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By Jean Chatzky

How many times have you postponed doing something, only to find out that your delay made everything worse? (Parking tickets, medical bills, taxes, even waiting too long to call a friend fits under this umbrella.) Most of us learn pretty quickly that inaction is the best way to ensure an exponentially more difficult situation, yet for some reason we keep punishing ourselves.

The pain is especially acute around financial decisions. According to a new survey by Principal Financial Group, seven out of 10 Americans cop to postponing financial decisions. A further 56 percent have not made any major financial decisions in the last three years. Why? The study has an answer for that— only 30 percent of Americans feel comfortable with their knowledge of financial management, showing that the fear many of us encounter when we’re put in unfamiliar situations can be paralyzing. The good news: Once people spend time learning about financial planning, they’re 75 percent more likely to be confident in their financial future. And that’s a goal none of us should postpone.

It’s almost as if every one of us is two people — the present self, and the future self. It’s very hard for us to take action on something that will be helpful for us 30 years from now, especially when the present us wants a cappuccino.

Break the cycle

Some people don’t put financial moves at the top of the list because they believe it’s not the right time, explains Jerry Patterson, senior vice president of retirement and income solutions at Principal Financial Group. “It’s almost as if every one of us is two people — the present self, and the future self. It’s very hard for us to take action on something that will be helpful for us 30 years from now, especially when the present us wants a cappuccino.” In other words, the further away the benefit is, the less likely we are to take action and the more likely we are to postpone.

Thankfully, devoting just a small amount of time studying the basics — which retirement savings vehicles are the best for you (401(k), IRA, etc.), how much you need to put aside to reach your retirement goals, and how to budget for all of the above — is often all that’s needed to put you on the road to financial confidence. The trick is taking that first step. “This stuff isn’t that hard and doesn’t take that much time,” Patterson says. “This is about you slowing down your busy life for an hour and figuring out what to do.”

Stop running

In the back of our minds, there’s often a voice telling us, “You’re not where you need to be yet — once you get there, you can make a decision,” Patterson says. But the idea that we need to wait until we’ve saved a ton of money before we start to analyze our savings goals is crazy. “Accept your situation,” he says. “It is what it is, so embrace it and focus on the future.”

Every day you postpone saving is another day you’re going to have to work when you’d rather be retired.

Remember that time plays a huge role in your overall retirement picture, and the earlier you start saving, the more interest will accrue, and the more you’ll have saved for retirement. “Every day you postpone saving is another day you’re going to have to work when you’d rather be retired,” he says. (And if that’s not motivating, I don’t know what is!)

Lose the fear of failure

While first-time investors are often scared of taking their first steps into financial planning, investors who have been in the game a while can be just as much — if not more— afraid. “People have a real fear of reevaluating the decisions they’ve made previously. “I’ve actually had people tell me, ‘I’m afraid to look at my 401(k) and see that I made the wrong decision,’ and that’s just fear of failure — not finances,” says John Girouard, CEO of financial planning firm Capital Asset Management Group and author of Take Back Your Money.

Thankfully, education can eliminate fear just as well as it boosts confidence. “Everyone has their own devil, and sometimes it takes a while to get to the bottom of it,” Girouard says. He takes his clients through an educational process where they go over everything from the difference between stocks and bonds to the fears and anxieties they had coming in. You could do something similar by working with a financial advisor, but also by reading a basic finance book (try: "Get A Financial Life by Beth Kobliner" or "I Will Teach You To Be Rich" by Ramit Sethi, both classics) and then talking honestly about it with your spouse or a friend. “You can’t eliminate the danger in someone’s decisions until you find out what’s keeping them up at night,” Girouard says.

Play The Long Game

Once you cross those confidence and fear barriers, patience is the next bridge to traverse. “Sometimes if people don’t see results quickly, or if they see short-term losses, they may think they need to change things or abandon their plans, but you have to stick with it,” says Bob Schmidt, manager of investment research group Brandes Institute. “Soon you’ll see that you’ve succeeded at making money, and you’ll know this whole thing actually works.”

With Kathryn Tuggle

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