I often write about spending on what you value. The general concept is you should define your values and then focus your spending according to those values. Doing so means your money is not wasted. That efficiency ultimately is what leads to a high income individual becoming financially independent while avoiding the mass tendency to Keep up with the Jones. Recently a reader wrote me and asked how exactly they would go about defining their values.
Culture of Consumption
This is a deeply personal and also difficult question to answer. In the modern world we are constantly bombarded with marketing messages designed to make us think our values revolve around some purchase. Our culture is also heavily aligned with comparison and the perception that we are lagging behind our neighbors in consumption. So with all this noise how can we possibly hope to determine our actual values?
Well I can only take you through the process I have used over the years. I hope some of what I describe below will be useful to you in clearly defining your spending priorities. My recommendation is take parts of the below and apply it to your life. Then see where you come out. So let’s get to it.
Source of Value
Any discussion of values has to start with the source of those values. Frankly, determining values is no different. Where you came from ultimately defines what you value as well as revealing deep insight into yourself and your view of the world. We have taken a number of parenting courses on our way to becoming parents, and the number one thing they stress with behavior is to ask what happened that caused this behavior rather than why did the behavior occur. Your own values and actions are no different then that little boy or girl we may have in our home. Your values are influenced by your experiences and therefore can reveal some of them too you.
What Drives My Values?
So what in my experience drives my values? Well there are 3 big things in my past that drive my financial values. The first value that clearly sticks out is my drive towards Financial Independence/Frugality and all it entails. What drives that? Frankly my experience with my family as kid. The simple reality is my parents were not particularly money savvy.
My Family’s Poor Financial History
I saw and experienced firsthand the ramifications of my parents poor financial decision making. Now I do have to first admit my privilege, my family made a decent wage with a mother that was a nurse. I wasn’t exactly starving for food. And yet I remember discussions as a kid on us not being able to do or buy things due to money. Lest you think that was frugality talking, the ramifications got worse when I got older. The culmination was in college. Not only could my family not help pay for college, they couldn’t even help me with loans for a lot of it. The simple reality is, my parents lived paycheck to paycheck in spite of having a decent salary and education.
My Core Value: A Better Life for My Family
So from this experience I decided I never wanted for my family or myself to ever experience that again. That value influences every financial decision I make, both good and bad. Bad in that I have a tendency to hoard things or sometimes make do when updating would be better. Good in that I don’t unnecessarily waste money and spend time to learn and understand such concepts.
My Second Core Value: Education
The second big major driver in my values was my mother’s constant promotion of a good education. This second leg of my background ultimately drove my earnings up, as I constantly strove to better myself. Education truly is one of the best ways to better your position in life. I have no aversion to spending on my education as a result of this push.
My Third Core Value: Travel
The third major influence from my past was travel…. Or rather the lack thereof. Surprise! Before I was financially solvent I barely ever traveled. I can remember one trip a year during my childhood. I can count on one hand the number of trips more than a 2 hour drive from home before the age of 24. Those 3-4 trips to somewhere new and exotic stand out today as some of my happiest memories growing up. This is why long before it became the popular thing to do I sought out travel. Any sort of travel really, even business travel. Even to this day there are very few things that excite me as much as traveling to see something new.
Frankly knowing your overarching values and your history doesn’t fully cut it. They inform my core expenses. After all our single biggest discretionary expense is travel. They also inform large expenses since I’m not about to dig myself into debt based on driver one. But what about other items?
My Basement as a Value Meter
Well the next thing I do to determine my values is go check my basement. For real. I am extremely open to trying new things. In fact it’s an ingrained characteristic of mine that I like change and trying new things. Over the years I’ve tried: Mountain climbing, boating, fishing, hunting, hiking, biking, auto racing, travel, and smoking meat to name a few. If the experiment was successful, I’m still doing those things. I still travel, smoke meat, and hike. If I end up not enjoying myself it ends up in my basement. That is at least until a time when I donate or sell it. So the reality is, finding what I value is a simple exercise in finding something analogous that I’ve experimented with before. Then determine if I still use that thing or if it collected some dust in a forgotten corner. I obviously don’t value the thing in the corner, so no more purchases in that area.
Examples from My Basement
I have recently discovered some great examples of this from my younger years in my parent’s basement. I have a decent size collection of comics and baseball/football cards from my youth sitting in my parent’s basement. The reality is I haven’t looked at these in nearly 20 years. In fact I can’t even tell you anyone on a current professional sports team (I can tell you who plays for my Alma Mater). So needless to say I’m not buying sports memorabilia, comics, tv with a sports package, or to go to any sports games any time soon. An obvious example perhaps, but one of many.
Analogous Expenditures as a Value Determinate
But what about things I haven’t experienced before? Well I hinted one way earlier by finding an analogous expenditure. Kind of like the cards and a sporting event. In the complete absence of a similar purchase, though, I have two other techniques I use for large purchases.
A Cooling Off Period
The first I wrote about on this site early on. Basically I give myself a cooling off period. I don’t rush out when a new idea hits but instead let it stew. If I still want something 2-3 months down the road then it’s time to take action. A great example of this is our location independence plan. We decided to buy a fiberglass travel trailer and work remotely sometime in the next year or 2. Let’s be honest, that’s not a cheap expenditure for something that can handle a family of 4 or 5. So what have I done? I set things up so I will sit on the idea for nearly a year before the purchase. If I still want it come next spring then I likely have a true desire rather than an idea influenced by Instagram and a love of travel.
Start Small When Investigating Values
The second action is to start small. I hinted at this one with my post on smoking meat, my new hobby. Oh sure I could buy a $1000 Green Egg, a device to manage temperatures for me, and all kinds of other expensive tools for my new hobby. But let’s be honest, with a month under my belt I have no way of knowing if this will be a lasting hobby or just a passing fad. So instead I bought a $250 smoker. If I don’t enjoy it, I sell it and I’m out a whole bunch less than if I jumped in with two feet.
Buy According to Your Financial Limits
The final step for me is to never buy more than I can handle. This really covers any consumable item: Food, cleaning supplies, and really anything else. I specifically don’t buy more than I think I’ll use based on my historic usage patterns. This is especially true when something has the potential to expire before I use it. So no buying the 2 for one package of fresh produce from the store if I know I only want that item one night. Simple right?
That about does it for the big things. What about the small things you ask? Well honestly it’s much the same but with less wait. I don’t wait to buy that steak for 3 months just incase I change my mind. But I do determine if my past experience with steak points to my enjoyment, I can eat it before it goes bad, and it’s not going to hurt my striving for financial independence (hint a steak at the grocery store won’t). Even a waiting period might apply, IE. if its truly an extravagant purchase at a grocery store like say a lobster, then I’ll circle back on my way out. In that way I’ve had a few minutes to think it through. The scale of the item defines how much effort I put into each of these things.
Don’t be Afraid to Spend on Your Values
There is of course one thing I must add before closing you this piece. It’s easy if you value savings or financial independence to get trapped in a game of never expend anything. Like a giant competition to see who can be the most frugal, there are no winners. Money has to be spent to buy options. Options bring enjoyment. Life is not about forgoing that enjoyment. It’s about maximizing the enjoyment along the path of life. So when you do define your values, don’t be afraid to spend on them as long as they don’t place you in a precarious financial position.
How do you determine what you value?