It may seem like you have little in common with the Olympians competing in the Winter Games this month. After all, while most of us have jogged around a track or played volleyball (albeit not at Summer Olympics level), far fewer have ever tried shooting targets in skis or launching into the air at 60 mph in an effort to jump about the length of a football field.
Yet anyone on the path to big financial goals does share some key traits with elite athletes. For starters: Reaching a big goal—whether it’s winning an Olympic gold or paying off a five-figure student loan—takes years of diligence, focus and effort. And having a game plan and support system in place is key.
Here are other Olympian lessons you can take to the bank.
At the Olympics, we see an athlete’s whole sports career compressed into a single skate or a couple of downhill runs.
But in real life, the athletes eat, sleep and drink their sport. Each morning, a well-trained athlete wakes up faced with a question: “Do I want to go back to sleep, or do I want to win a gold medal some day?” Consistently picking tomorrow’s goal over today’s snooze is the key to athletic success.
Going for financial gold—affording that dream house, retiring early or whatever’s important to you—requires the same discipline. Your own moment of truth comes each time you consider upgrading when your current car works fine, or using your tax refund or raise for splurges instead of saving for bigger goals.
Do you really want today’s shiny object more than tomorrow’s financial goal? Answering that question correctly, over and over, is one key to financial success.
Sometimes, Olympians do hit the snooze button. Or eat fast food. Or fall. What makes winners different? They use failure as motivation. In 2014, U.S. bobsledder Elana Meyers Taylor was in the lead, but made a critical mistake on her last of four runs in Sochi and lost the gold by a tenth of a second. She blogged about it a few days later:
"As I go on with my career, even if I win a gold medal, I’m sure that I won’t forget the pain I feel right now,” she writes in a post titled “Silver Lining.” “But if I’m fortunate enough to win a gold medal, I know it will be because of this moment. I will use these feelings as motivation- as a guiding force to teach me what I need to move forward.” She’s waited four long years, but she’ll have a chance to go for the gold again in South Korea.
What do you do when you screw up and blow your budget? Do you surrender to what psychologists call “goal release,” and just give up? Or do you treat the day after as a new beginning?
Another cost of Olympic glory that doesn’t come through on TV is, well, the cost. While many athletes in PyeongChang come from fortunate families that could afford pricey ski schools, there are other ways to get there. Snowboarder Jamie Anderson is refreshingly aware of her good fortune, and has a foundation that sponsors equipment, season passes and travel for young winter sports athletes from less fortunate families.
Such resources can make a huge difference. Taylor says her own grant from the Women’s Sports Foundation launched her bobsled career, helping cover startup costs. (One set of gear costs at least $5,000, and you need several.) “At the time I was working in a burrito shop… and there are only so many burritos you can wrap to try and make that money, so the grant helped tremendously,” she told the organization.
The lesson: When you set a goal, be realistic about what it may cost to get there—and look for scholarships, foundations and other other sources to help. Enrolling in an expensive grad school program, only to drown in more student loans than you can afford to pay back, can be a disaster. Starting your own business, but failing to accurately predict startup costs can be fatal to your finances and your business. Dreams cost real money—so plan for them.
High-profile athletes can score big-money endorsements after the Games. For example, freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, a likely breakout star in PyeongChang, is already a spokesman for Proctor and Gamble’s “Love Over Bias” campaign, and you’ll also see him connected to brands like Visa, Toyota, United, Ralph Lauren and Samsung.
But the numbers don’t favor most: There are about 3,000 competitors in roughly 100 events. The vast majority won’t win a medal or get endorsements to support themselves. In fact, three-time Olympian and ice hockey star Hilary Knight recently told Forbes that she helps pay for her passion with side hustles.
So while the romance of going for the gold is seductive—and everyone deserves a shot at following their dreams—realism must always ride shotgun. Pursue your dreams, but make sure you’ve got savings and a reliable stream of income in the meantime to cover your bills.