Christmas in particular was always a very happy time. My mom loved to make Christmas feel special and never disappointed. From putting up all of our quirky ornaments (which would inevitably weigh down the tree and cause it to come crashing down), to watching The Santa Clause for the 100th time, to our Christmas morning routine of waiting for everyone to wake up so the kids could be videotaped walking down the stairs on the way to the presents (this still happens), our family traditions were things I looked forward to year-round.
Last year was the first Christmas where my wife and I had a child of our own and were in the position to really start crafting some of our Christmas traditions. Yes, we had been together for Christmas before, but the game changes with kids. Now it was about creating a magical experience for our son.
This is where I messed up.
My natural inclination was to go back to the traditions I knew from my childhood and try to replicate them. Which sounds pretty logical on the surface, right? After all, they were happy memories. Why wouldn’t we want more of those?
Well, the thing is that while those traditions created a lot of happy memories for me growing up, they weren’t necessarily right for my life now. See, my wife hadn’t grown up with any of these traditions. Neither had my son. So when I attempted to emulate them it became a form of self-indulgence that the two of them didn’t really know how to participate in.
I was making a very common mistake.
It would have been productive to use my past experiences as a guide to help create new traditions for my new family.
What I did instead was blindly try to cut and paste those past experiences into my current life, without any thought as to whether they truly fit.
We often do the same thing with our money habits
This is a mistake I’ve also made when it comes to money, and I think it’s a common one.
We all have money habits we’ve built up over the years. Some we learn very early on from our parents. Others we learn from friends. Others we learn from our own experiences, or from things we read.
Some of these habits are good. Some aren’t so good.
But whether we’re talking about our good habits or our bad ones, the mistake we often make is in letting them continue unchecked.
With bad habits, this is clearly a harmful cycle.
But even good habits left unchecked can keep us from reaching our full potential.
The reality is that our lives change and habits that worked well for us even just a couple of years ago may no longer fit our current situation.
When good habits go bad
When I was fresh out of college, my dad convinced me to open a Roth IRA. Luckily I took his advice and set up an automatic monthly contribution to the tune of $250. Pretty good start for a recent grad!
But here’s the thing. While $250 per month was a great way to start, that amount was only leaving my with a $3,000 contribution per year. Given that the maximum contribution to an IRA at the time was $5,000, I was leaving $2,000 on the table.
Now at the time, $250 a month was what I could afford, so that habit worked really well for me. But a year later I was making a little more money and had developed a few more budgeting skills. I was in a new position in my life, one where if I had made the effort I could have saved that extra $2,000.
So what did I do? Nothing. I just assumed that my good habit was still good and kept on living my life. By failing to re-evaluate my habits in light of my new situation, I was basically throwing away $2,000 (actually much more than that with the investment returns I could have earned over the years).
Eventually I smartened up and increased my contribution to reach the maximum. But I’ll never get back that $2,000.
Living the life we want takes work
Good or bad, our past experiences are powerful learning tools. But they are not exact blueprints for how to live our lives today.
Bad habits don’t have to be repeated indefinitely. We have the ability to learn new ways of doing things and break out of those harmful cycles.
Even good habits need to be checked from time to time. The things that worked yesterday can inform how we do things today, but they may need to be tweaked to align with our current goals.
So as your life changes, take stock of your new situation and how your current habits align with your new goals. If they still work, then great! Keep it up. But don’t be afraid to make changes.
Our ideal life is not a static target, and reaching it will take regular adjustments along the way.
Have you ever had a good habit turn bad? How did you recognize it? How did you change it?
Photo courtesy of wolfsavard