I’m a financial planner. My job is to give financial advice to people and help them plan out the life they want using money as a tool.
But I also believe advice isn’t everything. Sometimes, there’s no substitute for your own experiences and life lessons learned.
Here’s an example of what I mean: My fiancee frequently talks about the fact that had she not already had the experience of buying and selling a home, and all the good and bad that goes with it, she would not find it so easy to avoid making an emotional decision and wanting to buy in a market that doesn’t financially favor buyers (like Boston in March of 2018).
She’d act emotionally because she didn’t have the experience of what it was really like to go through that process — and maybe mess up a little along the way.
But because she already gained knowledge through the experience, she can make the more rational, financially-better choice today and not feel tempted to do something that isn’t right for her (or us).
You Can Avoid Some Mistakes Through Sound Advice, But Sometimes There’s No Substitute for Experiential Learning
This is one form of experiential learning, or the process of gaining knowledge through actually doing something yourself. Compare that to other types of learning, in which you gain knowledge through someone teaching or advising you.
Both learning styles are extremely valuable and necessary. And the advantage of learning through someone else’s teachings, advice, or experience is that you can avoid big, costly mistakes by not taking the wrong actions or choosing the wrong experiences for yourself.
But I bet you can think of a time where, despite the fact that you might have “known better” or had someone giving you really great advice, you went against that advice anyway… and that lead to some sort of mistake, screw-up, or failure.
You didn’t really know better until you got the experience, went through the process, and could learn from your own mistakes.
There are situations and times in life where we just don’t get it until we experience it. And that’s okay! The key is not to try to avoid it and never make mistakes or allow yourself to experience what you need to get the deep understanding you want.
You just need to plan for the inevitable times when the only lesson to learn is the hard one of making your own mistakes.
How to Financially Prepare for Mistakes and Screw-Ups
You should make space in your financial plan for your learning experiences, and yes, inevitable failures. Again, this isn’t about perfection all the time or avoiding every single mistake (although, you do want to avoid the most costly missteps so you can reach your financial goals and enjoy success).
Here are a few ways you can create that space in your financial life. This should give you some peace of mind and alleviate the pressure knowing that you don’t have to get it exactly right every single time you leave the gate.
1. Have an Emergency Fund
An emergency fund is critical to financial success. It helps protect you (and your money) from the unexpected — in whatever form the unexpected might take.
Depending on how many financial responsibilities and obligations you have, and how many different income streams your family has, you’ll want to keep anywhere between 3 and 6 months’ worth of income in a liquid savings account you can access in a moment’s notice should you need that cash.
Some people feel more comfortable with 6 to 12 months’ worth of income saved away, and this might make good sense if you have a variable income stream (because you freelance or run a business, for example), or you just want to mitigate your risk to a greater degree.
But only tap this fund if it’s a true emergency and your monthly cash flow can’t cover the cost. We’re talking major issues, worst-case scenarios, and stressful situations here — not, “oh, I wanted to take a trip but didn’t bother planning for it a few months ago. I’ll just use my emergency fund so I can go now.”
Nope. It doesn’t work like that. Your emergency fund is for emergencies. It’s your financial safety net, so don’t take that away from yourself, or your family, for some instant gratification.
2. Leave a Cash Cushion
Yes, this is different than your emergency fund. You want to keep some cash on hand in your checking account to cover small “oops” moments, or even just accounting and budgeting miscalculations.
To create that cash cushion, don’t spend every last dollar you make! It’s not enough to live at your means. You need to live far below them to create enough room for savings, investments, and wiggle room with your everyday spending.
3. Budget in Random or Miscellaneous Spending
This is another way of making sure money is available if you make a mistake with your money during the month. If you already have a “miscellaneous” line item in your budget, it won’t be so disruptive to your cash flow — and if you sail through the month with flying financial colors, then you can add that extra money to your cash cushion or use it as a bonus contribution to your savings or investment account.
Go Beyond Finances and Work on Discovering What Truly Matters to You
Planning is a solid step. Building in safety nets to your financial plan is a great idea to help you avoid getting into trouble with your money down the road.
The one thing we know about the unexpected is that it is inevitable, but never learning how to reduce the mistakes you make is not. Once you set up your guardrails to keep you safe, make sure you have a plan for actually learning from your experiences instead of simply repeating them over and over again and failing to get the lesson.
In other words, take time to pause and reflect on your experiences so you actually learn from them. Think about what matters to you, and be mindful of the choices that reflect who you really are — and see if you can spot the pattern in the less-than-mindful decisions you might have made in the past.
The more aware you are, and the more you understand yourself and what you want in your life, the better you’ll get at making the right decisions.