Soil, sun, water and seed: The ingredients of a garden are simple, but the final product is never guaranteed. Willing a plot of land into a vibrant state of bloom takes intention, know-how and no small amount of trial and error.
Like many people staying at home, I spent much of the past year tending to the soil of my yard and crafting a garden oasis of my own imagination. The work wasn’t easy, and I’m sure many now-dead plants wish that I’d been a little more proficient.
But as my vision came to life — and I realized the care that this new hobby requires – I saw parallels between tending to a garden and handling finances with intentionality. Here’s what my garden taught me about managing money.
Have a vision
Before you put a spade into the ground — or sign up for a new financial instrument — define what you want to accomplish. Like a garden, your financial future can be a reflection of your passions and priorities.
“There are no rules – it’s your garden,” says Brooke Edmunds , associate professor of community horticulture with Oregon State University Extension. “Don’t be afraid to try new things. You’ll get so much joy out of the pride of growing things yourself.”
How you manage your money is an individual endeavor, too. “When imagining your goals, a good jumping-off point is defining your needs and your wants and what you value,” says Lacey Langford , a North Carolina-based financial coach. “Not everyone values the same thing. Some people might value a nice home or a nice car or retirement savings more.”
Understand that big goals can take years to accomplish. “Take the long-view approach,” Edmunds says. “It really takes five years or so to really see how plants are and to learn your garden space.”
Likewise, think about various aspects of your finances — debts, income, investments — and define what you want them to look like in five years.
Make growth easy
With goals defined, dig in and establish the right foundation for growth.
In a garden, this step means testing the soil to determine if it has the right components to support your specific plants. Developing the right soil can make the difference between a season of vigorous growth and a lackluster performance.
When it comes to managing money, think of the fundamentals — things like income, expenses and savings, as well as your attitudes and behavior toward money – as the soil. Your ambitions are the plants you put into the ground, hoping they’ll take root and thrive. Upon inspection, you may find that you’re primed for growth or that the soil needs amending.
Adjusting financial habits to meet an ambitious savings goal, like a down payment on a house, is one example. If you’re not able to save much after covering your current expenses, get creative and trim expenses or increase your income.
Next, turn to your attitudes and habits around money, says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, a wealth psychology expert based in Vermont.
“I recommend people look at what lessons they learned growing up about managing money,” Burns Kingsbury says. “How have those beliefs about money impacted their behavior as adults? The foundational part is really looking at how these thoughts and beliefs impact your ability to make progress down this path.”
Reorienting attitudes toward money can help you meet your goals. For example, you may have been taught that debt should be avoided at all costs. You could reassess your thinking and explore ways to use debt as a financial tool with less risk.
Put in the work
A green thumb or a certified financial planner certificate isn’t necessary to achieve your goals. Much like weeding, regularly chipping away at tasks is easier than trying to accomplish everything immediately.
“You don’t have to weed the entire garden in one day,” Burns Kingsbury says. “Take a small chunk and think about how to get rid of those weeds.”
Focus on regular tasks to nurture your finances. When paying off debt, for example, spend a day organizing accounts into a spreadsheet or using a debt tracker. The next day choose a payoff path, like the debt snowball or debt avalanche method, then stick with it. Breaking tasks into small steps makes them easier to manage. The same is true when improving credit; making regular on-time payments will build your score over time.