Some people are meticulous planners. They know what they’ll eat for breakfast on April 27th, 2017, and they partake in activities like booking a hotel before they go on vacation. They have one-week, one-year, and 10-year plans with associated goals and color-coordinated goal trackers.

I’m not one of those people. I’m the queen of “crossing that bridge when we come to it,” only to find that the bridge is a broken rope swing, and the best course of action is to wait for the ferry.

It’s not that my life is a mess. Quite the contrary – being less planned allows me freedom to leap into new opportunities when they are presented to me. However, if there is one area where my lack of planning rears its ugly head, it’s in my finances. Or more accurately, in the intersection between my finances and my life.

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You see, personal finance is just math, until you have to plan for the future.

When my husband, Rob, and I ask ourselves big questions, we come up blank on many of the answers. How many kids will we have? When will our car die? Do we want to take a big trip out West? Will Rob escape the academic vortex after he earns his Ph.D.? That’s not even long-range planning – I’m talking about the next two years.

When it comes to longer-term financial planning, the questions get bigger and our answers become hazier.

When will we retire? Will we pay for our children to attend college? How much money do we need to start a business? How many years should we expect to spend caring for our parents?

After dozens of failed attempts to predict the future, we realized that nobody can actually do it. Instead of beating ourselves up for being out of touch with our future thoughts, feelings, and desires, we extend mercy to ourselves in the midst of our financial planning. And in the midst of all the mercy, we commit ourselves to a few simple tasks:

  1. We guess about the type of people we want to be. Also, we guess about the type of life we want to live in the next two, five, and 30 years.
  2. We course-correct our goals as we develop greater clarity.
  3. We build a cash opportunity fund that fuels our course corrections.

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Guessing helps us to understand whether our current spending habits seem sustainable, or if we need to start cutting back.

Though we commit to guessing, we don’t commit to guessing correctly. In fact, we’re usually wrong. For example, I never would have guessed that I wanted to stay at home with a kid, yet that’s one of the top goals that we’re working towards as a family. When it turns out we’re wrong, we begin to course-correct.

For me, changing directions is as natural as breathing.

However, Rob being my financial opposite, course-correcting is much more difficult for him. He is dependable and committed, and he wants to see our goals through to the end.

The process of guessing and course-correcting isn’t easy, and it’s made exponentially more difficult by having to consider two voices instead of one. But we have found one secret that helps smooth the process: a pile of cash – an opportunity fund – that helps us make big transitions more easily.

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Without cash on-hand, changing direction might take months, or even years. But with cash on-hand, we move decisively.

Our opportunity fund allowed us to move across the country when Rob started his Ph.D. It enabled the purchase of our home when we found a diamond in the rough a year ago.

Building an opportunity fund isn’t easy.

I don’t recommend that an opportunity fund take top billing in your financial priorities. However, if you have a financial margin and you’re willing to live below your means so that you can keep cash on the sidelines, then you might be in a place to consider an opportunity fund. The opportunity fund is the fuel that allows us to keep guessing. It is our one “secret” to financial planning for those who hate planning.

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