How 8 Words Written on a Napkin Changed My Financial Future

A photo to accompany a story about achieving financial goals Nicole Stanley; Getty Images
Many of our financial goals are within reach—we just have to make a few shifts in our life to start seeing progress.
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I remember it like it was yesterday. 

I was sitting at a coffee shop, and my mind wandered to its familiar place: anxiety around money. My heart became heavy and everything started to feel like it was closing in on me. How did I always end up here? I was at the end of my rope. I had to make a change. 

I looked down at the napkin in front of me, grabbed a pen, and decided to make a resolution. I wrote down the biggest financial goal I could think of:

“I will be debt free in five years.”

I only half believed it as I wrote. As a recent college grad and newlywed, my $30,000 debt balance—plus my memories of a financially stressful childhood—made this napkin goal feel way out of reach.  

But at that moment, six years ago, I was tired of trying to keep my financial goals “realistic.” Tired of spending the first year of my married life arguing about student loans on the phone during my lunch breaks. Tired of bursting into tears at every financial inconvenience, like my health insurance deductible increasing or a cashier rejecting my ice cream coupon.  

Becoming debt free was the biggest thing I could dream to do with my money.

It turns out that my napkin goal was more within my reach than I realized. 

And in reality, many financial goals are—we just have to make a few shifts in our life to start seeing progress.

Keeping my resolution at the forefront of my mind, I decided to take control of my financial journey by enrolling in an inexpensive online course, reading books, and gathering whatever free information I could find on the internet. 

Nicole Stanley, a mother of two, went from debt and stress to a net worth of $250,000+ on an average annual salary of $56,000.

Although it was more painful than glamorous, things began to change for me after that napkin moment. I started hitting small financial goals and then moved onto much bigger ones, gaining financial confidence along the way. In the midst of this process, I bought a home to flip and sold it for a profit, gave birth to two beautiful babies, started a business during a global pandemic, and built our retirement accounts past the six-figure mark by age 27. 

Within six years, I went from in debt and stress to a net worth of $250,000+ on an average annual salary of 56K. 

It was not an easy task, and I sometimes cringe at my past self, but I learned pivotal lessons along the way.

5 Shifts That Will Help You Achieve Financial Goals That Feel Out of Reach.

1. Ditch guilt & shame as your financial motivation.

There is an unhealthy idea that our financial reality is all about numbers. It is reduced to a simple equation. However, money is emotional too. For a long time, guilt and shame about money were my main motivators to improve my money. I’d feel bad about a purchase and spend hours beating myself up over what I should have done with my money. I became scrupulous with my spending because, if I wasn’t perfect, it had to mean I was bad with money. This was a lie. 

Shame-based tactics will help you for a little bit, but in the long run, will make your relationship with money miserable. No one is perfect with money, so don’t hold yourself to that standard.

Pro Tip

Write down your current biggest financial dream. Let that be your motivation.

2. Embrace your real data.

In my experience, most of us make unrealistic plans for our money. We ask ourselves, “What should we spend on gas?” rather than figuring out what we actually spend. For example, if you spend $200, it is not helpful to pretend you spend $125 so that your budget sheet adds up. I used to get frustrated with budgets that didn’t work because I wasn’t being honest about how I actually spent my money. Now, I don’t experience that because my numbers are accurate for my lifestyle. 

Instead of judging your spending, become curious about why you spend the way you do. You’ll learn much more that way. 

3. Focus on the big needle-movers first.

When we set out to change our financial life, there are dozens of things we can improve—but we have a limited amount of mental energy for money. It’s important to resist the temptation to try to do everything at once. It won’t work and we will burn out. 

Prioritize what will make the most impact in your life first. Then, manage your expectations so you can celebrate each little win instead of shaming yourself for not being “farther along” than you are. When you focus on one thing at a time you will make more progress than trying to do it all.

4. Rig the system. 

Yeah you heard me. We have to make it so we can’t lose. Instead of planning for the amount we hope our bill will be or what our next vacation will ideally cost, we can plan for the MOST we see ourselves spending. If (or when) we spend less, we begin to shift our relationship to money to become more positive. 

If you rig the system it creates a dynamic with money where you are winning, and this builds up your identity as someone who is “ good with money.” When you are good at something, you spend more time doing it, which has a ripple effect. 

5. Get a mentor/coach. 

This was a HUGE step for me. Asking for help from someone who could speak the truth, offer encouragement, and help me get results is perhaps the biggest financial confidence boost. When we don’t know what to do, having someone who’s done it before and won’t make us feel stupid or alone is a game-changer.  

These 5 principles that have helped me build my financial confidence and net worth even when my circumstances weren’t perfect. I’ve learned how to ensure that financial anxiety does not control my life. This is why I launched Arise Financial Coaching, a company dedicated to helping professionals pay off debt, save more, and enjoy financial confidence no matter their starting point.  

The perfect starting place doesn’t exist

If I have learned anything over the past six years, it’s to never believe that what you have today is too little to get started and make massive financial progress. It’s incredible how your finances can change with a few months of intentional focus. If I had waited until I had more income, wasn’t pregnant, was in a less competitive housing market, or had good fortune come my way, I’d still be in debt and anxious about my financial future.

Imperfect financial action today is better than perfect action in 10 years (or more likely, never). Financial confidence is not about perfectionism. It’s about making clear choices that align with your values and desires for your life. As your financial confidence grows, your bank accounts will grow with it. No matter what might be stacked against you, you have exactly what you need to get started toward the financial goal you may only be able to dream of now.