This One Money Mistake Might Be Sabotaging Your Finances — and Your Dreams

How to achieve your goals
freemixer / Getty Images

Although my DSLR has long been collecting dust in the corner, I reminded myself a few months ago of my one-time ambition to become a real photographer — someone who might actually get paid for taking photos.

But instead of (carefully) dusting off my lenses and setting aside some weekend time to work on my equally-dusty photog skills, I took what Break the Twitch’s Anthony Ongaro calls the “false first step.”

I opened up my laptop, headed to an online photo supply store and scoped out some fancy new equipment.

Obviously, I needed a fisheye lens to get on that real photographer level.

A spiffy new camera strap wouldn’t hurt, either. I typed in my credit card info, hit submit and got the goods days later.

A few months have passed, and how much money do you think I’ve made off my new photography side gig? Heck, how many new photos do you think I’ve taken?

Yup: A big, fat zero.

How This Mistake Can Cost You Money… and Sabotage Your Goals

Chances are, you’ve made similar mistakes.

You remember a goal of yours — one you’ve been meaning to achieve for a while — and are suddenly struck with a twinge of guilt.

You’ve been saying you’re going to get this done for so long, and you’ve made zero progress.

But this time, it’s different.

This time, you’re finally, really going to lose that last 20 pounds. Or quit smoking. This time, you’re going to buckle down and get that freelance business of yours started in earnest.

But first, you need a fancy fitness tracker to measure your daily steps. Or a new pair of sneakers. Or (another) new theme for your website, complete with its $40 price tag.

So you grab your wallet and make the purchase, pleased with yourself for making tangible progress toward your goal.

Only one problem: It’s not actually progress. It’s stuff.

You haven’t actually done anything, you’ve just bought something.

And since that purchase satisfied the itch of your guilty ambition, chances are you won’t do anything after it arrives, either.

This is Ongaro’s “false first step,” which he writes about at Break the Twitch, a blog about minimalism, decluttering and “aligning daily action with values.”

It’s that impulse buy you use to briefly allay the guilt surrounding your unfulfilled aspirations — the “twitch.”

And although your motivation might last a week or two after your new pair of yoga pants or acoustic guitar arrives, buying something new really isn’t necessarily enough to keep you committed.

In fact, it might actually weaken your commitment by making you feel like you’ve made real progress… when you haven’t.

Worse yet, it’s super low-barrier-to-entry: With resources like Amazon Prime, anything you want is, as Ongaro writes, just “a click and two days away.” Often, it’ll cost you $50 or less, so it seems like an affordable way to measurably invest in your desires.

But if you just pat yourself on the back for taking the “false first step,” and let that guitar gather dust, it’s actually a waste of money…

… and it can really add up. Ongaro started the blog after he realized he’d spent $12,000 on Amazon in just four years making these kinds of impulse buys.  

“I was trying to become a better version of myself without doing any real work,” he admits. “I thought I was taking action when all I was really doing was taking out my credit card.”

I hadn’t been buying things – I had been trying to buy a better version of myself.

Meanwhile, the only kind of marathon you’re wearing those yoga pants for is the movie-watching kind — and both your bank account and goals are suffering.

How to Achieve Your Goals — Instead of Taking the “False First Step”

So, what should you do instead of buying what amounts (admit it) to yet another new toy?

It’s simple, but not easy: You’ve got to actually do the thing.

Yup, the difficult thing you’re avoiding by making purchases, the thing you’ve been stalling on for years on end.

“There are a million ways to avoid it,” Ongaro writes.

“But the only way to move forward is to do the difficult thing, do the work, make the call, do the stretches, or hit the publish button.”

So if you’re ready to finally let go of your excuses, stop wasting money and get to (actual) work, here are some of Ongaro’s suggestions.

Use What You Have

“If you haven’t even tried to accomplish something using the resources you already have, slow down and assess the situation,” Ongaro suggests.

Think about it: Do you really need a new pair of sneakers, or are you just trying to avoid going on a run?

“Many times, you’ll find that you didn’t actually need the thing at all. You just need yourself.”

Rent or Borrow What You (Might) Need

Sometimes, you actually do need something to get started on a goal. It’s pretty tough to be a photographer if you don’t have a camera.

But rather than running out and buying the equipment for your new hobby or business, borrow what you want first — or even rent it.

It’s not just about saving money. You’ll also feel a “sense of urgency” that forces you to actually pick up the equipment and give it a whirl, since you’ll need to return the goods.

Then, you can decide if you’re serious enough to make the investment — or if you even need that gizmo at all — with some hard evidence to guide you.

Some of this advice might leave Penny Hoarders scratching their heads. Isn’t it a waste to spend money on renting something you might end up buying anyway?

“Consider the expense of buying a brand new item that eventually goes unused,” writes Ongaro, “or the hassle of having to resell something that didn’t work as you wished.

“Renting first will save you time and money overall.”

Spend Money Later

Instead of wasting money by frontloading expenses, make do with what you’ve got now, and only spend money once you’ve proven your commitment to yourself.

Want to be a better writer? Sit down and write.

Sure, an online course might help… but if you don’t make the time to write, you won’t get better, no matter how much instruction you take.

Want to lose 10 pounds? Eat less and move more.

No need to go out and buy a giant jar of protein powder or even to get an expensive gym membership. It’ll be way more fun to buy new gym clothes when they fit the way you want!

Read Ongaro’s full explanation of the “false first step” and the “twitch” that makes you take it here — and check out the rest of his blog, too.

Meanwhile, get busy doing the difficult thing you’re avoiding. Because while it might be scary and hard, Ongaro’s completely right when he says:

“It is on the other side of that thing that the real magic happens.”

Your Turn: What dream have you been stalling on by taking false first steps?

Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder who’s made a storage closet worth of false first steps in her time. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.

The Penny Hoarder Promise: We provide accurate, reliable information. Here’s why you can trust us and how we make money.