Urgent vs. Important

When I got my first full-time paycheck, the last thing on my mind was retirement. I was so excited to be able to pay my bills without stress and not have to check my bank account every time I went out with friends. It was such a relief to finally be in a viable financial position! The one thing that weighed on me most financially was my student loan debt. For the first time, I actually had to stare the numbers in the face and make a solid repayment plan. It felt like this enormous monkey on my back and I wanted it off as soon as possible. So I decided to make a beeline toward repaying my student loan debt with any extra money that came my way.


Still, I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision. It ended up taking me seven years to pay off my student loan debt. If I had started saving just 1% for retirement when I started my first job, it would have taken less than $30 out of my paycheck each month. That wouldn’t have taken much of a bite out of my student loan debt repayment plan. But that 1% contribution saved each month over the past 7 years would have added up to nearly $3,000 today. And even if, let’s say, I stop saving right now but I keep the money in the stock market and average about a 5% return, that 1% alone could add up to nearly $30,000 when I retire.[1] Just that small step forward on this long-term goal could have made a big difference. That’s why if I could go back and give any advice to my younger self, it would be to pay attention to the important goals, not just those that feel urgent.


Wondering how to juggle the urgent vs. the important in your life? Check out these tips:


1.     Take the Long View: While everyone defines “urgent” and “important” differently, there are some things financial experts agree are cornerstones of anyone’s financial life: creating a realistic budget, saving for emergencies, repaying high interest debt (particularly credit card debt), and building up a retirement nest egg.

Tip: Those last three goals are pretty heavy, and it’s easy to want to run towards something more attainable. Instead of thinking about those big goals in their entirety, I encourage you to focus on the small steps (like stashing away $20/month for emergencies or saving just 1% toward retirement) that will get you there.


2.     Imagine your Future Self: It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the problems you need to solve in the here and now that you forget to consider who the you of tomorrow might be. Take a moment to visualize yourself in 10, 20, or even 30 years. What will be most important to that person? What will they thank you for? I know my future self will be grateful for money I’ve put toward creating financial security, but I know she’ll also be grateful looking back at all of the adventures we’ve had and the way we’ve made travel a key priority.

Tip: One way to make this real is to write a letter from your future self to yourself today telling you about his/her life, thanking you for what you’ve done to get him/her where they are today, and giving you advice on how to live your best life right now. I know it sounds a bit hokey, but this is a great way to reconnect with what matters most to you both today and tomorrow. Don’t knock it until you try it.


3.     Don’t Be Led Astray By Your Feelings: We often use emotions to measure urgency: How much is something weighing on us? But while you should certainly be attentive to your feelings, they’re usually not the best measure of what’s really urgent. Something is urgent when it has a specific timeline that can’t be changed, or it’s an emergency that came up that needs to be tended to immediately.

Tip: Before you rush to define an expense as urgent, take a moment to problem-solve. Are there ways you could lessen the financial blow? Is this timeline really set in stone or are you forcing this on yourself? Are there other longer-term goals that deserve more attention? Sometimes the answer to all of these questions is “no,” but in most cases there’s usually at least one “yes.” When that happens, your willingness to be flexible, patient, and even a bit creative with this expense will go a long way in helping you put the important ahead of the urgent.


4.     Take a “Both/And” Approach: Most long-term goals get shelved because of “either/or” thinking, meaning “I can’t think about anything else until this one urgent need is met.” When it came to my student loan debt, I couldn’t imagine putting money towards anything else — but I never stopped to think about the longer-term ramifications of this decision. And since I had enough student loan debt to keep my finances consumed for not just a few months, but a few years, that set me even further behind on those long-term goals.

Tip: Try thinking about putting money towards your goals in terms of percentages. Could you give your most urgent goal 80% instead of 100% and maybe put 10% towards emergencies and 10% toward retirement? I’m guessing 80% wouldn’t lengthen your short-term savings timeline that much, but it would certainly help put you in a better position over the long-term. If you take this approach, be sure to stash that 20% away right away before you’re tempted to use that money for something else.

Sometimes you and your partner may define urgent and important differently. This Thursday, Oct. 17, I’ll be going live on Facebook at 8pm Central (and posting to IGTV after) to discuss the challenge of finding your priorities together as a couple.

For this month’s Date Night Club, I’ve created a prioritization worksheet to help couples make sense of their different financial goals to ensure they aren’t losing the important in the midst of the urgent. Whether you’re newly committed or you’ve been married a long time, learn more and join today!

[1] $3,000 contribution, assuming 39 years until retirement with a 5% annual investment return, using this calculator.