Hi, my name is Dave and I’m a procrastinator. Well, I’m a part-time procrastinator. For as long as I can remember, my instinct has been to “go with the flow” today, while tossing more complex tasks onto tomorrow’s pile of good intentions. Goals? Those are fussy things that sit somewhere behind the eye-catching distractions that have my attention right now.

For more than 20 years, my mother tried to break me of my procrastination habit, before passing the baton to my wife and a series of workplace bosses, in hopes they would have better luck. They’ve had limited success, I’m afraid.

Sounds hopeless, huh? So how does a guy like that ever retire, let alone early, at age 55?

After all, retirement is one of those faraway, indistinct goals that procrastinators seem hard-coded to put off preparing for. Even many well-organized, planning-oriented people really struggle with focussing on what they should be doing — now — to achieve a long-term goal like retirement.

The night I said “aha!”

Years ago, I was in my bank branch on RRSP deadline day. It was crowded. Like everybody else in line, I knew I’d left my RRSP contribution to the last minute. I knew I wasn’t being smart with my money and I knew I wasn’t going to get good investment or retirement planning advice when I handed over my last-minute money in return for a tax receipt.

Driving home from the bank, in the dark with no streetlights, I switched on my high-beam headlights. At that moment, I saw a deer on the road in the distance and slammed on the brakes, avoiding a collision. Switching on the high beams had probably saved the deer’s life — and maybe my own.

Then, it dawned on me. Figuratively speaking, I had never turned on my financial “high beams,” so I was blind to the financial risks and opportunities that lay farther out. I was staying focussed on our near-term finances and never raised the high beams to plan for things at a more distant time. Things like my future retirement.

That was a big “aha” moment for me and was the trigger that got me started on a routine of planning our finances. Fortunately, I started that financial planning routine early enough to make a big impact on our lives. I can’t imagine how we could have retired early without establishing the routine of periodically “switching to the high beams” to plan our future.

So how did our finances change when we switched on the high beams? A few things happened (and they’re really specific to our situation, so no copying, okay?):

  • We found an experienced advisor to review where we were at.
  • He did the math to calculate how much money we’d need to have for several scenarios: retiring at ages 55, 58, and 60.
  • We considered how much investment (and eventually, income) risk we were comfortable with.
  • Together, we created a plan to regularly, automatically contribute to our RRSPs.
  • Together, we changed our pattern of spending and savings, then agreed on a mix of accounts and investments selected to do what we needed them to.

Three cardinal rules of personal finance

I still drive my wife nuts by procrastinating in many areas of my life. But at least I found out early on that our family’s financial planning really does need to get done pronto. With financial planning, there are benefits for doing it early, but penalties for doing it late.

To be specific, here are the three rules I’d never break:

  1. Don’t procrastinate about preparing a financial plan. At first, it doesn’t need to be perfect.
  2. Don’t procrastinate about starting to implement your financial plan. At first, or periodically, you may not have the money to ideally execute your plan.
  3. Don’t procrastinate about becoming financially literate. Start working on it now, but accept that it’s an ongoing task.

I couldn’t have retired at age 55 if I had ignored any of these three rules. I hope they help you, too.