On Sunday, October 30th, I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC.

Call it a “runner’s high,” or chalk it up to trying to distract myself from my painful feet, but I spent much of those five-plus hours in deep philosophical thought.  I thought about the courage of our military, as I studied the faces and dates of too-short lives emblazoned on the backs of so many runners.  I thought about the dedication of the spectators, who not only waited for several chilly hours to catch a 10-second view of their runner, but also propelled 19,999 other runners to the finish with their motivating and humorous signs.  My favorite:  “26.2 miles?  Because 26.3 would just be crazy!!”

Inevitably, I also thought about my work as a CFP® professional.  I’ve always enjoyed helping clients help themselves when it comes to financial security, but last Sunday, I found myself needing my own advice.  I realized that getting through a marathon is not all that different from successfully navigating the long-distance journey we call life.  So here’s what Eleanor the financial planner told Eleanor the runner, as together we paced through the 26.2 (but not 26.3!) miles.

Long-term goals are important, but so, too, are the shorter-term goals:

There are times when the long-term goal – be it finishing a marathon or getting that retirement account adequately funded – just seems too distant or too overwhelming.  I certainly felt that way at mile 18, and so, I expect, do younger adults trying to pay off debt and raise a family, or older Americans watching their stalled 401(k) balances in a stagnant economy.  At times like these, it may be best to focus on more manageable short-term goals:  getting the highest interest rate debt paid off, working for a year or two longer than you planned, keeping up the pace to the next water stop.  Short-term progress has a way of accumulating into long-term success.

Expect, and plan for, setbacks.

From my vantage as a marathoner, these setbacks appeared as training injuries (bad knee, followed by sciatic pain), blistered feet on marathon day, and the potential for terrible weather.  I prepared for these by extending my training to include downtime, carrying moleskin on my run, and not trying to be a hero.  I told myself if it rained or snowed on race day (as it had the day before), I would wait till next year and try again.  These same precautions, in the context of financial planning, translate to:  starting your financial planning early, even before you think you need it; getting all the appropriate insurance coverage for your assets and income; and being prepared to revise your goals and strategies in the face of adverse circumstances.

Success is all about budgeting.

Only in a never-land of infinite energy and limitless resources is it possible to ignore the necessity of budgeting.  For the rest of us – runners, couch potatoes, employees, retirees – we have to pay attention to the basic physics of what comes in and what goes out.  If outflow exceeds inflow for too long a period, you will hit the proverbial wall.  For the marathoner, this happens when she starts the course too fast, or fails to take in enough hydration and calories along the way.  For those hoping one day to retire, or educate their kids, or leave a financial legacy, this happens when they spend everything as soon as they get it, or worse, spend it ahead of getting it.  It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover from these situations.  Unfortunately, no one was offering me an energy advance at mile 20, just as there are few commercial loans to help out-of-pocket retirees make it to the end of their lives.

It wasn’t until the finish of my run that I discovered the most powerful similarity of all between marathoning and financial planning:  once you have done it, you’ll feel like a million dollars!  Do the financial part, and you may in fact someday have that million dollars.  It all begins with that first intentional step.