Some people, I suppose, do what’s “right” — and do it all of the time. It just comes naturally. They eat healthfully, exercise, keep the house clean, and never speak ill of others. They avoid debt, invest wisely, make productive use of their time, and never drink too much wine. I’m sure these perfect people exist. But I don’t know any.

The rest of us are fallible. We generally know what’s right, but we don’t always do it. We make mistakes. We choose short-term pleasure over long-term gain. We’re strong in some areas of life but weak in others. We have lofty goals, but we frequently fall short of achieving them.

Take me, for example.

I know what it takes to be and stay fit. I enjoy being fit. When I’m in good shape, I feel better both physically and mentally. But, for whatever reason, I find it difficult to remain fit for more than a couple of years.

Back to Fitness

In the past, my fitness has always faded as a result of too many videogames and too much cake. (Well, metaphorical cake. I used to eat tons of candy and cookies and salty snacks.) More recently, cake isn’t the issue. My nemesis is beer. I like beer, but beer isn’t kind to my belly.

As we start 2018, I’ve come to believe that it’s time for me to get “back to basics” with fitness. This year, I’m going to focus on some simple goals that I know will improve my fitness. Seriously: These goals are brain-dead dumb.

This year, I want to:

  • Stretch for fifteen minutes every day. Because I sit at a desk all day, I’m stiff and inflexible. A stretching routine will help me become more limber.
  • Eat at least three servings of plants. Like a couple of my friends, I rarely choose fruits and vegetables. I’ll eat them if they’re served to me, but I don’t pick them myself. I aim to change that.
  • Drink less alcohol. Kim and I both believe we drink too much. We don’t like what it’s doing to our bodies and minds. We’ve made a pact to cut our consumption.
  • Run for fun. I enjoy running (when I’m not fat). It’s an efficient and cheap mode of exercise. This year, I want to slowly return to running.

This isn’t rocket surgery. Like I said, I’m getting back to basics. I’m focusing on a few essentials that I know will lead to improved fitness. Once I’ve shown that I can do these things regularly, I can attempt to add some complexity. But until then, I’m doing what my high-school health teacher said I ought to do.

As motivation to continue running, I’ve signed up for a half marathon three months from now. I caught wind that my pals from 1500 Days to Freedom and Waffles on Wednesday were, for whatever reason, coming to Portland to run the Hop Hop Half.

I threw down the gauntlet:

Half marathon tweet

Not sure why I was being so cocky there. (Too much beer, maybe?) In any event, you folks are welcome to join us, if you’d like.

The Optimization Trap

I tend to over-complicate and over-think things. I make fitness more difficult than it has to be, for instance, or over-analyze the articles I write. I fall into the optimization trap instead of focusing on the big, important stuff that actually makes a difference. You know: the basics.

From my experience, a lot of people do this with money too. Instead of dedicating themselves to a few core ideas that will have maximum benefit, they create elaborate budgets or dedicate hours to projects with only a marginal benefit (clipping coupons, for example).

I’m not saying that optimization shouldn’t be on your financial to-do list. It should be. But it should be near the bottom of that list, not the top. Optimization is about taking what works and making it work better. You don’t optimize something that’s broken. If your budget is broken, you fix it by making big moves not tiny ones. Once you’ve made the big repairs, then you can concern yourself with optimal performance.

If you’re looking to turn your financial life around, don’t concern yourself with optimizing the small stuff. Do what I’m doing with fitness: Get back to basics.

Back to Basics

What does it mean to “get back to basics” with personal finance? It means focusing on the core skills and behaviors that are proven to lead to good results. Things like:

  • Craft a personal mission statement so that you’re clear on what it is you want out of life (and how you’re going to obtain it).
  • Prioritize big wins. Look for ways to cut costs on housing and transportation, not just food and fun. (Together, housing and transportation make up half the average American budget. If you could trim both by, say, twenty percent, you’d save a fortune!)
  • Make more money, whether that means working overtime, taking a second job, or starting a side hustle.
  • Build and maintain an emergency fund. (Or, if you already have an emergency fund, start an opportunity fund.)
  • Get out of debt. Technically, debt reduction isn’t a skill. It’s a side effect. If you do the things necessary to create a positive cash flow (spend less, earn more), you will get out of debt. But debt elimination is a key milestone, so I’ve included it here.
  • Track your spending so that you know where your money goes. Use this info to create some sort of simple budget (or spending plan) that works for you.

If instead of optimizing you were to dedicate your time to basic actions like these, your personal finances would prosper. You’d dig out of whatever hole you’re currently in and place yourself on the path to financial freedom.

Because these sorts of skills are so essential, and because it’s been a l-o-n-g time since I covered them, I’ve decided that this month’s theme at Get Rich Slowly is “Back to Basics”. All month long, I’ll cover essential topics like budgeting, building a career, and investing. I’ll teach you how to use credit cards without going broke, how to get out of debt, and how to take control of your life.

If there’s a topic you’d like me to cover, please let me know in the comments!

15 Replies to “Back to basics: Find success by focusing on fundamentals”

  1. Jason@WinningPersonalFinance says:

    I’m also in big need of a fitness makeover. I went from running marathons to a couch potato in a few years. I set my 2018 goal as something that’s easy to reach.
    1) Exercise twice a week. The type does not matter. Just need to get the heart rate up a bit.
    2) Run a half marathon. As a said, I’ve run 2 marathons so running a half should be easy if I train. I just have to commit and get it done. Unfortunately, I live too far to do the one you are doing. I’m sure I can find a fun one in my area.

    From a finance perspective. I need to simplify my budgeting and expense tracking process. If I can’t explain it to others, it’s too complicated.

  2. Mr. 1500 says:

    Cocky indeed, but maybe justified, against me at least. I’m a horrible, horrible athlete. I’m going for a time of under 2:30.

    Watch out for Mr. WoW though. The dude has run marathons! Ugggh!

    • J.D. Roth says:

      If I can be with you at around 2:30, I’ll be happy. In my first two runs of the year — both two-milers — I’ve averaged a pace of 9:30 or so. That’s promising. We’ll see how training goes. 😉

  3. Accidental Fire says:

    I’m trying to cut down on alcohol too this year…… if you find something that works let me know, cuz I’ll need it 🙂

    • J.D. Roth says:

      I live in a state with legal marijuana, so that’s one option. But while pot doesn’t make me fat, it makes me just as dumb as alcohol does, so I’m trying NOT to replace one with the other.

      • Mike in NH says:

        My biggest personal goal this year is to stay away from alcohol for the entire year. I’m 37 and I’ve been ripping it up pretty well for the better part of the last 20 years. It’s time for a change, and I do so much better with black/white all-in/all-out than I do with moderation no matter what the situation is. I know you are interested in psychology JD, it would be interesting to see an analysis of people that thrive with one version of self control (I’ll just have/spend a little) vs. the other (I won’t have/spend any). This applies to so many things…food, fitness, alcohol, money. As part of my focus on health this year, I’ve really been trying to align the same principles I have success with in personal finance like needs vs. wants, having a solid plan and controls in place, automating, etc.

  4. The 76K Project says:

    Last year I made 10 resolutions and barely met half of those goals. This year I’m going simple: I want to spend less time on Facebook, pay off the rest of our CC debt (ideally by mid-spring), and stick to our budget.

    I just got a new job that will increase our income substantially, so that’s a great feeling.

  5. dh says:

    I recently read this great article laying out the most common reasons people don’t lose weight:

  6. VV says:

    We’re starting a family and need to purchase term life insurance. We’d love to see basics on how much to purchase and how much to pay.

  7. Greenbacks Magnet says:

    One of the things I have learned to do when it comes to debt is to stay away from credit cards. When you no longer have to pay them you free up all this money to be invested instead.


  8. Frogdancer says:

    I think a “Back to Basics” month is a great idea, especially as you’ve just come back to the site.
    It’s like a new broom… starting again from scratch. (I think I just mangled a few metaphors – terrible thing for an English teacher to do. But hey! It’s the summer holidays!)

  9. Tonya@Budget and the Beach says:

    I find that being over 40, there is little room for error like there used to be. Sadly, beer is on that list. One for me is enough both from a buzzed standpoint and a calories standpoint. lol! I know though what you mean about going back to basics. As I wrote on my 2018 goals post, I just want to lose “that last 5” and 2% body fat, not from a vanity standpoint as much as a practicality standpoint (i.e., fitting into clothes better so I don’t have to buy new ones). And all I really have to do to achieve that is not eat work snacks. And yet it’s so freaking hard!

  10. Jennifer says:

    I think I’ve seen that you have most of your money with Fidelity. I have reached a level where I can get a free consultation with an adviser there. Have you done this? Written about it? I would be curious if you have thoughts about how to get the most out of this. I’m pretty good at avoiding hard sells, so I’m not too worried about that.

    • J.D. Roth says:

      Yes, I’ve had the free adviser consultation stuff with Fidelity since 2009. I take advantage of it. Some advisers are more hands-off then others. None have been “hard sell”, per se, but some have been a little pushy. Each has a distinct philosophy and personality. Mostly, I use them to answer big logistical questions…

  11. Steven@MoneyMarathon says:

    JD I love this post, one of my favourites!

    It may be that I LOVE to run! I’ve done countless marathons, and would be more than happy to share training techniques or information with you.

    So much so, that I named my new blog “Money Marathon” which I hope will combine the long road to a physical finish line – as in a marathon – and the long road to the metaphorical finish line which is financial independence.

    Thank you, and best regards,

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