What are you willing to give up?

HopeAs a reporter I learned a technique that saved my sanity. I asked my bosses to make choices.

In journalism, as in other fields, there’s far more good work to do than there is time to do it. Editors can and will keep piling on the assignments. So I learned, when my plate got too full, to ask my bosses to help me prioritize.

Here’s how I did it. I always said yes to the new assignment, then followed immediately with, “But I’m also supposed to do this and this and this. Which of these other projects should I drop?” Or “back burner” or “table” or whatever euphemism worked best with this particular editor.

Saying yes made it clear that I was a team player, that I valued my boss’ direction and that I wasn’t one of those pain-in-the-ass whiners who had to be wrestled into doing actual work. But quickly reviewing my current assignments reminded the editor of all the other work she’d tasked me with.

A more experienced journalist had explained that it was part of my boss’ job to help me prioritize. Managers are supposed to keep an eye on the company’s ultimate mission and encourage the actions that support that mission. Until he said that, I’d been saying yes to everything and driving myself nuts trying to fit it all in.

Fast forward a few years. I’m now my own boss, writing for different clients and once again faced with far more work than time to do it. Now I’m the one that has to make choices. I have to figure out what my ultimate mission was and what actions support it (and which don’t). I also now have a life—a husband and a baby girl I want to spend time with. Suddenly it became a lot easier to ditch the work that didn’t pay enough (or at all), and focus on the stuff that did.

There’s one other place it can be helpful to ask what you’re willing to give up, and that’s negotiating with family members about financial priorities.

First, you need to sit down together and set some priorities—what’s most important to accomplish, where you want to be in five years, 10 years, 30 years. You figure out what you need to do to get there, then wrestle your priorities into place. (Quick example: You want to take a vacation with your family next year, replace your car five years from now and retire before you’re 80. You figure how much you need to save for each goal and adjust until it’s doable. Maybe to save enough to retire by age 65 you’ll have to put the Disney cruise off a couple of years…that kind of thing.)

When new wants rear their heads—somebody’s agitating for a bathroom remodel, say—you return to those priorities and decide together what you’re willing to give up. Maybe the bathroom remodel is important enough to delay your retirement until 67 or to continue to drive your old car another five years. Maybe it’s not. But the exercise reminds you of what you really want, and helps you decide—together—when and how to adjust those priorities.

Try, try again

One of the most frustrating things about money is that progress may not be permanent.

But it’s still progress—if you keep going.

Here’s what I mean. Say you make a goal to boost your emergency fund. You manage to save a few hundred bucks—and then your car breaks down, or you get a speeding ticket, or you need dental work. There goes the extra money.

That’s where a lot of people give up. Looked at another way, though, the emergency fund did exactly what it was supposed to: it was there when you needed it, and kept you from putting another few hundred bucks on your credit cards. If you keep saving, this small start can turn into something bigger.

In my MSN column, “Why you need $500 in the bank,” I told the story of Wendi Pendleton. Here’s the email she sent me a couple of years ago:

“I just wanted to thank you. During April 2008 I read a column about having a $500 emergency fund. I decided it was solid advice and trimmed my spending that month and saved $500. Realizing how much money I wasted I saved another $500 the next month and so on (and some months more than $500). Even after what would have been a crisis with dental work needed, and a car repair that would have stressed me before, I now have $12,000 in savings I am using as a down payment on my first house, something I never thought would be possible for me on my own. Thank you, you changed the way I looked at my money and spending and improved the quality of my life.”

My challenge right now isn’t saving money—we’re on track with that. My goals involve getting more exercise. The days I don’t get in a full hour’s workout can be discouraging, but my experience with achieving other goals has taught me that any exercise is better than none. When I hit a setback, like my recent bout with the flu, the important thing is not to throw my hands up in despair and retreat to the couch. The important thing is to get back out there, and try again.

I hope you’re making progress on your goals for 2012, including your goals with money. If not, well, maybe it’s time to get off the couch.

This post is a part of Women’s Money Week 2012. For more posts about goals and taking action, see Women’s Money Week.