I’ve never been great at seeing “the big picture.” I get lost in my hometown because I can’t see the map in my head. I never got into Game of Thrones because I couldn’t remember any of the characters’ relationships. I think last time someone said the phrase “five-year plan,” I laughed.
In my defense, the last time I tried to plan for my future, every single plan fell apart. Cut to graduating from college: I had decided to take a gap year and work while applying to grad schools and try my hand at supporting myself. I even wanted to get into a grad school that would pay me to attend so that I wouldn’t have to accrue any more student loan debt because I knew I wouldn’t be making a ton of money during my gap year. I lived with a roommate, got a job at a cafe, and was dating someone I thought had long-term potential. Seems like a smart plan, right?
In theory. I won’t go into the details, but I didn’t even make it a year before I quit my job and was living back at home with my parents, single, rejected from every grad school, with nearly an empty bank account. I’ve always had some anxiety and depression, and needless to say that it was much worse during this time. I couldn’t figure out how my plans had “failed” so completely because, even through trying to visualize and work towards long-term goals, I’d been short-sighted in assuming I could achieve all of my dreams all at once as soon as I graduated from college. And it hurt.
So from that moment, I told myself I would not make any concrete life plans. I had ideas of the direction I wanted my career to go, but after feeling like I’d failed so spectacularly at seeing the big picture of my life, I decided it would be easier if I just played life by ear, even with my money. I paid all of my bills on time, but I let my savings dwindle, thinking I could just figure out how to be “good” with money as I went.
Unfortunately, as I progress through my twenties, I’m learning that the ever-elusive “financial stability” requires seeing the big picture. It’s playing the long game with your finances. When your bank account is gathering dust, you’ve got student loan debt, your car is dying, and you want to move out of your parents’ house…yeah, you need a plan. You need a plan for your emergency fund, you need a plan for your budget. You need a plan for the fact that you’re turning 26 and will need health insurance and you want to pay off your car, but should you build your emergency fund first? But how big should your emergency fund be? But what about that student loan debt? But don’t you still want to get a master’s degree, and oh gosh, your car needs new tires and your new therapist is way more expensive than you realized?
Yeah, you need a plan.
The thing I didn’t expect was that making financial plans, even “short-term” financial plans, involves having a long view of your goals. Take my emergency fund, for example. I knew, as soon as I got a job, that it would be important for me to build up some sort of safety net for “just in case” expenses. To be honest, I was starting with almost nothing, and I was living with family (blessedly) rent-free, so I put a lot of my first few paychecks into my savings. And boy did I feel great about myself. I did some rudimentary math to see how many paychecks it would take to get my savings to an arbitrary number that I thought was acceptable, smiled, and patted myself on the back.
But then I bought a car, and suddenly all of that extra money I was throwing at my savings account went towards my car loan. In hindsight, this worked out well, because I paid my car off in a year. But putting a pause on that meteoric rise to my savings account bummed me out.
Then I moved into my own apartment, which has been incredible, but put me on a Real Budget for the first time since I’d started my current job. Moving is also expensive, which required some dipping into my savings. I justified these decisions, thinking that life events like moving into a new apartment are what emergency funds are for, right? But I squirmed at the fact that, once again, my progress in building up my savings dwindled to the small amount I could manage each month.
It was around this time that I realized that I didn’t even know what number I was aiming for in my emergency fund — I was just “saving” and wanting to see my account grow. I was making responsible decisions, but still being short-sighted. If I didn’t have a goal number for my emergency fund, how would I know when I could steer that cash into something like my student loan debt? Would I just keep throwing a little cash into my savings account and throwing a little cash at my student loans, or would I stop building my emergency fund while aggressively paying down debt? And how long would it take before I feel confident that I’m making the most sustainable decisions for my financial health?
If I had answers to my questions, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. It’s taken me about three years to get my emergency fund built to where I want it thanks to unexpected flat tires, doctor’s bills, and paying for my first two master’s classes out of pocket. Considering I’m only 26, three years is not much time at all. I need to remind myself of this during the months I put one too many pizzas on my credit card, and then spend the next few months getting that back under control while kicking myself for being “irresponsible.” The important thing is that, recently, I decided on a number for my emergency fund. I’m going to hit it soon, and then I’m going to use any extra cash to chip away at my undergraduate loans. However long it takes. And THEN I’m going to go back to my savings and work on building it up, because I’d like to own a house or a condo someday. I have a real, tangible plan, and it feels great. But it feels even better than the pseudo-plans I mentioned earlier, because I know what steps I need to take to get there, and I know I’m capable of taking those steps.
I need to remember this feeling and remember that this is why we make long-term plans, even if they might not work out. I’d been staring at this huge goal of “financial stability,” while ignoring the smaller goals I can actually achieve. It may have taken me longer than expected to build my emergency fund, but I’m getting there. I’ve learned that “failure,” like what I experienced three years ago, is a chance to reassess your goals. Stuff happens, we get hurt, we go through struggles and life changes that throw our paths completely off the rails, but I’m learning — slowly — that this is why it’s good to try to see the big picture of your life. I know things could happen at any point in my near future: my cat could get sick, I could get sick, I could meet a potential partner, my degree might afford me a job in a new state, and any big event like this could disrupt my goals yet again. That’s how life goes, right?
But having experienced a small taste of what it feels like to make a financial plan and achieve it, even if it takes longer than expected, gives me hope that perhaps I’m better at seeing the “big picture” than I realized.
Mallory Lectka is a Financial Proofreader, aspiring college professor, Harry Potter enthusiast, and proud cat mom. Her role models are April Ludgate and Dana Scully.
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