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Your financial wake-up call is ringing, it’s your choice to answer it

First appeared in USA Today and The Indianapolis Star

His face looked different. And the words coming out of his mouth were painted in conviction.

“My doctor looked at me, Pete, and said I had already lost years off my life because of my health. Now I just need to prevent myself from losing any more years.” My friend’s words were sharp, emotional and very real. He had just been given a wake-up call by his physician. The wake-up call was so powerful that it shocked my friend into action. He lost 10 pounds within two weeks of his doctor’s appointment.

That’s the nature of a wake-up call, if you choose to answer it. A blunt conversation with your doctor can wake you up, but is there a financial equivalent? The behaviors that make you healthy and make you wealthy aren’t that different.

Excess, denial, restraint and habits all contribute to whether or not your life is healthy and financially healthy. To fully extend the metaphor, your exercise regimen is your household income and what you eat is the equivalent of your household expenses. Not exercising enough? Then you better not eat too much. Not earning enough? You better not spend too much.

You can hear the cacophony of financial wake-up calls ringing if you take your fingers out of your ears. The list of wake-up calls is as long as your excuse list. From overdraft fees to late payments, from low retirement account balances to disproportionately high mortgage payments, from 401(k) loans to empty health savings accounts, your future is spelled out right in front of you.

Wake up.

We live in a financial free-for-all. No one seems concerned about the reality of the future. We’ve mistaken being present for buying presents for the present. Just listen to commercials. “You deserve …” all sorts of things, according to marketers. Do we, though?

I don’t feel like I deserve anything more than my actions produce. We will all get what we deserve, one way or another. I understand personal responsibility is a concept that seems to have lost popularity, but …

Jumping back to my friend for a moment, did he deserve triple cheeseburgers? Yes. No. I don’t know. But he ate them frequently. And I guess he got what he deserved, based on his behavior. I’m sad about this. He’s undoubtedly sad about this. However, bad behavior adds up and has consequences, whether you ignore the behavior or not.

I don’t think I can replicate the drama from the doctor’s office, but I’m gonna try.

I’ve been racking my brain all week. What is the financial equivalent of “you’ve already lost years off your life”? I would argue most Americans already know they aren’t doing what it takes to thrive. The scary part is they don’t seem to care. It’s possible that my friend was impacted by the very personal nature of the wake-up call. His doctor looked him in the eye and delivered the crushing news. Why was the doctor’s wake-up call so effective? It’s because he didn’t say “you’re too heavy, your blood pressure is higher than I’d like or your cholesterol is a bit high.” Instead, he got right to the point of why it matters — you’re going to die earlier than you’d like.

Financial professionals do this all the time, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Do you know a financial professional? If so, ask them how often their financial wake-up calls go unanswered. Every single day, financial professionals inform people about the massive deficits that exists in their lives. And every single day, people ignore the call.

I wouldn’t be wrong, based on statistics, to tell you right now that you’re probably not prepared for retirement. You will either work deep into your 70s, or you will retire too early and run out of money in your 80s.

You can either believe me, deny it, ignore it or prove me wrong. I’d prefer you prove me wrong. The best way to do that is to answer the following questions:

Would you be able to handle a $5,000 emergency right now without going into debt?

Will you be able to retire successfully in your 60s, based on your current retirement plan contribution levels?

Will you be able to make it through your child’s college education without taking on Parent Plus loans?

If you found yourself mouthing or even shouting “no” to any one of these questions, then wake up. You’ve already lost years off your life.