If finances aren't your strength, don't give up
Last week I went hiking by myself. At my favourite campground there is a 15-kilometer trail around the lake that I’ve been wanting to do for a few years. When I camp with my family, it’s hard to sacrifice the time to do it, so last week I packed up some easy meals, took an extra blanket to keep me warm at night, and went camping on my own and to do the hike.
The day of my hike was beautiful. I set off, winding through trees, up rocky inclines and slipping on muddy downhills. I was feeling good but I was sweating through my shirt and had mud on one leg. Up ahead I spotted an orange sign: “1 KM”, it read. Wait, what? I’d only walked one kilometer? It felt like an hour (but in fact was only 20 minutes). I thought of the one kilometer in the context of 15 and wondered if I was up for this on my own.
Let me share an important piece of information: I am terrible with directions. I don’t mean I’m disoriented when I emerge from a subway station. I mean I can be staring at a map with a “You are here” arrow and still not know what direction I need to walk in to get to Abercrombie & Fitch. I had a friend who, when unsure of which way to turn when we were driving together, would turn left if I suggested we should turn right. I’ve gone for a half hour run in a new city and, having been confident I could manage streets laid out in a perfect grid, ended up being out for more than twice that amount of time due to a wrong turn.
With a long history of getting lost, going on a long hike by myself was a personal challenge. For the first 7km, I saw no one. I felt comfortable only because of the kilometer markers, which, as long as they were ascending, meant I was going in the right direction.
I stopped for a lunch break around kilometer 10. Emerging from the forest, I sat on a rock by the lake, giving me a view of where I’d come from and where I was heading. But wait, there’s the beach I came from – and it’s not where I thought it should be. Have I once again walked the wrong way? How did I end up here? I pulled out my map, studying it, turning it around (because I always need a map to be facing in the direction I am looking) and trying to understand why the beach was to my right and not on my left. Despite all attempts to understand my location, I felt discouraged and a little panicked.
This story ends well, as I ignored my terrible instincts and resumed walking, trusting the kilometer marking signs. However, the experience was, once again, humbling. I simply don’t have the skill of direction and no matter how hard I try, I’ll never have it. My direction blindness can make me fearful – to go out for a run in a new city, to go canoeing without another adult who knows the way, and yes, to go hiking on my own. Fortunately, there are ways of handing our weaknesses and overcoming our fears. We can use tools, develop strategies, and rely on others for help. I use methods like identifying physical markers along my route (“When I get to the McDonalds, I have to turn right.”), using Google Maps (A LOT), and relying on my children to remember where we parked the car in foreign places.
Most of us have something in our lives that are difficult for us. It could be managing time, keeping a house organized, or filling out forms and doing other paperwork. I know that for some, finances feels this way: bewildering, disorienting and frustrating, with the added qualities of being boring and carrying a big emotional charge.
When it’s time to figure out where all your money is going, invest your savings, or file your tax return, it can feel like you’re on a trail in the forest by yourself with no sense of where north is. I get it. You’re not the only one. And it’s not hopeless.
Here are few pieces of advice to help you.
1. Take it one thing at a time. Don’t delve into a long personal finance book that covers all kinds of topics and offers a bunch of strategies. Make a list of the things you need to do and pick one thing to start with: it could be listing all of your expenses to see where you spend your money, learning what TFSAs and RRSPs are, or gathering and organizing the things you need to file your tax return. Do one thing and finish it. Then choose the next thing.
2. Give yourself a break. If your financial acumen is low, accept it. It’s ok and it doesn’t mean you’re incapable. It also doesn’t mean that everyone else knows so much more than you (they don’t). Accept where you are now and take steps to move forward. I’ve learned to accept my propensity to get turned around in pretty much any new place I go to and recognize it doesn’t mean I’m inferior.
3. Get help. Getting help isn’t that easy. There are lots of people who can help with managing your money (financial advisors), answering basic banking questions (your bank branch), or preparing a retirement plan (financial planners), but not so many people who can help with small, specific tasks. If you have a friend or family member who is knowledgable (truly knowledgable) and willing to help, reach out to them. You can also find an advice-only financial planner or coach like me.
Most of all, don’t throw your hands in the air and give up. It doesn’t have to be that way. Admit you need help. Talk to people to see how they manage their finances. Take some small steps – maybe it’s reading a personal finance blog once a week, making an appointment with someone at your bank to ask some basic questions, or actually looking at your credit card statement this month.
Being on top of your finances can make a big difference in your life, both now and in your future. It’s worth the effort - just like the beautiful, rewarding hike around the lake.