Getting your finances on track can feel overwhelming. With so many priorities competing for your paycheck—paying down debt, saving more and investing for the future—it’s hard to know where to start, especially if you’re not earning much. Sometimes it seems easier to do nothing at all.
For a long time, this is how I thought about both finances and fitness: too hard to even try to improve. That changed about two years ago, when I decided to start running to get in better shape.
Today, I’m training for a half-marathon in October—something I never thought I’d do—which, surprisingly, has taught me a lot of lessons that apply to money, too.
1. Take it mile by mile, dollar by dollar.
At first, running three miles was daunting—and something I was proud to finally accomplish. Then my goal shifted to five, 10, then 13.1 miles (a half-marathon). Each time I pushed myself, I doubted I could do it. But by increasing my mileage slowly and building on prior successes, I've reached every goal.
I’ve realized you can accomplish big money goals when you break them up, too. For example, when I first got serious about my personal finances, I knew I needed six months’ worth of expenses—about $10,000—saved in an emergency fund. Instead of aiming to save $10,000 at once, I split it up into 10 mini goals of saving $1,000. That helped keep me from feeling so overwhelmed that I gave up or slid backwards.
2. Celebrate your victories.
Each time I hit a running goal, I celebrated by buying new running gear, downloading music or allowing myself a cheat meal. I do the same when I hit financial goals. When I saved up my first $5,000, for example, I treated myself to a day trip to NYC. Another time, when I paid off one of my student loans, I bought a 3D pen I’d been eyeing.
It doesn’t need to be a huge splurge, but I’ve learned that doing something to recognize each victory keeps me motivated to tackle the next challenge.
3. Expect setbacks.
I've gotten a few injuries over the last year that have required taking time off my running schedule. That’s disappointing because it throws my progress off track. But the reality is that setbacks are just part of it—part of training for a half-marathon, part of managing money, part of life. The best thing we can do is prepare so that when setbacks strike, we can adapt.
When I hurt my leg running, I compensated by spending a few weeks cross-training with weights. With finances, my cash cushion means I’m prepared to cover unexpected expenses that inevitably come up—like that $1,200 car repair bill I paid two months ago.
4. Avoid burnout.
Burnout is a serious threat to any long-term goal. Run too much, too fast, and you’ll either get hurt (because your body wasn't ready for the challenge) or burn out (because your mind wasn't ready for the challenge). Similarly, I’ve realized that while slashing all my unnecessary expenses and working an extra 40 hours a week on freelance assignments may help me save money faster, it also opens me up to major goal fatigue.
So I keep in mind that physical and financial fitness require playing the long game. When I’m starting to feel burnt out from running, I give myself permission to skip a week so my body can recover. When I’m exhausted from too much work, I don’t accept new assignments for a few weeks. And when my savings plan feels too restrictive, I say yes to something I want, but don’t need, like this Bernie Sanders action figure. It’s all about balance and making small adjustments as I go along. That way, I can stay healthy—and motivated to hit my long-term goals.