If Moving In The Wrong Direction, Stop Moving

Not too long ago, I shared with you a few of my fondest memories growing up camping with my frugal mentor, my grandfather.  We had some great adventures during those trips, but we had a few misadventures, too!  As I’ve reflected over them these last few months while thinking about sharing camping experiences with my own kids, one particular misadventure came to mind.  Like most everything, I try to find a way to apply the lessons learned to my personal finance situation, and this was an easy one.

This particular trip we decided to take my cousin along.  We traveled deep into the Smoky Mountains along the Blue Ridge Parkway, finally making camp at a campground near Mount Pisgah, a few miles south of Asheville, NC.  As my grandfather readied our campsite, my cousin and I decided to do a little exploring using a crude map of surrounding trails provided by the campground.

Not long into our hike my cousin was ready to call it quits. He was tired from the long day of driving, and was ready to turn back.  I wanted to press on, eager to complete the small hike around the perimeter of the campground. So, despite everything we knew about hiking, camping, etc, which wasn’t much, we decided to split up.  He would return to the campground, and I would finish the trail.

I quickened my pace, half expecting to beat him back to the campsite. But soon I came to a clearing with a number of poorly-marked trails leading back into a new set of woods. Uh oh. This didn’t look familiar on the map. I gouged a large “X” on a tree identifying the path I had come from (the only smart thing I did that day), made an educated guess as to which trail was the correct one, crossed the clearing, and re-entered the woods on a new path.

After walking nearly an hour, I realized I had made a serious mistake. Nothing was recognizable. There was no sign of campers, and it was eerily quiet, except for the footsteps I imagined in my head being made by a large black bear that was surely stalking my every move. I distinctly remember sitting down on a large rock next to the path, looking up at the sky and wondering how much daylight was left, and wondering if I should turn around.  I had no food, no water, and what was obviously a poorly-drawn map. I had a large survival knife, which would have been no match for a bear, and did little to ease my nerves.

After much deliberation, I decided to turn back.  I retraced my steps back along the new trail, and finally came to the clearing. I looked across the clearing and found the tree I marked with an “X.” I walked the original trail for some time before exiting the woods at the entrance to the campground.  By now I was moving in a slow, panicked jog.  I knew my cousin had to have returned to camp hours before, and that my grandfather must have been worried sick.  When I finally made it back to the campsite my cousin greeted me with an irritated, “Where have you been?  Papa has been out looking for you!”  Not long after I returned, my grandfather arrived riding with a Park Ranger.

Later that night we all agreed that I was lucky not to still be out in those woods – in the cold, lost, with no food or water.  I had never been happier to hunker down inside that van!  We look back at that experience now and laugh, but it certainly wasn’t funny at the time.  After having kids of my own, I had a new appreciation for the fear my grandfather must have had running up and down those trails looking for signs of his lost grandson.

Four Personal Finance Life Lessons Learned From My Adventure

1. Have a good plan, and stick to it.  Before setting out on my hike, I should have made more preparations by finding a better map, and packing a few basic supplies (including some food and water).  In life, it’s best to prepare for the worst case scenario, even if it isn’t pleasant to contemplate. Build a solid emergency fund.  Have a good insurance policy in place.  Have your wishes fully detailed in a will. Pay off debts to reduce the risk in your life.

2. Always use the buddy system.  The first mistake I made that day was leaving my hiking partner. In the world of family finances, it helps to have a partner to share your challenges, and your victories.  If you are in a relationship, be sure your significant other is “in the loop” when it comes to finances, rather than shouldering all the burden on your own.

3. Have a good idea where you’re starting. Just like the “X” carved into the bark of that tree, it is vital to make note of where we are coming from.  Baseline your finances before beginning a financial turnaround so that you can monitor your progress.  I talked to a guy once who was feverishly paying off debt with his wife.  I asked him how much debt they had paid off, and he couldn’t tell me. “We never really did an inventory of how much we owed, so we aren’t sure exactly how much we’ve paid off.”  To me, that would kill motivation because I am a results-oriented person.

4. When you find yourself moving in the wrong direction, stop moving.  How many times in your life have you recognized you are doing something wrong, but just kept doing it because stopping, or turning around, was too difficult.  We have all had those moments.  But the practice of simply stopping, taking an inventory of where you are and where you need to go, can often times make the difference in success or failure.


  1. I hope that those concerned about our economic crisis will stop to consider how both Lesson #1 and Lesson #4 are important but how these two lessons also conflict with each other. We are told as investors to stick to a plan (“buy and hold,” “stay the course”) and we see the sense in that. Most of us also see the sense of stopping once we see we are moving in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, the approach we were told to take to “stay on course” (to stick with the same stock allocation rather than to change our stock allocation as needed to stick with the same risk level) was wrong. So now we need to stop moving in the wrong direction to figure out how a realistic approach to “staying the course” would really work out in the real world.

    One of the big problems in personal finance is that we get intimidated by all the numbers and start believing that there is some sort of esoteric special knowledge possessed by the “experts.” I have learned that it is not so. They are human just like all the rest of us and they make the same sorts of obvious mistakes that the rest of us make from time to time. We all need to make an effort to stay in touch with the common-sense home truths described in this blog entry to retain the ability to fix those mistakes. Once we start thinking that the “experts” are so smart that common sense does not apply, we (and they) are in big, big trouble.


  2. Honestly, I’m not sure I believe anyone who says he knows anything about the market on a macroeconomic level. Six billion people and countless computers, corporate entities, and so much more is such a chaotic system all you can do is guess. And this leads to confirmation bias. If two experts disagree about a coin flip, one will be right and one wrong, every single time.

    We have created an economy we can not control, despite the fact that we /are/ that same economy.

  3. I think the biggest lesson here is #4- If you are moving in the wrong direction, stop moving. Many people fail to realize that if they simply stop what they are doing, they can take that time to analyze their situation and find a solution. Instead they get panicked and continue forward on the same path, thinking that is the only way to go.

  4. Great anecdote with a message! I see folks in situations like this fairly frequently and work with them to get out of the woods.

  5. I got lost one time (11 years old) when we went to a friend or my parents home for lunch. He owned hundreds of acres of undeveloped land and I went off in the woods when I saw a rabbit. After chasing him for a few minutes, I realized I was lost. Panic set in and I began to run, but obviously in the wrong direction. After what seemed like hours, I finally calmed down and assessed my situation. Nothing but church clothes, no knife, no coat and it was getting dark (and cold). I decided to climb to the highest point and get a better view but that led me to another valley and another mountain. I went ahead and went through that valley and climbed to the top of the next mountain and found a road. A mile or so later, I saw an elderly man raking leaves in his front yard and asked him for help. He took me into his home/mansion (the place was huge) and got out a surveyor’s map. He found where I had started and took me home. Imagine my parents surprise when I drove up in a Mercedes! Funny now — not so funny then.

  6. I like this story. If you’re feeling lost, maybe you ARE lost. So “stop” and take a look around and try to retrace what you’ve just done. Does it match up with where you thought you were going?

    Great analogy for real-life decision-making. The trick is in how to apply the analogy….in recognizing your own situation.

  7. glad your story turned out with a happy ending, thanks for the message.

  8. What a great story FD! My favorite boss who became of of my favorite friends, had the following quote scrolling acorss her computer screeen
    “IF the horse is dead, dismount.”
    I was reminded of it reading your post. If you’re going in the wrong direction, stop!
    Fear is fear, whether it’s from the dark, a hungry ole black bear in the mountains or the big fat hairy stack o’ debt in the drawer!

  9. Nice story and good lessons to learn! The buddy system is key…I have way too many friends who try to “hide” their financial mistakes from their partner.