Wednesday, January 13

Pushing forward, throttling back

I know I was silent yesterday, and this post will probably not make it up until mid- to late-afternoon. Sorry about that. I've been wiped out lately. (Bear with me through til the end of this post, I promise the ensuing stuff does actually relate to finance.)


The fact is that I'm a very cyclic person. There's some evidence now that it's due to the Bipolar Disorder II that I was recently diagnosed with. (I guess I'm still working on swallowing that concept.) Either way, I tend to be in one of two modes: everything or nothing.


There are times when it's all I can do to keep myself from going whole-hog crazy on chores or errands. Other times, it's hard to get off the couch -- emotionally, physically or both.


In the past, it's led to a lot of problems -- mainly because I would push myself so hard when I was "up" that I left nothing for the other times. These days, I have a (slightly) better grasp on mellowing both extremes a little.


If I don't go too all-out on good days, the bad days are far more tolerable. Rather than barely leaving the couch, I simply barely leave the apartment. It may sound no better, but it's a huge deal.


If I'm stuck on the couch, I am angry about it, incredibly bored and also anxious from feeling caged. If, on the other hand, I can putter around the apartment, I can make myself a PBJ rather than order pizza; I can maybe do a task that involves light cleaning; I can play video games on the computer to distract myself.


So I work on ameliorating the extremes. By that, however, I do not mean that I am trying to even them out. I have spent a lot of time trying to find that happy median between go-go-go and crash-crash-crash. And, as I work to accept this latest diagnosis, I am coming around to the idea that there is no middle point for me.


Certainly, I will work with a mental health professional on medication. That will help. But I will probably always have cycles. I can choose to work against them, or I can save myself a lot of time (and feelings of futility) and work with them.


My new goal, then, is to push forward and throttle back, as needed. When I find myself in a small-scale manic stage -- usually, it coincides with a helluva lot of cleaning, so it's easy to spot -- I can make myself stop before I hit zero on the energy scale. This will make the days afterward a lot more bearable.


So, what on earth does this have to do with finance? Everything.


I think that most of us try to be "on" all the time with finance. Perhaps there are some folks out there who can handle this. But most of us have mixed results. Whether it's a family emergency, stress at work, relationship trouble or something else entirely, life gets in the way of perfection.


Meanwhile, though, we still want to be on top of things. We are so sure we can be on top of things, if only we try a little bit harder. So we want optimal results, and we get normal results. Most of us then spend time feeling bad about it.


We have this standard that we hold ourselves up to. It's a baseline, really, for a perfect world. You can budget in plenty of emergencies and unexpected expenses. But life will find something to trip you up. It's crafty that way.


Yet, even as our lives change and evolve/devolve, we expect our capability to remain the same. Not smart.


So, like me, you have a choice: Go with the grain, or go against it.


When things are relatively stable, or you simply have a good amount of energy, take some time to set up some safeguards. These solutions won't be particularly great, but that's not important. What is important is that they are better than the current way you do things.


For example, you cook and eat healthily. But you know that every time you're stressed, you crave only junk food and pizza. You could pretend that next time will be different; or you could accept that in suboptimal settings, you make suboptimal choices.


Either way, you're probably going to be eating pizza. But if you find a sale and stock up on DiGiorno, or simply keep your eyes open for coupons and specials, you'll spend a lot less when things get rough.


Or maybe you're the CFO in the family, but, when stress hits, you're incapable of coping. Talk to your partner about taking over the reins for a bit when these things happen. (Especially good if you know a big project or other stress-filled event is coming up.)


Sure, his methods won't be the same as yours. That can be hard to accept. He may make a smaller payment on debt in order to have a little more padding in the bank. Or he may not use coupons as religiously as you do. On the other hand, his methods are a lot better than overdraft fees that would otherwise pile up.


Here's one from my life. Right after we got here, Tim and I were barely functional. The stress of the move had worn us down. Because of this, we overdrafted a few times. I simply wasn't paying as close attention to the accounts as I should have been.


I argued our way out of a couple of them. But then a manager told me that they could attach our credit card to our bank account. So, rather than pay $35 in overdraft fees, we'd pay $10 and have $100 transferred from our card into our account.


Not great, by any stretch of the imagination. In a perfect world, I'd keep us from overspending. But this isn't a perfect world. I go through periods where I can't handle things diligently. Tim helps out by calling to check our account balance, but that's not always enough. So, we both agreed that $10 beats $35 -- even when you factor in interest on an extra $100. (Which isn't around for long, since we make weekly payments.)


I'm not saying you should go skipping out the door to the mall because you're having a hard day. What I am saying is that you should know your weaknesses and use your strengths -- just like any other aspect of finance.


When you are feeling good, push forward a little. Try new things; test your limits. But also plan for the times when you'll have to throttle back. You'll find it makes life a lot easier.

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