Don’t Focus on the Numbers

focus on numbers

Everyone loves a personal story. We like to hear how other people paid off debt, retired early, paid for college, or afforded that fabulous vacation. Personal stories are fun to read and can be inspiring.

However, too many people focus on just the numbers in these stories and then get all bent out of shape because the numbers given aren’t exactly like theirs. They complain in the comment trails of blogs or give bashing reviews to books saying, “This [whatever inspiring thing the author has done] isn’t possible in the real world. The numbers just don’t add up.”

But it isn’t the numbers that readers should focus on. Costs of living vary widely across the U.S. and around the world. What a $50,000 income will buy in one place may not even cover the basics in another. While certain money saving behaviors might work well in one area (going without a car, foregoing air conditioning, clipping coupons, etc.), they might not be possible or as cost efficient in another. The numbers will always be different based on where you live and how much you make. Unless you live in the same location as the author and have their exact job, you’ll never be able to compare apples to apples.

Yet instead of dismissing the author’s story as either an outright lie or a mathematical impossibility, stop and look at how they achieved their goal. Whether the person paid off $50,000 of debt in one year on a $90,000 income, or whether they took a $4,000 vacation on a $20,000 income isn’t the point. The point is that they took certain steps to achieve their goals. That’s what you should take from such personal stories. Don’t worry about whether their numbers exactly match what you think is possible. Focus on learning from the tips and advice the storyteller is giving you.

Almost every personal story tells you the things that they did to achieve their goal. They list the items that they cut out or reduced in their budgets. The detail the sacrifices they made. Some of their advice may not apply to you. Some of it will. But the point isn’t to give you a roadmap to follow exactly. The point is to get you thinking about changes you can make in your own life to achieve your personal goals.

Here’s an example: You read an article about how someone is able to live without a car and that they save $10,000 a year in maintenance, gas, insurance, taxes, etc. You think, “Bah. I can’t do that here, so this article is rubbish. It’s impossible to save $10,000 per year.”

But if you stop focusing on the numbers and think about what the person is actually doing, you might be able to come away with a few money saving strategies. Maybe you can’t eliminate a car entirely, but maybe there are times of the year when walking or biking is more appealing. Maybe you have some public transportation that, while not great for everyday commuting, can be used once per week or so for more casual outings. Maybe you can find a carpool twice per week, or work out some type of car sharing arrangement with a friend. Maybe you’ll be reminded to shop around for a better deal on your insurance. No, you won’t save the $10,000 mentioned in the article by trying some of these strategies, but you’ll save something.

It’s the same with larger goals. Someone discusses how they retired early and people cry, “Not possible for me! I don’t have that kind of income (or I have too many kids or I can’t give up my extras, etc.).” But they don’t stop and think, “Hey, I might not make that kind of money and I might have some limitations that the author did not, but there are things I can do to cut my expenses. Look at all the things this person does to save money. Some of it would work for me, and I’ve got access to things she doesn’t mention. Maybe I can’t retire at forty, but maybe I can manage it by fifty-five.” Just because you won’t make it on the same timetable as the author doesn’t mean that your goal is worthless or unachievable. It’s just different.

When you get hung up on the numbers in a book or a blog post, you often dismiss some valuable advice. At the very least, the story will likely to inspire you to think differently about your own spending. And that’s where change starts. You’ll only make yourself nuts if you try to make your numbers match someone else’s exactly, but you can take the advice, wisdom, and inspiration contained in the story and use it to make your own success. It won’t be the same as the author’s, but it might be even better.

(Photo courtesy of Luis Argerich)

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2 Responses to Don’t Focus on the Numbers

  1. jim says:

    Excellent insight!

  2. Anni says:

    So personal finance is…personal.

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