A Scope and Sequence for Your Finances

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A Scope and Sequence for Your Finances is the first part of a series by Ryan Frailich discussing financial planning for teachers. Over time, we’ll be releasing posts that will dig into managing your cashflow, retirement planning, insurance, and all the other things floating around your financial life. Stay tuned!

The day after Valentine’s Day, I was talking to a friend who is dating a teacher. She said that they had had a lovely date, but when they got home, her boyfriend told her that he had to finish up a lesson plan for the next day.  I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard this because it felt simultaneously very familiar and baffling. I’ve been a teacher, and I’m married to a teacher, so I fully appreciate the challenge of getting (and staying) ahead on lesson plans. That said, not planning ahead on Valentine’s Day when you’re in a new relationship? Sounds like someone could use a long-term plan to guide where they’re going.

It’s remarkable how many parallels I’ve found from my days teaching to my current job as a financial planner.  Just as so many teachers are struggling to get lessons ready day to day, we know Americans struggle to have a financial outlook beyond the immediate future.  One 2016 study found 56.3% of people surveyed had less than $1,000 combined in their checking and savings account.  In teaching and in financial planning, this is understandable because there are so many competing demands on your time.  In teaching, you’re always pulled in 14 directions.  The same is happening to your finances, and it’s hard to make heads or tails of what the best use of time is as a teacher, or the best use of a dollar is in your personal life. While both may seem normal, they are also both enormously stressful, and for most people, some up-front planning can help to pull themselves out of that day-to-day outlook.

I love working with teachers on their finances because they come with so many built-in strategies and skills from their professional life that are transferable to their financial life.  I encourage all of my clients to envision exactly what they would want in an ideal life, in much the same way a teacher envisions what they want their students to get out of their class over a full year.  From there, a teacher breaks the year into units, knowing each teaching decision has to align to the big picture understandings they’re aiming for.  For each unit, you have individual goals and outcomes, in the same way a financial plan may incorporate multiple shorter term goals (e.g., building an emergency fund, paying off a car) that work towards a larger goal, such as being in a financial position to purchase a home or survive a job loss without incurring debt.  

Once there is clarity at the big picture level and some concrete interim goals, the day-to-day in both cases becomes so much easier.  Teachers who know how any day is connected to a bigger theme get to avoid the overwhelming feeling of a blank word document staring back at them, knowing they need to write their lesson for the next day.  With short- and long-term objectives, there’s a clear path.  The same is true with our finances. When someone has clarity on their longer-term financial goals, daily decisions become so much clearer.  When you know you’ve already made a commitment to saving $100/month towards a vacation fund, setting that aside is much easier than “I’ll transfer what’s left at the end of the month to my savings.”  

Of course, both of these things are roughly 372x easier to say than they are to do.  It takes practice.  The paper plan gets thrown off in both cases.  You get sick and miss five days of class, a unit falls apart because of huge gaps in prior knowledge, or the school schedule gets overhauled and suddenly you’re teaching 15-minute shorter periods every day.  It’s tempting to think that long term planning is a waste given the inevitable changes that come in a school year, but it’s actually the opposite: the big picture planning allows you to adjust, remove items, consolidate, and clarify the most important takeaways.  Without it, you may end up deviating dramatically from the outcomes you’d hoped for. In fact, knowing that change is coming is precisely why you need a long-term plan, not a reason for not having one.

In fact, knowing that change is coming is precisely why you need a long-term plan, not a reason for not having one.

The same holds true in your financial life.  Your car may break down (or maybe you’ll pay it off and it’ll run 7 more years!), you may lose your job (or get a raise!), or any other of a myriad of things, good and bad, that will happen in any given year. Having a plan makes the decision making easier because you’re clear on what you’re working towards, and how any decision brings that outcome closer or makes it further away. It’s not a linear process; you will take steps forward and steps backward because life is messy and unpredictable, just like a classroom. Carl Richards, who writes about money topics for the NY Times says it best when he tells clients, “We’re not committed to THIS plan, but we’re committed to the process of continually planning.”  

If you’re struggling to figure out where to go with your finances, put those teacher skills to work.  Step back and envision what you want in terms of outcomes.  Build short-term goals along the way.  If you need to, ask for help to clarify your goals, and figure out how to prioritize them.  Then use that foundation to bring you closer to what you envisioned – one day at a time.  You’ll be blown away by how much progress you’ll make when you know where you’re headed.

(c) Ryan Frailich

Ryan Frailich is the founder of Deliberate Finances, a registered investment adviser in the state of Louisiana.  Information presented is for educational purposes only and should not be relied on for investment or other financial decisions.  Be sure to first consult with a qualified financial adviser and/or tax professional before implementing any strategy discussed herein. 

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