Queen of Free: Overcoming the ‘doing everything that we can’ attitude

I recently traveled about an hour away to speak at a public library. I shared our story and many practical ways to save money, asking the audience what stores they frequented so I could customize my tips for their experience.

One of the women said that she was old enough to be my mother and very frugal but still was surprised she had learned a few new tricks to stretch her dollar further. Fifteen minutes later I settled back into my car, driving home happy to know I had helped another person who longed to make the most of her money.

When it comes to helping people pay off debt and use their resources wisely, I typically encounter two types of people. The first group, like the eager participant at the library workshop, longs to learn. He or she grasps the importance of acquiring new skills and asking for help. The second group, while no less excited about saving money or paying off what they owe, embraces a different attitude. The most common rejoinder from this contingent, comprised of only seven words, drives me absolutely crazy. I can even hear the forlorn notes in the person’s voice:

“We’re already doing everything that we can.”

The growth mindset

My daughter’s second-grade teacher spent an entire unit this year instructing 8-year-olds about the importance of having a growth mindset. The concept was popularized by author Carol Dweck and those who engage a growth mindset believe that they can acquire new skills or abilities when they invest the time and effort in study. On the contrary, those with a fixed mindset believe that you’re either born with a skill set or not, leaving little room for — you guessed it — growth.

When it comes to personal finance, you must have a growth mindset. As soon as you reel out the “We’re doing everything that we can” mandate, you close your mind to opportunity, learning and success. This pesky little sentence (often paired with numerous excuses) slams the door shut and throws away the key to a brighter financial future.

We did all sorts of crazy things when we paid off $127,000 in debt. We quit restaurants. We gave up meat for about six months. The only paper goods we purchased were those for the bathroom. We didn’t vacation, took on more than one extra job and made our own laundry detergent. Can I be honest with you? We didn’t do everything that we could. I’m certain we could have been more intentional with our spending practices or found another way to cut back or even found an additional source of employment.

A ‘can do’ attitude

Perhaps I’m an over-the-top, Pollyanna-styled optimist, but each success story I hear of someone paying off debt holds a key common component. The people who took on their debt believed they could actually do it. Couples, families and individuals sick and tired of feeling stretched too thin took hold of hope and plunged into the journey of reorganizing their finances.

These brave debt slayers were not head-in-the-clouds dreamers, though. They knew there would be sacrifice, long days and difficulty ahead. Gulping back fear and fighting through the impulse to avoid pain, these bold men and women chose their own financial path. But they chose something else, too. They chose a positive attitude.

Oftentimes, we long for an easy three-step plan to better our lives — whether it’s to lose weight, improve our careers, enhance our marriages or become better parents. We long for spreadsheets and a formulaic approach to magically transform each of these pursuits.

In reality, much more and much less is required of us. There are no simple steps, no workarounds, no cheats to personal growth. But each choice we make must begin with an attitude adjustment. If you believe your finances are past saving, more than likely you’re right and no one will be able to convince you otherwise.

Move beyond optimism

Once you embrace the potential for growth and choose a positive outlook, you need to jump into action. If only it was as simple to believe that we could lose 50 pounds and mysteriously the inches would melt away. If you still find yourself longing for a simple formula, try this one.

Attitude + education + work = success

Pour yourself into the process of learning — through books, articles, podcasts, movies, blogs and more — about your specific challenge. How have others overcome it? What new strategies and methods have been developed? Who can help you on your journey?

After you’ve expanded your skill set, the real fun begins. Pour yourself into developing an action plan and then work that plan. Consistent effort always pays off. Optimism moves you further down the line, but in and of itself, it’s not enough.

I love talking to people about saving money and paying off debt. Whether I bump into someone at my favorite grocery store, meet a person at a speaking event or correspond via email, I’m delighted to hear stories and answer questions. But the people I enjoy helping the most are those who realize the great need we all have to improve and focus our efforts. They’re also the people I know will have the most success in their endeavors, personal finance or otherwise.