How long does it take to achieve financial wellness?

If you’re not in the mood for an overlong, super whiny, self-aggrandizing blog post (because I know I rarely am), here is the short answer to the above question: It takes as long as it takes.

Translation: longer than you want it to.

I started this blog about nine months ago, but that’s not when I started my journey to financial wellness (I totally just outed myself as a self-help reader there). I actually began my journey in July 2011. That’s when I asked a friend who I admire and trust* to sit down with me and figure out how I was going to change my financial life. That was a year and a half ago. It’s been a long road.

I drew this chart to represent my progress since.

And I am still not there. Not yet. If I continue on my current path, I will be at what I consider to be financial wellness (only mortgage debt, and a safety net in the bank) by November 2013.

Here’s how I have managed to get this far:

1) Accountability: This blog, basically. Knowing that I have regular readers (hi Mom, Ashley, Karen, Auntie Marj, Kathy and Amanda. I REALLY appreciate your support. Thank you for making sure I never have a zero hits day) has stopped me several times from making a stupid financial decision in the last nine months. Not everyone wants to air their dirty (money) laundry in public, but there are other ways to remain accountable to yourself. You could show your financial statements to someone you love each month. Not someone who will forgive you, but someone who knows how to tough love you. Just make sure there is a watchdog who is not you.

2) Small rewards: The reason many people fall off the wagon is that the beginning of a financial journey is so slow. So. Slow. (Please reference the above highly scientific chart.) It’s like taking one step every month, when you know there is a marathon ahead of you. You need small rewards to motivate you, things you value. I love nail polish. My nail polish collection is embarrassing. It’s something I don’t need, and I could cut it out of my financial diet all together. But how depressing, right? I’m so restrained that I can’t even buy a measly bottle of $7 nail polish? So I gave myself a nail polish gift here and there. It perked me up a tiny bit, and it made me feel less poor. (As in…Look how rich I am! I can afford this totally unnecessary luxury!)

3) Big victories:  When I received a letter in the mail from the provincial government informing me that I longer owed any money on one of my student loans, I posted the note on my fridge. Every time I looked at it, my heart soared (like the nail polish moment except times 20). Celebrate your big victories for as long as you can. Forever, in fact. Even now – many months later – thinking about that letter gives me great pleasure. It tells me what I am capable of when I put my mind to it. Conventional wisdom argues that you pay off the highest interest debt first. But when I went for counselling at Money Mentors, the woman I spoke to said I should pay off this lower interest student loan first. “It will give you a boost,” she said. She was so right. Paying off this loan gave me the confidence to tackle my credit card debt, and I no longer carry a balance on my credit card. I’ve even learned how to use one like a grownup.

No matter what you do to clean up your financial garbage, stay the course. As difficult as it was to take responsibility for my financial life, it’s been worth it. I’m still not exactly where I want to be. But I know I’m a little more than halfway there.

It’s mile 16, and my pace is right where it should be.

~HS

*Her name is Aleksandra. She is a refreshing combination of blunt and gentle. When she says to me, “you look sad, what’s wrong?” in her thick Polish accent, it always opens a floodgate I can’t dam up. She is also an accountant who is the most fiscally talented person I know. She is a good friend to have, indeed.

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