Do One Small Thing, Then Do Another

(Guest Post by “Babs” Wagner)

By now, we’re well enough into 2012 that everyone who made a New Year’s resolution has sorted themselves into one of two groups.  The first is the miniscule group of folks who kept their resolutions (God bless all three of you overachievers!).  The second group is the extremely large number of folks who blew their resolutions and now live with one more blot on the family escutcheon.  I hate when that happens, and I have the many blots to prove it.

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore.  I have discovered the only resolution I’ll ever make, and I make it every single day.  Before I tell you this secret to success and happiness in every aspect of life (pay no mind to today’s post title), let me tell you what got me to this point.

By the ripe old age of 29, I had already declared bankruptcy, been fired from my first grown-up job, and had my wages garnished for failure to pay my guaranteed college loans on time.  Since I lost my credit cards in the bankruptcy, and wasn’t familiar with the concept of living within my means, I had gotten into a nasty habit of getting myself “payday loans” by cashing bad checks just about every month.  I was broke, jobless and living on unemployment when it finally dawned on me that I needed to get my financial life in order.  I had so many problems, it was overwhelming getting started.

So I did the only thing I could do:  I lived within my means.

I got a job and each payday I would pay my bills, grocery shop, and cash a check for what was left in the account.  I put the cash in my wallet and the checkbook in my desk, and that was it until the next pay day — no more bad checks.  It certainly wasn’t the height of financial savvy, but I learned to track every penny and I felt pretty responsible after a few months.

The next year I got a raise, so I had my employer automatically buy savings bonds each month.  They aren’t the greatest investment, but I couldn’t easily undo the automatic investment and I couldn’t easily cash them in.  My “portfolio” started growing and I was feeling pretty mature money-wise.

About this time I married my husband, a guy with only slight better financial chops than me.  Between the two of us, we had car and credit card loans over $55,000 in today’s dollars, all with interest rates in the 20%+ range.  So we decided to pay off all our debts as fast as we could.  We lived on one paycheck and it took us over a year.  We felt fantastic when we got that debt off our shoulders!  Since we knew we could live on that one pay check, we started investing the amount we’d been allocating to debt.  After that, we became pretty savvy about all things financial and it got lots easier to make good decisions.  We definitely started late and moved slowly, but all the baby steps added up over time and we’ll be retiring in our early 50’s, never to work again.

So have you guessed what my resolution is?  It sure isn’t “get it together and do everything right this year.”  Every time I vowed to do EVERYTHING perfectly, I found myself breaking my resolution almost instantly.  I noticed this was true with more than finances:

  • “I’m going to get in shape, lose 20 pounds, and eat healthy” lasted about a week.
  • “I really mean it–I’m going to get the entire house squeaky clean, organized and beautifully decorated this year” didn’t last past cleaning out the kitchen junk drawer.
  • “I’m going to cook a healthy meal for my family every night” immediately failed when I forgot to defrost the chicken and we were back on the fast food trail for good.

Every time I made a big plan, I crashed and burned.  It turns out I’m not perfect, my self-discipline is spotty, and it’s really hard sticking with a resolution that I was continually failing to meet.  So I stopped making resolutions and plans, and I try to live with just one goal every day:

Do One Small Thing, Then Do Another.

  • In the financial realm, I just lived within my means.  Which gave me the motivation to save money.
  • On the health front, I went to one Weight Watchers meeting, which got me to another, and a year later to a loss of 40 lbs.
  • On the home front, I cleaned off my desk, which felt so good I got the whole house reasonably clean and organized after several months.
  • I started nagging other members of the family to do some of the cooking, and after a year we’re down to one night a week of eating out.

Do One Small Thing, Then Do Another.  I don’t set huge goals, and I don’t beat myself up if I’m moving slowly.  I just keep doing small things and eventually they add up to a lot more success than all the big resolutions I never kept.

From what I’ve seen in your comments, most of you are way smarter than I was/am.  I suspect many of you actually keep your resolutions every year.  But on the off chance that some of our community is NORMAL and not perfect, how ‘bout you share your One Small Thing?  What would you tell someone struggling with un-/under-employment, too much debt or too little savings?   How did you get started on the road to financial goodness?

Barbara “Babs” Wagner is a former poster child for financial misadventure, who learned most of what she knows the hard way.  She has a degree in business and has studied personal finance, most of which she now ignores.  Her mission is to poke fun at conventional wisdom, keep money subservient to her values, and inspire others to learn from her mistakes.  She is currently staring at her garage and thinking her One Small Thing might involve dynamite.

(Photo by English106)

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  1. Michelle March 1, 2012 at 8:22 AM

    I definitely try and make small goals first. It’s more rewarding this way because I don’t beat myself up over not being able to complete big goals. It’s more realistic.

  2. Shondellclarke March 1, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    First of all, good for you in recognizing that you needed to change things. I’ve come across people who even after a bankruptcy still don’t get it.

    I don’t make resolutions. If something needs changing, I just change it a the time.

    My advice would be to keep your expenses as low as possible. Sell some things to pay down your debt, get another job or find a way to bring in more money to build your savings and tackle the debt.

  3. Money Infant March 1, 2012 at 9:11 AM

    I have a list of daily tasks. If I can accomplish those tasks each day I’m a happy camper.

  4. Stephanie March 1, 2012 at 9:39 AM

    I need to start applying this philosophy to the laundry list of small home improvements that I haven’t gotten around to yet. All the big stuff is done, and now it’s just details, but I feel overwhelmed and wind up not doing any of them! ;-)

  5. Rafiki March 1, 2012 at 10:43 AM

    I love these posts by Babs. J. Money, you are awesome. Babs is AWESOME! Maybe someday you will reach her level.

    My advice would be to save something every paycheck, even a single dollar if that’s all you can manage.

  6. J. Money March 1, 2012 at 10:44 AM

    I always have a small list of 3-5 things to do every day too. 80% of the time I’ll accomplish them if I write them down (so I can always SEE them and REMEMBER them), and the other times when it’s in my head my ratio of completion goes down to like 50-60%, haha… but I always get the bizness done before deadlines! I’m so much better the night before last minute, haha… whatever works ;)

    @Rafiki – Glad you enjoy these!! She’s one of my favorite writers – lucky to snag her every now and then ;)

  7. Kris @ Debt-Tips March 1, 2012 at 11:18 AM

    Very powerful advice. Whether you have long term goals or not, what really matters are the actions you take every single day. Even the best plan won’t work without the small steps that get you moving and keep you moving.

  8. DebtnTaxes March 1, 2012 at 12:01 PM

    @J. Money- I’m the same way, I like to write a list of things I need to get done. The problem that normally comes from this is I sometimes forget where the stupid list is.

  9. J. Money March 1, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    Post it notes!!!

  10. Renee March 1, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    My biggest issue I have is I’m all or nothing. And since I am human I cannot do anything perfectly so I just give in all together. For example, I vow to lose weight. I do well at first, then after the first fast food trip I give up and started eating like before. I have vowed not to do that this year. If I have a not so great meal I give myself grace and move on and try to eat better the next meal or at the very least tomorrow!

  11. BrokeElizabeth March 1, 2012 at 1:01 PM

    I make big goals that can be broken down into little manageable chunks. I guess it’s sort of a snowball method, but it works for absolutely anything I need to finish.

  12. Kelly@FinancialHelpersNewsletter March 1, 2012 at 1:02 PM

    I love this idea and think it would work very well for so any people more than what most people do (which is set huge goals only to be disappointed in themselves). Why do we all think that one huge goal is a good idea anyway? Why not take these small steps that will eventually lead us to where we want to be. We’re only human, and setting ourselves up to fail will only make us more stressed and less confident in what we can actually accomplish. Great post!

  13. Carol in Mpls March 1, 2012 at 1:05 PM

    Love Babs, love her writing style, and really great point to her article!

    I decided this year that too many things ‘to do’ means good intentions slip away (a definite problem for us ADHD folks). So, I attitude-adjusted for 2012. Each month has a focus, so, I hope, I’m building on these improvements/goals/focus areas as the year progresses. It feels more comfortable, anyway, and this can work right alongside my regular, BIG things that are part of life. Those never go away, but I’m not letting them have the same amount of power or control in my life any longer.

    Every quarter I have two areas of focus, and then a cleanup month. January was Money Month. Tracked receipts, used my spreadsheet, looked for places to hone the budget further, made peace with my choices (no more good/bad, just “is” choices). February was Wellness Month, but I was a little slower/smaller with that focus – just Diet Coke rehab, which I started January 1st. Now it’s been 2 months without, and so far, so good. March will be focused on reinforcing those areas – continue tracking expenses, look for areas to improve, more home cooking and back to the gym — because I want to. I’ll also have a contract paycheck starting mid-month, so that will help too!

  14. Yana March 1, 2012 at 1:38 PM

    Learn as you go. That is what I do, perpetually, in regards to finances and life. And track every cent that comes in and goes out. I don’t make resolutions, but I make rules/laws for myself. I think in order to get things going right financially, we have to figure it out for ourselves on an individual basis. Whether we do it depends on how important it is to us. One thing I notice about some people is that they are afraid of money (having it), and they don’t trust themselves.

  15. ShesPrettyFrugal March 1, 2012 at 3:10 PM

    Great post! I like the idea of doing one “small” thing and then another. I know with me, I would (sometimes still do) get frustrated that I can’t move at warp speed and accomplish all that I want to do. Then start the negative thoughts that I’m a failure or I’m too far behind. It’s at these moments where I literally have to shake myself and say “Self, get a grip…it’s not that serious…it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I’m learning that it’s okay to start small because in the end, those small steps will lead to big rewards. Slow and steady, slow and steady.

  16. Maria Nedeva March 1, 2012 at 3:37 PM

    HI Babs, good to read you again. I fully agree with you intellectually; doing it is a bit more of a challenge. I am not very patient. However, most of the big things I have achieved were done using this technique – small things do add up.

  17. Katie March 1, 2012 at 3:54 PM

    Thanks for this, Babs. I’ve been feeling really behind… 27 and not finished school, so much debt, and so far to go before I can retire, but this post really gave me hope that all the little things I do now will pay off in the end.

  18. Kelly March 1, 2012 at 4:05 PM

    Babs – I love love love your posts!! Many thanks to J. Money for having you as a guest contributor! I love the way you write (there’s always a vocab lesson – today it was “escutcheon”) and I think you’re hilarious, plus you’ve obviously got some serious chops when it comes to both making mistakes with money and being wildly successful. Do you have a blog of your own? If not, could you please email me daily with bits of your wisdom and wit (and vocab)?!
    Thanks for the post!

  19. Christa March 1, 2012 at 5:25 PM

    When my to-do list is too big, I’ll break it into more doable chunks. So my New Year’s Resolutions are always big, but then I make sure to break them down to monthly, weekly or even daily goals. This tactic helped me run a marathon last year and get better about communication. So, yes, I think your one-thing-at-a-time goals are extremely helpful!

  20. Marianne March 1, 2012 at 6:04 PM

    lol I just didn’t make my resolutions until a couple of days ago: I generally break large goals down into smaller pieces; ya know, the whole ‘how do you eat an elephant’ thing… That has always worked best for me. I make a to-do list of all the little broken down chunks and just start at the very beginning. My husband feels chronically overwhelmed and this technique has even helped him- and he hates to-do lists (and all other kinds of lists).

  21. Babs March 1, 2012 at 9:58 PM

    Thanks for all the love and good ideas! Keep adding helpful hints to encourage others.

    Kelly, you made me LOL so hard milk came out my nose! E-mail you daily? That’s just asking for another blot on the escutcheon when I fail in one week or less. I’m going to stay in “one small blog” mode for a while.

    J$: funny you should mention post-it notes. Several years ago I went through a really rough patch, where I was barely hanging on at work. Each morning I would ask myself what ONE thing really needed to get done, I wrote it on a post-it note, then put it on the center of my desk. I would focus on doing that one thing, was usually successful, and gradually got myself back in the groove. I learned something really interesting from this: most of our days are filled with pretty trivial work like e-mails, chatting with co-workers, etc. By doing one really important thing each day, I actually made more progress on the big priorities for my team, and learned to spend less time on stupid stuff. Who knew doing less could be more?

  22. BE @ BusyExecutiveMoneyBlog March 1, 2012 at 10:44 PM

    Crawling before walking is as old as time itself. I really like the idea of small manageable goals! I try to set monthly financial goals as a competition with myself.

  23. MoneySmartGuides March 1, 2012 at 11:47 PM

    Small steps are huge. By trying to take big steps, many people get overwhelmed and fail. Small steps, though sometimes hard to see the benefit of, pay off in the end. It’s like starting out running. You may only make it a half mile to start, then just a little more the next tie out. But as time goes by, you end up running 5 miles without any issues. Take your time and succeed on your own timeframe.

  24. J. Money March 2, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    You the (wo)man, Babs! Thanks again for spilling out your thoughts for us again – I love when you pop up out of nowhere and shoot stuff over. Never know what I’m gonna find!

    @Renee – Haha yeah, I’m usually all or nothing too ;)
    @Carol in Mpls – That’s a cool way to do things – on a monthly level like that :) My ADHD always moves my mind all over the place too, but but we can just do our best!
    @Katie – YOU CAN DO IT KATIE!!! We all start out on the ground and work up :) And every phase has pros and cons, so just keep in mind nothing is permanent!
    @MoneySmartGuides – Yep! Like a savings account growing bigger and bigger over time – it all adds up!

  25. Long March 2, 2012 at 1:16 PM

    You’re right. Small steps do add up. That’s probably the best advice you can give anyone when it comes to setting goals. I’ve noticed that when I write down things to do, the small ones always get completed within a reasonable time frame. Huge goals have sat on the list for years, getting lonely and forgotten.

    My small thing right now is working on my family budget. I have always been a good saver, until I bought a house. My wife and I didn’t have much, so we had to buy some basic furnishings, but I went a little nuts on remodeling. I noticed I wasn’t saving as much as I used to, so I am trying to keep up with a budget in order to save money again.

  26. Melissa @ Little House in the Valley March 3, 2012 at 7:20 PM

    Excellent advice. We are paying down debt, and I sometimes get discouraged that progress isn’t as fast as I would like, but since we aren’t taking on any new debt, I know every payment, even if it isn’t huge, is a step in the right direction. It is encouraging to see that even though you were a late starter, you were able to retire earlier than most.

  27. Miss J March 4, 2012 at 5:42 AM

    I need to do this – thanks for the great post! I’m a culrpit of dreaming/hoping big sometimes & being discouraged because the task was too big in the first place. I’m going to start doing mini daily tasks to help me get through the day so I don’t get too overwhelmed.

  28. J. Money March 5, 2012 at 10:08 AM

    @Long – Oh yeah, that house can eat up all your money if you’re not careful! Even the random things that come up in general maintenance, it can be scary. I kinda have the opposite problem of you in that I REALLY want to redo things but can’t get myself to do it, haha… pros and cons, eh? :)
    @Melissa @ Little House in the Valley – And that’s a hard thing for a lot of people to do too! Patching up those debt holes so you stop leaking :) Now you’re slowly bucketing out the water and it def. all counts! hehe…
    @Miss J – You can do it!!

  29. Origbless April 18, 2012 at 8:11 AM

    Sounds like Reality Therapy – and it works. Plan and Act.