90 Is Still An A
My former roommate and one of my best friends in university was the textbook example of an overachiever. She would study at all hours, survive on coffee and adrenaline, and exist only in a frazzled, constant state of imposter syndrome. At times I was so worried about her that I’d do her grocery shopping so she wouldn’t starve at her desk.
One night, we’d invited friends over to our dorm. She came out of her room, textbook in hand, and proceeded to continue studying while she ‘socialized’ with us. At that point, I had a bit of a moment. In front of everyone, I told her that she was pushing herself too hard, that she shouldn’t be there if she wasn’t going to be fully present, and that the additional effort she was putting in wouldn’t even show up on her transcripts.
It wasn’t my finest motivational speech, to say the least. I found out later that I’d made her cry, which was awful and something I still feel terrible about. I’ve never been the best at tactful communicating – I want nothing more than to see my friends succeed but sometimes my commentary comes out more judgemental than caring. I’m working on it. Fortunately, after my words had settled she did see the logic behind them. The extra hours of work she was putting in and the stress she carried to get 95-100% on exams and assignments were giving her diminishing returns. It doesn’t show on a transcript whether you received 91% or 100% – once you hit 90% it’s all the same grade: A+.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. My friend started to enjoy herself a bit more, still received stellar grades, won awards for her research, and went on to medical school where she tried (unsuccessfully) to encourage her new classmates to lighten up just a little.
90 Is Still An A
At some point I realized I’d fallen into the same trap of aiming for 100 when I really should have been aiming for 90. I’d read too many near-perfect expense reports from too many near-perfect spenders. You know the ones. Grocery bills less than someone else would spend on their pet food because they only eat oatmeal, lentils, and rice; one coffee in their meals out category but they’ll try harder to kick that vice next month; and zero other non-housing costs because walking and thinking are free. I admire these people, but I am not one of them and I never will be.
If you haven’t already guessed, I’m not naturally frugal. I’m frugal sometimes, in some categories, because I’m prioritizing other things, but I don’t naturally gravitate toward low spending. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that that’s okay. Just like I don’t need to aim to earn billions because I’m not interested in a life of luxury, I also don’t need to aim for minimal spending because I’m not interested in retiring that early. I love my job (when I don’t hate it), I’m finally at a place in my life where I’m earning enough to enjoy my success while contributing to my financial goals, and I do value some things that cost money.
In my life, for my situation, retiring at some point in my early 40s is what I’m aiming for and what I would consider a 90 in my books. I’ve limited my lifestyle enough to reduce my career by 20 years. Sure, I could try to cut more and reach financial independence even earlier, but I’d be trading things I truly value for the next 10-15 years just to reach a milestone a few years earlier. The last 10% isn’t worth it to me, because it wouldn’t change the transcript.
I’ll always fall somewhere in between, and above average is not failing. I’ll still be able to leave mandatory work behind on my own terms if I buy new things and travel and go out to dinner occasionally. I’ll still be able to save 50% of my net income when many Canadians who earn much more than I do are saving less than 5%. It’s okay to delay a milestone for a few months or years if you have other goals that you want to tackle first. It’s all about prioritizing – 90 is still an A!
…Except When It’s Not
I couldn’t talk about financial goals without acknowledging that sometimes, 100 isn’t even an A. Sometimes you’re pushing yourself to the limit, doing everything that you can, and you’re still not making it. I used to earn $10,000 per year while I was in university, barely enough to cover my rent even with two roommates, and no amount of budgeting or reducing my grocery bill would have made that math work.
At the time, I had to choose between having more debt, not spending time with my spouse, or less relevant work experience for my future career. I chose having more debt, because I didn’t want to sacrifice my relationship or the higher probability of a solid job after graduation. Fortunately, it all worked out. My experience at part time jobs, my success in university, and a significant amount of luck landed me a great position within a few months – and my relationship stayed intact. If I didn’t get that first job, my life with six figures of debt could look very different right now!
As much as I despise my student loans, I’m also grateful that I was able to use debt to attain my goals without giving up other things that were more important to me. I’ve had my cell phone cut off, my credit card has been declined, I’ve lived out of the pantry because the month lasted longer than the money – but I’ve never been in a long-term place of financial insecurity. I’ve always known that if I was in a dire situation I could ask family for help, or move back in with my parents. Living in your childhood bedroom again is often seen as an undesirable last resort scenario, but it’s also a major luxury that I’ve tended to take for granted.
Money is not as easy as we sometimes make it seem. Part of being on a debt free journey or pursuing financial independence is trying to stay motivated. We tell ourselves it’s easy and that we can do it and that anyone can do it because we need to tell ourselves that to be able to keep going. The reality is that it’s hard, and it’s harder when you have less of a safety net, or no safety net at all. I hope that if you have space to breathe, you take it. I hope that if you don’t have space to breathe, you find it. If you can, remember that it’s okay to aim for 90.