On ‘Falling Off the Wagon’

There have been so many times over the years when I’ve been caught up in the heat of the moment and spent more money than I should have. I either splurged on something completely forgettable or I bought something that I really didn’t need and wouldn’t have even wanted had I given it more reflection.

Sometimes, it’s easy to fall into a small pattern of this behavior, when I slip into a little routine of spending money without any real consideration. I’ll buy this thing or that thing and, at first, it’s well within my “hobby money” for the month, but then I’ll just not be paying much attention to it or I’ll be involved in something that’s gobbling up my attention and focus and the next time I really think about things, I’ve overshot my plans by a lot.

It is really tempting sometimes, especially in that moment where I’m realizing how bad I messed up, to just say it’s not worth it. I’m sitting there feeling like an idiot because I spent more than I should have on ill-considered purchases and, undeniably, I’ve taken some backwards steps on my spending. I tell myself that it would all be a lot easier if I didn’t think about this stuff.

But then I think a little more, and a few things come into my mind.

The Actual Impact Is Small

It feels like a big mess in the moment, but when I really step back and look at it, it’s not that big of a mess.

Since I’ve started my financial turnaround, I’ve spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars less than I’ve earned. A bad splurge might be on the order of $100 or, in rare cases, a few hundred dollars.

While the impact of that mistake looks big in terms of my weekly or monthly finances, it’s really not that big in terms of the huge progress that I’ve made over the years.

I like to think of this in terms of climbing a mountain. Over the last decade, I’ve climbed 10,000 feet up a mountain. I just lost my grip and slid about 10 feet down. Is that really an excuse to give up? Is that really an excuse to stop using all of the tactics that got me up this far?

If I look around, I’m still in a good place, just not quite as good as I would have been had I been more sensible about things. If I stay off the wagon, I go down from where I’m at now. If I get back on, I keep going up.

This is an important principle to remember no matter where you’re at on your financial journey or any other major life change. If you back away from the tactics that successfully got you to where you’re at, you’re going to go right back to where you were.

The key, as always, is to remember that past mistakes don’t really matter too much other than informing us on how to avoid them going forward. We can’t reclaim the past. We can’t relive a moment in which we made a mistake. All we can do is move forward from the place we’re at to a better place using what we’ve learned from those mistakes.

Thankfully, most mistakes really are small ones. A $100 financial misstep isn’t going to drown the financial progress of most people. While it is unquestionably a step in the wrong direction, it’s not back to square one. The same thing is true when it comes to a dietary mistake or breaking a bad habit. You are not back to square one. One mistake in the last six months is still light years better than where you were at.

Now, what are you going to do from here?

It Might Be a ‘Relief’ in the Short Term, But…

During those moments when you realize that you’ve fallen away from your good habits and you’re feeling guilty about all of your missteps, there’s this voice in your head that’s telling you that this really isn’t a mistake, that it’s a good thing, that it’s a relief to not have to be the “better” person, that it’s far more enjoyable to do things in this “worse” way, that it would be such a relief not to have to follow those hard habits.

It’s a really compelling argument in the short term. This line of thinking absolves you from the guilt of your mistakes and gives you internal permission to just completely give up on your progress. In this moment, people often go over the top in their indulgence. People go on spending sprees, rebound from their diets, completely stop going to the gym, and so on.

The thing to remember is that this is purely the short term part of your brain talking. While it might be enjoyable on some level to just completely undo your positive progress, you’re quickly going to be right back where you started, with all of the old stresses and worries that you were trying to escape in the first place, except that now you’re even older and it’s even harder to climb out again.

Your brain is shouting out all of the short term benefits of your bad habits from the past while ignoring all of the stiff long term consequences of those bad habits. Don’t buy into it. Step back and breathe for a while, and give yourself a chance to think of the long term. Where were you at a year ago? You were most likely in a worse place than you are right now. Do you want to go back to where you were a year ago? I really, really doubt it.

If you focus yourself on the short term when it comes to your personal habits and routine choices, you’re almost always going to wind up in a very bad place. We only make good choices when we consider the long term with at least as much weight as the short term.

The short term thinking stays in bed instead of getting up to go to the gym. The short term thinking gobbles down another piece of pizza instead of recognizing that they’re not hungry any more. The short term thinking spends money on forgettable things because it’s an expression of “freedom.”

Why Did It Happen? How Can I Make It Not Happen Again?

Whenever I find that I’ve fallen “off the wagon” on a personal journey that I’m on, the first question I usually ask myself is why did this happen. Why do I now find myself in this position, when not too long ago things were moving along wonderfully? What changed? Where was that bump in the road that I hit?

When I find myself here, I go searching for solutions. I want to know why things went wrong. I want to know what kind of conditions caused me to give up my good habits and resort to bad ones.

Then, I want to know what exactly I can do to avoid recreating those conditions. What exactly can I do to ensure that I don’t wind up right back in the situation and the mindset that cause me to “fall off the wagon”?

Was I influenced by certain people? Maybe I need to reconsider my friendships if they’re discouraging me from being my best self, and consider new ones. It may be time to actively start seeking out new relationships and friendships that build me up into the person I want to be. It can be hard to find them, but a good place to start is at community events and meet ups, such as ones hosted by the local library, local churches or other religious groups, or Meetup.com.

Was I influenced by excessive “discipline” or denial of things I enjoyed? Maybe I need to consider “ratcheting up” my standards in a particular area. What I mean by that is that if I feel extremely denied in one area of my life and it’s making me feel miserable, it’s probably worth it to loosen things up in just that specific area. Spend some time really thinking about how you can do things differently in a way that makes you feel happy.

Was I influenced by other challenges in my life and used this overspending as a stress outlet? Maybe I need to investigate new methods for handling stress. (For me, the most effective methods are plenty of sleep, a daily mindful meditation session, daily journaling, and intentionally saying “no” to less important tasks.)

Was I influenced by certain places and situations? If so, I need to figure out how to avoid those places and situations. It might involve simply no longer shopping at a certain store, or avoiding certain activities. I had to drop my “after work” drinks with friends that I used to indulge in because I found that those places and situations were dragging me in a very bad direction.

This kind of thinking requires time and evaluation, but it’s well worth it. You’ll almost always lead yourself straight to a better solution to the struggles you’re facing.

My Favorite: What Would The Person I Want To Be Choose To Do?

This is hands-down my favorite approach to the “falling off the wagon” problem.

Falling off the wagon of any self-discipline doesn’t mean that you’ve suddenly altered your ideals in any way. What it means is that, for a while, you didn’t live up to the standards of the person you want to be.

The person you want to be has their head on straight. The person you want to be makes wise financial choices and wise health choices. The person you want to be does a lot of things well.

Think about the person you want to be. Would that person do the things you’re doing? If not, then why on earth are you doing them?

Here’s the nice part: the more you try to emulate the actions of the person you want to be, the more you become the person you want to be. The emulation becomes more and more natural over time.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be perfect at it. None of us ever are. I don’t think anyone on earth ever gets to be exactly the person they want to be.

It’s the effort that matters, though. Few things in life feel better than realizing that you’ve basically been living up to the standards of the person you want to be. It’s not about the individual things you’ve done, but the simple fact that overall you’ve been living up to your principles and standards for yourself. That feels good. That feels really good.

Whenever I fall off the wagon of any discipline I’ve chosen for myself, whether it’s good spending habits, being a great parent, achieving long term goals, whatever it might be, I ask myself what the person I want to be would do right now. What would he do? Then, I do just that.

Because I want to be that person. After all, he’s the person I want to be. I start by acting just like him, and that choice is always the choice I’m facing right now.


This goes back to the short term versus long term idea expressed above, but it’s so important that it deserves its own section.

So often, when we fall off the wagon, it’s because we desired some sort of short term freedom that we felt was missing in our life. We want to have control over our situation in that moment, and we often feel like the best expression of that control is to do something that seems to be the most purely enjoyable option.

We’ll tell ourselves that freedom is staying in bed instead of going to the gym. We’ll tell ourselves that freedom is buying that thing that we want so much instead of just walking on by it. We’ll tell ourselves that freedom is eating that last slice of greasy pizza instead of putting the napkin on our plate.

The thing is, freedom is already there; the simple fact that we do have a choice is what freedom is. Freedom is having the option to stay in bed or to get out of bed. We’re free to choose. Freedom is having the option to eat that piece of pizza or not eat that piece of pizza. We’re free to choose. Freedom is having the option to buy that thing or not buy that thing. We’re free to choose.

However, the choice to buy that thing has an impact on freedom. When we choose to spend our money on something we don’t need, we actually reduce our options. We essentially give up all of the other things we could have done with that money and, very likely, we also give up some future options as well.

If I take $40 and buy a cool new board game, that means I no longer have access to the other options that the $40 represents. Since I didn’t put it away for the future, I also reduce my options down the road.

When I step back and look at the big picture, I realize that freedom is the choice itself, the fact that I can choose to spend or not to spend if I want to. When I choose to exercise the option to spend, I’m actually cutting off some of my future choices. I better be quite sure that I’m making the right choice, but making up my mind about that has nothing to do with personal freedom.

I always have the freedom to choose. Choosing to spend isn’t an expression of freedom any more than choosing not to spend; in fact, it might be a less free option over the long haul.

The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

It is really easy to fall into a mindset that a single mistake means the end of everything you’ve worked for. If you screwed up for a day, you tell yourself that it means that you can’t really do this, that you’re not good enough.

What you’re missing out on is the fact that you’re saying that perfection is the only possible way forward, and that just isn’t true for anything.

Perfection is basically unattainable for anyone. No one is truly perfect at anything they do. People stumble and fall down all of the time, even if you don’t see it. In fact, usually you don’t see it, because people rarely show their faces of weakness to the public. They want to show their strengths.

You are doing good. One misstep in, say, two months is incredibly good, especially compared to where you were at. Saying that the only acceptable pace is no missteps ever is basically a guarantee that you’re going to fail in your initiative.

You messed up once in two months. Think about where you were at a year ago or a few years ago. How often did you mess up in a two month period. Can you really compare the two and say that you are not doing quite good right now? Can you really say that you’re a “failure” after doing that well?

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep moving forward. You’re doing good, you’re doing far better than before, and that’s a far more healthy standard than perfection.

The Journey Isn’t Complete

One final thing to consider when you’ve fallen off the wagon is that your journey isn’t over yet.

Think about your journey as being like a pioneer crossing the plains in the 1800s along the Oregon Trail. You started off in Independence, Missouri and are aiming to eventually arrive in your Willamette Valley.

Right now, you’re somewhere past Fort Kearney, in the wilderness, and your wagon just hit a bump. Are you going to give up and stay here, so far short of your goal, with no idea of the lay of the land? Or will you repair that wagon and keep going westward, heading toward that Willamette Valley of your dreams?

If you prefer, you can also harken back to that mountain climbing analogy from earlier. You’ve scaled up several thousand feet… but have you really achieved what you came here to do? Is this really the spot where you’re going to give up, when you know you have the tools to keep going?

If you’re going to fall short of your goals, do it for a real reason, not just because of a momentary setback or a bump in the road. That’s an excuse. Your true destination lies ahead of you, and it is far closer than it was when you started. In fact, if you’ve been making good financial moves, you’re probably accelerating toward it on the back of fewer debt payments and more returns on your investments.

Your journey isn’t finished yet. The finish line is closer than ever. Don’t give up now.

Final Thoughts

Whenever I hit a bump on my path, I usually find that some combination of these tactics works well for me. Personally, I get a lot of value out of thinking about what the ideal version of me would do, but all of these strategies have helped me at some time or another.

The key thing to remember is that a bump in the road is just that, a little bump. It is not the end of anything. It’s just another part of your journey.

Good luck!

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