This Is What Happens When Life Doesn’t Go as Planned

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

I’ll admit it, I’m a list maker. I plan everything down to the minute and the dollar. And as any task-oriented person can attest, being perpetually booked and on budget gives one a certain confidence that everything is always going to go as planned. In that mindset, it is easy to almost believe you can control your own corner of the world—keeping things on track with no surprises. But as Allen Saunders once said (and John Lennon once sang), “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Try as I might, I can’t control my universe and last year I got a powerful lesson in letting go.

In early 2018 my fiancé and I learned our lease on our home in Iowa was ending and we were thrown into a tailspin. It wasn’t something either of us had planned for and in a haze we decided to head north to Canada.

The decision wasn’t completely random. He’s a dual citizen and we’d always entertained the possibility of moving up there for the peace and tranquility of rural Ontario. Looking back, it wasn’t totally well planned, either, but at the time, I took making a decision—any decision—on where to live as a victory. Something unexpected happened, but we’d handled it, and it was all to-do list making and smooth sailing from here. Right?

Wrong. The intervening months ended up being desperate, chaotic, and a crash course in why you should never expect anything to go the way you planned. First, we found a new home in Canada, but the property wouldn’t be available for three months. That meant finding a sublet locally and making not one move, but two in three months.

As soon as we put that fire out, another one sprung up. Our rental in Canada was located at the far end of a sparsely maintained gravel road, and we realized we’d need a four-wheel drive vehicle to get through the worst of the winter just in order to make it to town for groceries. At that point, we’d become half-crazed with the stress of it all and weren’t in the healthiest mindset for making big decisions, but we decided to buy a second car anyway.

After doing our due diligence, we purchased a 1999 Suburban. We acknowledged that because the car was older, unexpected, costly problems might crop up, a point a mechanic emphasized to us when we had him look at the car before buying it. Still, we went for it anyway, assuring ourselves that in all likelihood, nothing major would need to be fixed.

Imagine our dismay when the car began making ominous noises the morning of our departure from Iowa and required more than $1,300 in repairs before we could continue on the long drive to Ontario. In addition to the repair costs, that set us back a day on the road and cost us another night in a hotel.

And if that wasn’t enough, the surprises just kept on coming once we finally made it to Canada. The car needed several other rounds of repairs. The house cost hundreds of dollars more to heat every month than our landlords had quoted us. The internet was much slower and costlier than we’d been led to believe. And to top it off, I needed to take some unexpected days off to recover from the anxiety of it all.

I could frame this as a string of bad luck, and maybe it was, but it was also just life. Things don’t always go to plan. In fact, they often don’t. Cars break down, utilities cost more than you budget for, the house you thought would be a dream home turns out to be less cozy and hospitable than you might have liked, you get sick at inconvenient times.

But every setback felt monumental for us because we hadn’t left room for life to happen. Every aspect of our move hinged on things going the way we wanted because we needed it to. We didn’t have a buffer account for car repairs or miscellaneous expenses. We hadn’t worked ahead so that we could comfortably take time off when we were unwell or burnt out. We didn’t have contingency plans for taking a vacation if we felt too isolated in the worst winter months. We were stretched so thin mentally and financially that we needed everything to work out exactly as we planned.

That was our mistake. When you don’t make room for the organic nature of life to happen, you end up wondering why it is all going so wrong. Why had everything been so hard for us for the past year? How had we ended up so far removed from anywhere we’d ever want to live, so far from friends, family, and warmth? Why did everything feel like an uphill struggle to get ahead financially?

But that’s the rub: There’s always a chance something will derail your carefully laid plans. If you leave some space for that, whether that’s breathing room in your schedule or a financial buffer, then you can flow with the currents of life. But if you expect to bend time and reality to your will, you’ll feel like you’re perpetually stuck in the same place. You’ll start to assume something will always get in the way of your happiness and peace of mind because you’ll only really be prepared for best case scenarios.

Fortunately, we have a lot more agency than we think. We can structure our lives and our finances in a way that allows us to respond to life without having panic attacks over where we’ll find the money and time to cope with our stresses.

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t regret my bumpy year—or the powerful lessons it taught. But we decided to move again, to get away from the high bills, slow internet, and isolation of living practically alone in a vacation town. And this time, I’m taking a different approach: I’m accepting that no to-do list, calendar, or budget can account for all of life’s surprises and I’m making sure I have the breathing room to ride it out. For me and my fiancé that means taking our time on our next move. We’re padding our budget for unexpected moving expenses. We’re giving ourselves more time off to take it easy during this transition. And most importantly, I’m working to change my worldview to expect the unexpected, because after all, life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.