- Introducing The Oregon Trail Guide to Personal Finance
- The Oregon Trail Guide to PF: Preparing for the Journey
- The Oregon Trail Guide to PF: Shopping at the General Store
- The Oregon Trail Guide to PF: Surviving the Trail
- The Oregon Trail Guide to PF: Reflections on the Journey
Welcome to Part One of The Oregon Trail Guide to Personal Finance: Preparing for the Journey.
Congratulations on deciding to forge your own path! This is an exciting time, filled with new adventures, and some obstacles, along the way. It’s a lot of work but I can assure you, in the end, it’ll all be worth it. But most importantly, you’ve taken the first step. You’ve made the choice to do your own thing and settle into a new life, in clean, unchartered territory.
However, starting out on your own is never an easy task. There’s much to plan for, think about, and anticipate, financially and emotionally. I can’t promise you that you’ll be 100% ready once you walk out the door of your safe, homey cabin to cross the treacherous land but I can promise you that if you follow some of these tips, the trek will be that much easier:
When I play the new, updated version of The Oregon Trail, the game likes to give little factoids about the trail. One of them is (and I’m paraphrasing because I can only remember movie lines and song lyrics verbatim) “Make sure you save up. It took settlers a year to save the $800-$1000 necessary for the trip”. I didn’t know this, and it’s quite good advice. Although it’s not always possible, it’s a wise choice to try to save money before embarking on your own journey. Whether that journey is going off to college, moving out on your own for the first time, relocating to the city of your dreams or even getting your first pet, saving money to help with expenses in the beginning is smart. That money will buy you food, furniture, gas, household goods and many other start-up costs. While some people like Adam Shepard (author of Scratch Beginnings) make the point that it is possible to be successful even if you start from nothing, taking the time to shore up some cash makes taking that first step that much easier.
Remember, everyone starts in the same place.
Although some might have a distinct advantage. In the game, it doesn’t matter if you’re a banker, carpenter or farmer or in what month you choose to depart (well, it matters, but we’ll explore that in the next point); everyone leaves from the same starting point. Your station in life doesn’t change where you get to depart from. All it changes is the advantages you have in the beginning. And in the long run, those early advantages don’t always matter in the end. It’s how hard you work and how careful you are in the middle to protect those advantages that make you successful in the end. And sometimes, you can start with nothing as a poor farmer and still wind up more successful than the next wagon train captain who left as a banker.
The choices you make in the beginning have a significant impact on the future.
In the game, every player gets the same choices of profession, wagons/equipment, departure months and number of people in their party. However, each player will choose a different combination of those items and, as anyone who’s played the game can tell you, the beginning really does impact the rest of the game. Particularly the first leg. For instance, if I choose to be a farmer, I have to be more careful with my money to keep me afloat through the rest of the game (or until I have a chance to earn more). If I blow all my money buying the same stuff as the carpenter who can afford more, I hurt myself and my party in the long run. If we’re in a precarious position from the start, we might not be able to survive the long haul. To me, this sounds an awful lot like credit card debt. Making poor choices and spending money on things I can’t afford just to keep up with others impacts my ability to survive in the long run. And when you’re facing a broken leg, no food and the choice between drowning or taking a ferry, I’d rather have the cash.
Be choosy about who you invite along.
The Oregon Trail doesn’t exactly give you a whole lot of choices in the fact that your party must be 5 members but you can customize the genders and names in order to make your companions more tolerable (or not. You could pick someone you hate and hope they die of measles). But you want people with you who you can a) bear to be around for long periods of time; b) will pull their own weight and work alongside you instead of doing nothing; and c) who keep your spirits up when you’re down. Which will happen. It’s the same way in real life. Surround yourself with people who help you, lift you up, and support you when you need it. To hell with everyone else. If you’re lucky, maybe those that bring you down will get run over by a stampede of angry buffalo.
Make sure you’re prepared.
Although it’s not always possible to be prepared for every challenge, it is possible to be ready for as many as you think you’ll face. For example, in the game, you know someone is going to contract dysentery. It’s a given. So, to ward off having to lose 17 days while Jane recovers and puts you behind schedule, you purchase the proper medicine from the general store and pack it away for when you need it. This is an exact metaphor for an emergency fund. While you’re in the process of saving money for your start-up costs, make sure you’re also putting aside money in an emergency fund. Even if it’s an extra $20 or $200, that money will come in handy when you’re unable to buy groceries or do laundry because your paycheck is just a little too short or something unexpected crops up.
Preparing for this type of arduous journey is time consuming and can be difficult. But the more you prepare upfront, the easier parts of the trail will be.
Now that you know how to get started, make sure you come back tomorrow for part 2, Shopping at the General Store.