Have you ever made a mistake while writing on a piece of paper and then wanted to throw the whole page out and just start over? Or, maybe you once started a diet only to succumb to a chocolate craving, and then threw in the towel. These are red flags that you may be a perfectionist.
The problem is that being a perfectionist doesn’t mean you’re actually perfect. It means you’ve set the bar so high that you’ll never consider yourself successful. You’ll either give up too soon or be too stressed to enjoy the process — because good is never good enough for you.
Those same destructive patterns of perfectionism that sabotage diets and double our workloads can infiltrate our financial habits as well. You might spend a whole Sunday squaring away your financial plan, only to be faced with a hefty bill the following week that throws off the operation. Or you might decide to save money by brown-bagging your lunch all month, only to fall out of the habit with an exceptionally busy week. You’re soon faced with that nagging question, “Why bother?”
I have money management systems down pat. I know what formulas to use to make strategic decisions. I practice sound financial habits. And yet, regardless of how many money books I read or financial courses I study, there’s nothing perfect about the way I manage my money. And it took a while for me to be OK with that because I used to be a financial perfectionist too.
Whether we’re running from store to store to get the best deal or trying to spend exactly within the structure of a budget, there are way too many variables in our financial lives to bank on perfection. Rather than spending all of that time and energy perfecting our finances, that energy can be funneled elsewhere.
I’m here to tell you to embrace imperfection and keep working on your finances, because there is more value in your flaws than in not attempting to manage your finances at all. Here are four steps to help guide you as you overcome your own perfectionism and enjoy your financial journey:
1. Forgive yourself. One setback is not an indication that your whole plan is defective. Mistakes are only an indication that you need to keep an eye on your strategy and habits. Look at the big picture and admit you’re human. In the same way that you’re not going to have a heart attack if you eat a whole bag of potato chips, you’re not going to have to declare bankruptcy if you can’t pay your credit card balance in full this month.
2. Live and learn. A mistake is only a mistake if you make it twice. As long as you learn from it the first time, you will be OK. Mistakes highlight areas that need improvement and there is no shame in that. A plan is an ideal direction but it is not an absolute. Don’t let a setback make you think that you have failed. Let it show you what went wrong and what actionable steps you can take to overcome it.
3. Choose positivity. Surround yourself with positive influences, not competition. Don’t compare yourself with others because there’s a good chance you’re not getting their whole picture anyway. And if someone really is doing so much better, let them inspire you — not discourage you. The enthusiasm we feel when we are proud and enjoying what we’re doing maintains the motivation to keep trying.
4. Express gratitude. Celebrate the victories and progress you’ve made. Rather than judging how you might be falling short, focus on what you did right and keep moving forward. By staying conscious of your finances, you’re still in much better shape than if you gave up the budget altogether. You might realize how much you could have earned had you not withdrawn from your retirement account early or what your credit score might have been if you didn’t miss that bill. Be grateful for the opportunity to learn and grow from it.
I had to use these steps to consciously stop perfecting my budget and financial plan. There is always going to be an expense I didn’t account for or a better deal found elsewhere. But every time I fail, I learn something new. I learn what triggers a shopping spree or what annual expenses to prepare for next year. And all of that knowledge is critical to my financial health, even if it came to me later than I would have preferred.
Besides, what’s the fun in tracking your spending or mapping out your financial future if there is nothing left to improve? When you focus on the wins, you’ll see that you’re still farther ahead than you’d be if you never tried at all. Don’t worry about being perfect — just show up and be present.
Michelle Bobrow is a member of the DailyWorth Connect program. Read more about the program here.