I had lunch with my friend Bo recently. Over our enchiladas, we talked about how dumb we were when we younger, and how we’d do things differently if we could. To what point would we return if we wanted to change our lives?
“I’d go back to the end of my sophomore year of high school,” Bo said.
“That’s a long way,” I said.
“But think of compound interest, J.D! And by then I was earning money. I was earning money and I was spending it. If I could go back, I would save like crazy. I would invest in mutual funds. I would buy a house — a fixer-upper. I’d spend much less on food and clothes and comics.”
Like me, Bo is a comic book collector. In fact, when we were in college, I gave him a bunch of my comics. Boy, was I dumb. I was dumb in a lot of ways then. If I could go back, that’s the time I’d pick.
I told Bo about signing up for my first credit card, I told him about the $1500 Frisbee, I told him about trying to spend money to keep up appearances with the other students on campus. “If I could go back,” I said, “I’d go back to the sophomore year of college.”
“Your story’s interesting,” Bo told me, “because I think it’s similar to the stories of so many other people. And because you’ve managed to make it through and become successful.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’m just glad to have turned things around.”
“How did you do it?” Bo asked. “What was the turning point? Do you remember?”
Turning away from debt
“Sure,” I said. “I tell this story all of the time. My turning point came in the summer of 2004, after we bought our new house. I had been living paycheck-to-paycheck on $42,000 a year, spending every penny I earned on books, comics, and other toys. Just Stuff, you know?” Bo nodded. He and I have talked about Stuff before.
“Though I could afford it on paper, I hadn’t counted on the unexpected costs that come with a 100-year-old house. When we started having to spend for new insulation and to replace the walls and to remodel the bathroom, I felt like I was drowning. I felt out of control. I’d been in debt for a decade and managed to avoid disaster, but I really felt like disaster was just around the corner.”
“But what was your turning point?” Bo asked, sipping his Dr. Pepper.
“Right,” I said. “My turning point came when I started complaining about my debt to friends. A couple of them pulled me aside and shared books with me. I read them and tried to follow their advice. To my surprise, it worked. Ever since then, I’ve been on this path. I make mistakes sometimes, but that’s when I changed direction.”
“That’s awesome,” Bo said. “Reaching a turning point is huge. It sucks to be out of control. When you’re out of control, it can seem impossible to turn things around. But once you do, it’s great. Just like you and your baby steps. They’re small moves, but they make you feel powerful. Being in control makes you feel powerful. Being in control is a high. And being in control when you had been out of control is even better.”
“What about you?” I asked. “What was your turning point?”
Seeking a better life
“Well, I was never in debt like you,” Bo said. “If there was a turning point for me, it was the day I realized that I didn’t want to work for the rest of my life. Of course, you can’t just stop working. You can’t just put it on autopilot.”
We’d finished our meals and were picking at the chips and salsa by this point. Bo continued: “I remember sitting down and counting the productive years I had left, and then counting the years that I’d already worked. I realized that I had to get on the ball if I wanted to retire early, if I wanted to have time to do the things I want to do.”
“Early retirement’s a great goal,” I said. “But it seems so big and so far away, it can be hard to stay on-task.”
Bo nodded. “Any time I see something that I want — which is all the time — I’ll ask myself if it’s something I really need, if it’s something I’m willing to delay retirement for. Every dollar I spend on Stuff now is a dollar that could have helped me quit work sooner. Do I really want to spend money on frivolous crap that goes into boxes? Or do I want to save my money for a better future?”
Bo paused for a moment before he continued. “This may sound strange,” he said, “but Hurricane Katrina had a huge impact on me. When I saw all of these people with their Stuff floating down the street…when I thought of it in those terms, I realized that my house is just full of crap. I realized that I need to get rid of Stuff, not bring more home.”
“Fortunately, my wife and I are on the same page. We have the same goal. Like everybody, we still buy Stuff. But we don’t do nearly as much as I used to. We’d rather have the money so that someday we could do things with our family instead of having Stuff that sits in our drawer.”
“That’s great,” I said. “It sounds like you’ve always been pretty smart with money, but for you the turning point wasn’t about changing bad habits. It was about developing better habits.”
“Right,” Bo said. “I’ve always understood where I wanted to go and how to get there, but I always talked a big game, and didn’t really walk it. Then one day I realized that every penny I spent that wasn’t part of my plan, was just an impediment to me quitting my job and spending time with my family.”
We paid the check and said good-bye, agreeing to meet for lunch in a few months. But this conversation stuck in my head. Not everyone experiences a turning point, and not everyone needs one. But I believe that for those who do, this turnaround can be powerful, life-defining experience.