An Open Letter To Everyone Who Feels Like They’re Financially Failing

You have what it takes.

“If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

If you’re one of the very good ones, the world will break you. Not because you’ve done anything wrong, but because you’re ready to face a choice, to take responsibility for circumstances that were never your fault, to grow up. You’re ready to say, It may be messy, but I got this.

I got this.

Whether you break into a million pieces and die, or heal instead as a stronger person, depends on you coming to terms with this simple thing:

Whatever you think is right today, you’ll see was wrong tomorrow. You know nothing.

Your job is to become humble again. Your job is to figure out how you’re wrong, not right, every day, and do things differently bit by bit. I know it’s the opposite of “positive thinking.”

I bought into the school of “positive thinking,” and it made me a jerk. I was convinced I was right everyday for twenty years. When I was little, I thought my dad was king. I thought I would fall in love with one person and live happily ever after.

I also had no idea that something called “gravity” kept me from floating away from the earth. I thought chicken tenders were gourmet. I thought orange juice only came out of a frozen can with a sucking noise and needed to be mixed with water. I believed that our local lake, Lake Arrowhead, was the biggest lake in the United States, until my friend Nick told me it was a puddle compared to the Great Lakes.

I was smart, but I knew nothing.

The good ones are ready to surrender their beliefs. The good ones are willing to say, Fuck it, maybe she’s right. Maybe I don’t know why she feels the way she does, but I choose to take responsibility for figuring it out. Maybe it’s something I did. Maybe not. If you’re ready to feel stupid again, because we all are, it’s okay. You’re wearing big girl pants.

The good ones are willing to take the punch, fall down, and get back up better than ever, but never the same.

They get back up a little smarter every time.

If you’re like everyone you know, you’re barely keeping it together.

You’re driving yourself crazy, living a life of regrets. Seeing the fault in others and feeling angry that you didn’t get what you deserve. Especially in your financial life.

Let go of what went wrong yesterday. Give yourself a break. After all, you didn’t know better. Forget about tomorrow, too. You don’t want to build tomorrow the same way you used to build tomorrows. Stop, and just break.

Accept that you know nothing. It frees you up to figure things out again. Life was never meant to be a grand plan gone your way. A quality life is made up of an endless string of small improvements. A series of choices you can make differently.


So, What Are You Willing To Be Humble About?

In other words, what are you willing to feel dumb about? Your relationship, your finances, or your health? Whatever you’re willing to make yourself humble for is bound to improve. Constant learners innately assume they’re dumb about nearly everything.

There are only two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle. — Albert Einstein

If you’re ready, feel free to drop your personal agenda for how you approach the insistent problems in your life. You can allow for discovery again. You can live outside of your own expectations, and allow others to as well. You can make learning your primary responsibility.

The good ones take responsibility for their life no matter how crappy their circumstances. They don’t spend their time or energy passing blame.

Your story isn’t over yet. You still have time to place your bets.


Some ideas on placing better bets:

Here are a few examples of higher quality choices, in no particular order.

Instead of…honking your horn because you’re still angry that someone cut you off last year, you change lanes.

Instead of…justifying why you should date someone who cheats on you, you leave.

Instead of…lying to yourself about why you’re in your financial situation, you decide to make a realistic plan to get out.

Instead of…being your mother on bad days and putting her problems on everyone else, you figure out how to soothe yourself in more productive ways.

Are you ready to break and re-make yourself?

I help people fix their money problems as my job, so let’s talk about money, and what breaking looks like in that arena.

  • You accept that you can’t make next month’s rent because you’ve spent all of your money on crap. Even if it’s painful for a while, you sit with your shame, and decide to change paths.
  • You realize you can’t have it all. You make new trade-off choices regarding what you value most, and what you need to give up.
  • You tip your driver or your server generously instead of financially supporting companies who make the world a shittier place. You know the ones. If you don’t, do a little research. You take responsibility for the power of your money.

You take a step back from your clingy financial habits, and see how you may have attached poor values and meaning to money, and how you can make your story different with a shift in beliefs and habits. Then, you do something about it.

This is how we break. Stop holding your old self together.


Bad shit happens to good people all the time. The question is, what will you do after?

Will you blame others for your circumstances, for your crappy financial situation? If so, you’re living in the past. Blame and responsibility are on opposite sides of the spectrum.nInstead, consider letting yourself be vulnerable and responsible for what you do next. Choose to make your pain constructive. You can choose to break and mend rather than run, hide, or become insecure.

The good ones seek and eventually find something they care about more than themselves, so breaking becomes part of their growth.

Maybe you’re tired of making no progress. It’s okay; you can pick yourself up right now, and figure out a different way.

Everyone has things they wish hadn’t happened. We gave ourselves to a guy or girl and ended up hurt. We tried a career that didn’t fit. We took a financial risk, only to have it explode in our face or die a slow death.

The good ones rebuild, you see. You still have time to place your bets. You can start over.

Make it count.

Jane Hwangbo is a former investment analyst and portfolio manager who founded Mission Over Money, a personal coaching program designed to change the way individuals see and interact with money. Visit her website or find her on Twitter.

Image via Unsplash

  • Anon

    Being humble and flexible has its values but maybe let’s not tell a bunch of 20-something women to think of themselves as dumb and look for the ways that they’re wrong? The demographic of this website is exactly the sort of people who are socialized to be self-deprecating to their own disadvantage.

    Also, as someone who got a PhD, I *hate, hate hate* the equation of “not knowing” with “being dumb.” It’s why you find yourself in class with a bunch of posturing, alpha male peacocks who name drop books they’ve never read to sound smart because they can’t possibly admit they don’t know something. (Even though it’s called grad “school” for a reason). Not knowing something is not knowing something. It doesn’t have to “break” you if you don’t moralize it. You know why I look to find out more about a topic? Because it’s fun, not because I want to be “less dumb.”

    • Becks

      Agreed. Especially because (in my personal opinion) it is a person that acknowledges that s/he does not know something and need to/want to learn more is demonstrating self-awareness and intelligence. I’ve been in grad school too, and now that I’m in the working world, those classmates who talk in strictly theoretical language and humble-brags often have a hard time transitioning into a career position where they’re at the bottom and their posturing doesn’t work on their bosses or colleagues. I would argue that that’s where humility comes in handy, rather than in a situation where there is no ego involved, such as when I’m staring at my bank statements in confusion.

  • KML

    This rings so true for me. I think of the times in my life when I have felt the absolute worst, when it was a daily struggle to get up and act like a normal human, when I felt worthless and useless and unintelligent and like my stupidity had been laid bare to the entire world. I think of the times when, if I was a house, I would have been crumbled down to the very foundation, just a pile of wood and bricks and glass, and I wondered if I could ever be whole again. The times when the indifferent universe broke me down, because I thought I knew something, acted on it, and I was wrong. These bad times happen to everyone in the world because that’s how the world works; it is nothing to be ashamed of. But these times are when we make a choice, and that choice affects us deeply–and this post described a path that has worked for me. When we make choices that lead to feeling broken down, a version of ourselves die–our worldviews change, we learn something, we change in fundamental ways.

    The choice at that point (at least in my experiences) has been this: will we attempt to keep the old version of ourselves alive? Will we let our old selves walk around like zombies? Or will we let ourselves be reborn into a new, better way of thinking? The second choice is much harder: it means letting go of your past ideas and preconceptions. It means, on a basic emotional level, feeling unintelligent, feeling ashamed and embarrassed, feeling alone and grief-ridden. And these are very, very, VERY difficult feelings to process–particularly when the world is filled with tempting ways to NOT process them, such as more easy (and high interest) credit in the wake of a financial mistake, more unhealthy relationships after you just got out of one, and many, many options to escape into substances. To refuse to admit you were wrong, to refuse really feel the consequences of being wrong (even if you are blameless and anyone would have made the same mistake!) is to live like a zombie–an animated corpse of your old self.

    And that zombie-like existence, where you refuse to let your old worldviews and preconceptions die and rest, where you refuse to feel broken down by life even though that’s what happened, is barely living at all. It is OK to feel broken down, it happens to everyone. That’s what learning about life is. The times I have let myself sit in the pain, feel the embarrassment of when I was wrong, and then forgiven myself and let myself change? I have been rewarded for the work. The times I have pushed the evidence of my negative (even if totally understandable) life choices into the shadows and ignored it? That’s when I have suffered the most.