Making Your Money Matter: Part 1 of 4

This is part one of a four-part series on aligning your personal finances with your values.

There are a million resources out there for managing personal finances — everything from debt-free living to investing wisely to balancing your checkbooks. This series is not going to be about that. It’s going to be about how to align your personal finances with the rest of your life.

Many very “together” people have chaotic relationships with money. You would be amazed (or maybe you wouldn’t) at the number of people who never reconcile their bank accounts; who don’t have any retirement savings or life insurance; who receive bills in the mail and stuff them in a drawer because they subconsciously think if they ignore it, maybe someone else will rush in and fix it for them. And you can hire people to do that (I’m one of them), but if you don’t change the way you relate to money, you THINK about money, you will go right back to that place of overdrawing your bank account every month and staying awake at night wondering if that check’s going to bounce.

I always like to relate money to food. Both are necessary for living and many of us struggle with our relationships with both. A healthy relationship with food involves realizing that food is primarily to fuel and nourish our bodies, and understanding that food can be a reward or a comfort. Only when you overuse food as celebration or comfort do you develop an unhealthy relationship. It’s the same with money. You and I can’t live in this world without it, but it is, at its root, a means to an end (your life goals), and not an end in and of itself. Getting money shouldn’t be a goal. It should be a way to meet a goal.

The only way to truly align your finances is to first be clear on what’s important to you. Where do you want to be this weekend? This holiday season? In 40 years? Is it important to you to have three months of expenses in savings so that you can let go of that fear that you’ll lose your job, your house, and your car? Is it important to you to save for your children’s educations because you have a ton of student debt and you don’t want your kids to go through that? Is it important to you to have enough money to take nice vacations or buy yourself nice clothes? Is it important to give to charity? Take some time to journal through your priorities. Unless you’re a millionaire, you won’t be able to do everything on your list, so rank them.

Does this sound like a little bit of life planning? That’s because it is! Your money needs to be supporting your life plans, and not the other way around. Here’s another tip — if you’re in a committed relationship in which money is shared, do this exercise individually and with your partner. It’s a very eye-opening exercise and may explain why you’re fighting when you want to go to Europe and your partner wants to make extra payments on your mortgage instead.

Next week we’ll be talking about comparing your self-identified priorities to your actual spending (a little heads-up for you—no fair changing your spending habits this week!). I’ll be monitoring comments here all week, so I’d love to hear the results of your writing exercise.