It Happens Step By Step

Fifteen years ago, I went on an intensive one-month group backpacking trip in the mountains. Each day, my bleary-eyed teammates and I would wake up in the chilly, early morning darkness and gather around a fire or a flashlight to make a plan. We’d pick a destination that would challenge us but that we thought we could probably reach. Then we’d map out our route, inhale a bowl or two of muesli, pack up camp, and hit the trail before sunrise.

I felt intimidated by our journey every time I slung my pack over my shoulders. At that point in my life, I didn’t see myself as athletic at all. I’d never played sports or done anything more physical than occasionally jog around my block. The idea of traversing the rough terrain of a whole mountain range was nothing short of formidable, a feeling that never really went away even as I acclimated to the altitude and gained physical fitness.

That’s because the trip was just plain hard. There’s no avoiding the exhaustion that comes with that level of exertion on a daily basis. And every day was full of setbacks of one sort or another: Sometimes we’d plan poorly and run out of water and snacks. Sometimes someone (often me) would fall and get hurt. Or someone would need to stop for 20 minutes to doctor a blister or clean a cut, or a water bottle would go careening down the hillside and require rescue, or we’d spend three hours going the wrong way before realizing our mistake and turning around. Sometimes we’d be miles from our intended target by the time we dropped into our sleeping bags for the night.

We quickly learned that these challenges were rules rather than exceptions. Rare were the days when everything went smoothly, when everyone’s stamina was solid and we actually arrived at our destination as planned. But we also learned that if we continued planting one booted foot in front of the other, ignored our individual and collective doubts, and just kept going, eventually – if a few hours or many, many hours later – we’d get there.

We’d stumble to the summit, kick the rocks out of our boots, dig a snack out of our packs, and declare, “Well! That wasn’t so bad!” as if things hadn’t seemed downright hopeless only one or two hours before.

In retrospect (but only in retrospect), every challenge was surmountable.

Like physical journeys, financial journeys can also seem endless and overwhelming. We look at our debt and wonder how we’ll ever pay it off, or we think about our savings goals and think, “It’ll never happen.” We make a money plan only to have it get completely derailed by unexpected bills, emergencies, or job loss. But financial endurance is like physical endurance: it happens little by little, step by step, until eventually we turn around and realize: we’re here.

So we choose the destination. We make a plan. We start moving. We encounter problems, then more problems. Probably more problems after that, if you’re anything like me. We modify our plans again and again and again. We keep going.

And we achieve progress one dollar at a time.