Amid the excitement of starting a fresh year and setting new focuses and goals, it’s easy to forget to take a pause and look back the previous year.
Any good project plan includes a post-implementation review and the same should be done for our personal projects. The best time to conduct a project review is once delivery has been completed, so January is perfect to look back at the previous year and find insights that can help with the new one. In 2020 I chose to make personal finance my focus (I like focuses rather than New Year’s resolutions) and decided to use the same framework that I use for work projects to review the year.
Just like you would a professional project, I approached the year objectively and openly, looking for insights for the future rather than blame for past failures.
Gap analysis – how closely did the outcomes match the original objective?
The first question a review asks, is ‘Did the project achieve what it set out to do?’ My goal was to use the year to focus on my personal finances, with the objectives of 1) getting my finances in order and 2) to save up a specific dollar figure.
The first objective, to get my finance in some kind of order, was achieved. I ran some financial scenarios to figure out what I would need to pay off my mortgage within a certain timeframe, go down to part-time work, or even retire early. I set up an annual budget to map my expenses and a daily budget app to track spending (I use colourful budget app). I lowered as many of my ‘static’ costs as possible, for example by moving to a cheaper mobile plan and renegotiating my mortgage rate. I also tried to lower as many of my luxury costs as possible – taking my lunch into work and reducing the amount of times I ate out.
The second objective, to save up a specific amount, I only managed to achieve 50% of.
Cost/benefit analysis – was the project worth it?
The next question a review should analyse, is whether or not the objectives were worth the resources that it took to achieve them.
Setting out some financial scenarios helped me visualise what the ‘worth’ of focusing on my personal finances would be, in terms of reducing stress and being less reliant on a certain income level. Clarifying this ‘why’ for the long term also motivated me to make more short term decisions that contributed to it.
In terms of time taken to achieve the first objective, getting my finances in order, the resource was the time taken to research cost reductions and do regular budgets. A lot of the research tasks were one-off time investments (such as negotiating a better home loan rate) that continued to deliver savings once implemented, and having set up a budget system it only took about half an hour every fortnight (pay-day) to complete.
The second objective, saving up, needed me to direct resources that could otherwise be spent on other things that I value. So what did I give up? I only went for two remedial massages in the year whereas I ordinarily have around six (I have sciatica), and tried to use my existing gym membership to go to the pool and sauna instead. I didn’t get any professional haircuts, partly because of COVID restrictions and got my partner to cut my hair instead. COVID also meant that I spent virtually nothing on trips, travel and entertainment. I still ate out and got take-aways a fair bit, spent on alcohol and drank plenty of coffee (Australian COVID restrictions were in place for far less time than other countries).
Out of all this, the areas where I sacrificed things that I actually value are the health related items and entertainment activities (that are not eating and drinking). I don’t think my savings objective was actually worth cutting back on these so much, and if I were to set another goal I would either reduce the target to accommodate this expenditure or cut back in other areas that don’t serve my values.
Can the project deliver further value?
A project might have reached its planned end-point, but there may be further activities that can enhance the objectives or extend their impact.
Now that I have my annual budget set up, and some long-term financial goals figured out, I can easily extend the practice of planning savings and tracking spending next year without too much additional effort. I’ll also continue some of the savings habits that I either didn’t miss spending on or were easy to find replacements for. I’ll set a savings objective next year, but it won’t be my absolute focus as I’ll be putting health and wellbeing first.
What lessons can be learnt for a similar project?
With the benefit of hindsight, what worked well and what would you do differently? What where the things that were unknown at the start of the project that you are now aware of?
Having a long-term vision for my finances, and establishing the ‘why’ of saving money was a key motivator that kept me going throughout the year. Planning also helped to determine what the savings objective should be – ambitious enough to move me towards this long-term vision but actually achievable once I put this into an annual budget.
I still spent more than I would have liked on coffee, eating out and drinks. I didn’t have a good set of alternatives and it was a challenge to cut down on these luxuries. I also didn’t work out what it was about these activities that I valued – convenience? Social? If I did this again I would analyse these potential weak points up front to try and mitigate against them better.
I also spent a lot of money this year on unexpected things (excluding the obvious one – if anything, restrictions forced me to spend less than I would have). I had a few unexpected blood tests that ended up racking up over the year, there were a lot of house renovation expenses and of course we bought a new car after ours was wrecked in a hail storm. The hail was a once in a ten year weather event, but other unexpected expenses will no doubt crop up again. To mitigate against these without impacting on my objectives, I should have set up a bigger emergency fund.
I feel like I did a good job in setting up my personal finances, and can continue to use the systems that I’ve put in place. If I include the cost of the new car (which was a deliberate choice), I would also have achieved my savings objective. 2020 has also given me plenty of lessons learnt for establishing habits and self-motivation.
My year of frugality was worthwhile, but I won’t be continuing to focus on this as my priority next year. I feel like my value for moving towards financial freedom is now on track and I’m happy to switch to a new priority for health and wellbeing for 2021.
- The Earnest Addiction blog – financial independence journey
- Tread Lightly, Retire Early blog – weekly roundups of other financial blogs in addition to regular posts
- 5 easy ways to improve your finances in 2021
If you look objectively and impartially at your year, how did you fare against your goals?