or they can be very, very unproductive.
Good obsession gone wrong
Being obsessed about something doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In fact, it can lead to some very positive changes in your life. And being obsessed for long enough can result in new habits, which if you do it right can be your road to everlasting badassity.
What Frederic and I are doing right now is NOT good obsession. Sleeping is good. Earning money is good. Learning how to save, invest, live better on less, and everything else I’m learning are good things. But when your obsession begins to start affecting the other areas of your life, then you need to dial it down.
Hey, I stopped watching TV completely in the last few months. That’s a good thing. If my obsession leads to personal growth, and the time sacrifice was only for brain killing buffoonery, then rock on. We need to learn how to take good obsessions and use them to replace those wastes of time in our day, while maintaining those things we already do that lead us towards our goals and/or personal growth.
I’m going to give you some ideas of how I plan to harness this new little obsession for the good while getting back to making fat stacks of cash. First, I want to tell you about my money journey, so you can see how obsession can help and what happens when it eventually dies. We’ll use this to help us build a framework for using those relatively short-term obsessions to build positive habits for the future.
The road to obsession
I’ve been down this road before. In our late 20s, my wife and I went total money makeover Dave Ramsey style. I’m pretty sure we read every book the man wrote, and then proceeded to obsessively put the debt snowball into action. We paid off all of our credit card debt, paid off her student loans, bought a house with a 15 year mortgage, bought a 20-year term life insurance policy, sold a bunch of crap, and said goodbye to car payments. We sold my motorcycle, started biking to work, packed lunch, and pinched the pennies everywhere else we could. We were obsessed, and it paid off.
However, over time my paychecks got fatter. We moved to a bigger house in a new city. Suddenly, a new car was easily “affordable” with a lease of only $150 per month. For years we didn’t have credit cards. At all. But we got an Amazon Chase Rewards Card to get 3% back on Amazon purchases. Seemed legit. The rewards “paid” for a lot of Christmas shopping. Costco American Express? Sure. Rewards. Bad ass. I’m making good money, so we’ll hit a fancy restaurant ever so occasionally to the tune of $200. Cruises are CHEAP. A seven-day, all expenses included tropical vacation for under $2,000. Hell yeah.
After we had killed the debt, we stopped being obsessed. Without that obsessive drive to kill debt, that shit just crept right back into our lives. Dumb.
Dave Ramsey was great for us, but he had me focused almost exclusively on getting out of debt. When that was done, we were done. We did it so fast, too, that we never developed habits. We had a very specific short-term goal (pay off $xx of debt), and a very vague long-term goal (save some money, and stuff). When the short term goal was met, we were basically done.
Using obsession to build habits
Here it is several years later, and we’re both pretty obsessed again. We haven’t been completely stupid over the past few years, but we’re not were we could have been. Reading through MMM provided me an actual, tangible, and extremely specific longer-term goal. We plan to reach financial independence within the next 10 years by building our net worth up to around $1 million dollars. It’s a big goal, but it’s specific and requires a very specific plan.
We also have short term goals. We’re mostly through those already. Pay off credit cards (again!), pay off car loan, drop to a single-car family, buy a bike, and set-up automagic savings of more than a grand per month. Oh, and grow a bitchin’ beard.
We don’t want to get half way down the road again and quit when the obsession stops. The obsession WILL stop at some point, too. You just don’t stay this obsessed about something for 10 years. So while I’m obsessed about bearding and moneying, I’m going to work hard to build habits that can carry me through when obsession passes. Plus, there’s some stupid shit I’ve got to stop RIGHT NOW so that I can sleep well, spend the proper time with my wife and kids, and get the money printing press rolling again.
How to built habits
What we want to do is make the good things we’re obsessing about stick, which means we need to make them habits. First, let’s identify some of the good stuff:
- an attitude aimed towards efficiency
- a disdain for silly consumerism, like car clowns
- maintain a realistic long-term vision for the future
- automatically track spending
- a sense of patience for all purchases
- outrageous optimism
I think if I can take this current obsession and use it to build the above 6 habits, then our long-term plan will work.
With Dave Ramsey, I learned to pay down debt really fast. I learned to mostly live within my means and save. But I never really learned good habits. The second more money than I knew what to do with came along, I threw out everything I learned.
We were honestly doing very well. We had a strong savings rate (20%), positive cash flow, a house that would be paid for in our 40s, and money left over to do some, but not a lot of fancy living. Then I got a new job with a big raise. Then another big raise. Then another. I know, whoa is me, right? What a hard life. But the problem was I started thinking, “Hey, we’re set-up pretty well on our current budget. All this extra money is gravy. We deserve a new car.”
A lease, a car payment, $13k in credit card debt, and a bigger mortgage later, and holy shit!
This time, though, my obsession isn’t just teaching me how to pay off debt and live within my means. It’s teaching me how to live well and be happy with life, not stuff. I’m learning contentment. It’s really cool. I’d been pissy about pay at work for a few months. I thought I deserved more money for the bullshit administrative work I’d been doing. Now, I realize I’m ridiculously OVERPAID. I also realized I don’t have to do the work I hate. I was only doing it to get a promotion to a position I don’t even want. I like what I do right now. Why move up when I can retire in 10 years doing what I’m doing right now? The little extra money would shave maybe 1 year at most off that timeline.
That’s peace and contentment. It feels good. It’s also deeper than just money.
Focus on life, not the money
That’s how you make a real change in your life. When you look at all of these lessons about living, and realize that the money is a means towards you living the life you want to live, you are changing in a way that will stick. And you learn that you can start living that life RIGHT NOW, before you have the money. Then, the money is just gravy that will provide a little more freedom.
Now I can build habits, because I’m obsessed with actually changing my life and not just my financial situation. After Dave Ramsey, I was obsessed with getting out of debt and building wealth so that I could have a boat and a fancy car and fancy vacations away from my fancy house. After MMM, I am obsessed about being free to say “fuck you” to administrative work I don’t need to do, and deciding to do lower paying workshops and speaking gigs instead of high paying consulting because the former is more enjoyable.
I’m a math nerd, and I realize that the math will just work if I set the plan in motion and put it on autopilot. So I really just need to take this silly little obsession and turn it into habits of thought, where I just see the world in a completely different way.
Make obsession your bitch
Now it’s time to make this silly little obsession my bitch. It’s time to start shifting my time back to my family and back to getting my billable hours up. It’s time to start working on that book again. It’s time to start focusing on living.
So Frederic, yes I’m obsessed. Yes, I stay up way too late at night because of it. Yes, you do, too. Eventually the bad aspects of this obsession will subside. Let’s both work on building positive habits and an outrageous sense of optimism through this obsession, so when we get to the other side, we’re both better people.
Stay focused on your goal. Start a blog about it!