Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advice for Saving Money During the Holidays

When I was in high school I went on a few 50 mile hikes with some members of my church. Every year we would hike a 50 mile route through Dark Canyon in southern Utah. I grew to love that canyon. In total I went 3 times as a youth (ages 16, 17, and 18) and twice as a leader (ages 21 and 25). Over those 250 hard miles I’ve learned a ton about myself and life in general. 

In light of these approaching holidays I wanted to share an experience that I had on my second year on this hike and use it to draw some potentially helpful conclusions. And as always, feel free to draw some of your own conclusions and leave then in the comments below for the rest of us. 

The Story

Normally the 3,000+ foot cliff walls of Dark Canyon are the deep read and brown of the sandstone common in the Southwest. Typically this portion of the US doesn’t get very much rain, but when it does these cliff walls quickly turn near black – leading to the name of Dark Canyon. In the days of the Wild West, Dark Canyon was known as a hide out and place of retreat for the outlaws of the area because it was hard to get into but had great sources of fresh water.

Fast forward 150 years to the first week of June 2005. The terrain is basically untouched but the rag-tag band that was slowly picking their way up the 3,000 foot rockslide known as Sundance in the middle of a rain storm was far from being a pack of desperados. Instead, we were a group of about 15 boy scouts and leaders with large black trash bags draped over us to act as ponchos. During that two hour climb we got to see the canyon walls turn black firsthand. By the time we reached the rim of the canyon the rains had stopped so we were able to stow our trash bags for the remaining 5 miles back to the parking lot where our trucks were waiting.

However, only an hour later, with about 1 mile left we could see the rains coming at us for downpour #2. Since we were so close to our destination and being able to safely huddle inside of the dry trucks, our leader, who was always at the head of our column, stepped aside and told us “There’s only a mile left, the trail is easy to follow, you guys might as well just take off and get there before the rains catch you.”

And with that we took off. I was coming from recently finishing my track season, grew up absolutely loving to run through the sagebrush desert, and I had the smallest, lightest pack that impeded my running the least. After only a few minutes I found myself well ahead of the rest of the group, convinced that I was going to make it back to the trucks first (bragging rights that we all aspired to each year). Everything was going great until I found that the trail lead me out onto a large slab of sandstone and disappeared. I stood there for a bit but couldn’t see any of the piles of rocks that typically showed where the trail picked up again. However, before anyone was able to catch up I noticed a trail off to my left and was off again. 

I kept expecting to see the trucks any second but the trail just kept going and going. Eventually it started raining again before I finally ran up to the edge of a cliff and realized that I had been following an old cattle trail. I decided to head back to my sandstone slab but found that my tracks had already been washed out and that, coming from this direction, the trail had many branches. I was lost.

Long story short, I was eventually making my way to a small plateau to see if I could see any roads when I caught a glimpse of a truck driving in the distance. I made my way towards where I had seen it and eventually popped out of the piƱons and saw a group of trucks waiting for me. They later told me that they were just realizing that I was the only one not back yet and trying to decide what to do when I was spotted coming through the trees, soaking wet, splattered with mud, and wearing a huge smile like I had been having the time of my life. 

When I told them what had happened they all looked at me like I was an idiot and informed me that there weren’t any rock piles marking the trail where I got lost because if you looked up and to the right you could see the trucks about 100 yards off.  

It’s a story that still gets told when they go to Dark Canyon and we all laugh about it, but for about an hour we were all pretty scared for my safety. I was so close to finishing but made one mistake right at the end and spent just over an hour running 6-8 miles in the rain before I got to the end. I had gone 50 miles on the right path but fell off in the last 100 yards (I had literally gone 99.9% of the way and blew it in the last 0.1%).

Life Lessons Learned (with a financial twist of course ;) )

1)      It doesn’t matter how hard you’ve worked or how close you are to achieving your goal – you can still make dreadful mistakes. I think of someone who has set up a solid financial plan, been actively working towards it for years, but gets hit with an urge to splurge and blows the chance to achieve their goal on time and has to spend a few more years working their plan. As an example, if I were to go crazy and spend an extra $1,000 this holiday season on gifts that will probably be forgotten about in a few years time, my spreadsheets estimate that my anticipated date of retirement would be pushed back 15 days. And if this becomes a habit and begins to occur every year from now on? That would tack on an additional 6 months of being required to work. PLEASE, STAY ON COURSE ALL THE WAY TO THE END!!!

2)      There’s strength in numbers. Everyone else got to the end unimpeded. I got lost because I found myself completely alone. If I had stayed with the group or chosen to wait a minute or two until they caught up I would have avoided a lot of extra effort. In our financial lives, it is helpful to have others around you that you can confide in. Gatekeepers to help you avoid making stupid purchases that could wreck your finances. Mentors that will teach you and help you avoid the common pitfalls and teach you how money really works. A family that reminds you to stay responsible. A responsible* community to push you towards the finish.
*Note the use of “responsible” community. Often we overspend out of peer pressure or a desire to keep up with others. So we need to align ourselves with those with similar goals who will help us make responsible decisions.

3)      No matter how bad the situation try to keep smiling, look for a way out, and take some time afterwards to evaluate what you learned from it. We all make dumb choices sometimes but the trick is to learn from them and move on. If you have a habit of not saving any money then you’ve gained a great (however expensive) lesson on how your mind works with money and you can move forward with another idea for how to stash your cash (like this one).             
I hope that you have found this story helpful and can learn from my mistakes. I love the quote which says, “A wise man learns from his mistakes. A super wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” Hopefully I’ve given you the chance to make some super wise choices going forward. And while I wasn’t fast enough to get this out to you before the lure of Black Friday and Cyber Monday hit, it’s not too late to make some returns if you now realize that you’ve overexerted yourself and deviated from your plan.

Have a great (and responsible) holiday season.


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