The Important Thing About Money That Has Nothing to Do With Money

Values: The Overlooked Part About Money You Need to Get Right

Recently on Instagram I saw a group of friends clinking drinks on a trip and felt a pang–I wish I could do that. Not the traveling part. It’s the traveling with the multiple people part that I suck at. 

You see, I’m a Vacation Ruiner. The larger the group, the greater the damage.

If you invite me on your trip I can guarantee that there will be a tempo mismatch–what everyone wants to do at a relaxed pace I’ll want to fly through. And when people want to go to a museum I’ll undoubtedly show up in waders ready to go fishing. My presence will create an unmistakable tension that will ensure you have a terrible time on a trip you’ve spent thousands of dollars on and hours planning.

On my first group trip, one of my friends quietly cancelled the rest of the trips we had planned.

And on the second trip, nobody said a word the entire three-hour car ride home.

It didn’t take long before I realized I was the common denominator.

In case you think I’m a jerk for no reason, let me explain: Everyone’s got something that drives their behavior. Later I realized what it was about the trips that turned me into an awful travel companion. 

Group trips stifled things that I value very very much: independence, exploration and the opportunity to problem solve on my own. Being able to do things how I want and when I want. When you think about it that way, six people on a trip with only one car was a disaster in the making. And when I look back even to my childhood, it’s crazy how my values have driven so many of my decisions:

From getting mad at a teacher for trying to help me pick out a holiday card. To being banned from field trips in high school, because I ran off from the rest of the group. Then after college avoiding a full-time job for three years. (Like really, who does that?)

Have you noticed something like that in yourself? A value that you hold so strongly to the core, that it steers everything you do?

The Hard Part About Money

If you have a hard time thinking of an example, you’re probably in good company.

In personal finance we all focus way too much on tactics. While spending less than you earn, learning how to invest, and opening up a 2% interest savings account are important, the results will mostly vary depending on who you are. 

But one thing I can guarantee is that money will always be hard unless you’ve got the touchy-feely stuff down.

That means understanding what drives you to do things. Your core values.

Everyone praises spending money on what they value. If I had a dollar for every time I read the word ‘value’ in a post then I’d be financially independent already.

But no one stops to ask: how do you really know what you value? And what if your entire life has been built around values that aren’t your own? 

In a culture that doesn’t encourage much self-reflection, it’s not hard to see how some of us have no idea what we care about. Values just sort of get attached to you growing up. As a kid you’ve got your parents in your face telling you to do well in school. Don’t cross the street without looking. Value safety, hard work and achievement, they say. Stability over passion. In middle school maybe you ditch an old friend for the cool crowd (guilty, as charged). You learned to value conformity over loyalty. Then society tells you to prize outward success, like big houses and lots of money.

There’s a lot of shoulds.

It’s not uncommon to realize one day that you’ve done all the “right” things and you’re still not happy. That your values came from everybody else, but not the most important person: you. 

Why Values Are Critical to Happiness

Understanding your own values, not the ones that society tells you to have, is so important to feeling productive and satisfied in many aspects in life.

The obvious one is how to prioritize spending your money. It’s hard to know what to cut in your budget if you don’t know what you value, right? But there are others, like, choosing a career path that’s right for you. Or a forever partner. 

When you have a set of core values to work from, that’s when you can really start to solve problems and live the life you want. 

In my own example, how I felt on the group trips was a hint for how to make myself happy. Do I keep spending money on trips I never have fun on? I ultimately made the choice to stop going on group trips. Friends will bring up a trip idea, but I’ll smile and decline. Now my vacations are a blast.

And when you have your values on lock, there’s a nifty byproduct: decisions become a million times easier. Like, how much should you spend on your wedding. If you know what you care about, you have the answers already. 

To put it in travel terms, values are like an internal GPS. They help you decide which direction to go when the path ahead isn’t clear. 

Be Specific About Why

If you ask me what I value, I could pull up Mint and see that I spend most of my money on travel and clothes. So that’s easy: I value travel and clothes.

But travel could mean going to an all-inclusive resort or hiking up a treacherous mountain in Nepal or flying first-class to Singapore just because you can. The motivations behind those trips are very different.

So identifying the qualities of why they’re meaningful to you might be a better bet.

For me, travel is about curiosity. Wondering what’s out there. As a kid we never took trips. But one time we drove a couple states away to visit my mom’s friend in a rundown neighborhood in Philadelphia. I remember being on the road at 4am, and everyone was asleep in the car. Except for me. I was wide awake, looking out the window, taking it all in. It was just a normal highway and trees, but still.

When it comes to clothes, a question I get all the time is, “Luxe, is this worth spending money on?” 

“Worth it” is subjective based on what you value. And I’ve noticed that most people say they like fashion, but in reality they just want to look decent in their clothes. If that’s your purpose, then you don’t have to spend much money at all. 

It’s Not What You Say, It’s What You Choose to Do

If you want to uncover your own values, you can start by looking at your actions. Your values are illuminated by what you choose to do.

I could tell you that Being a Good Friend is really important to me. But how do I show up for people when it matters?

It’s like when I was watching a war scene on Game of Thrones and thought, why is Jon Snow the only one running toward the chaos while everyone else is hightailing it out of there?

Because values like honor and bravery are super important to him. When Jon Snow says he’s going to protect the people, he keeps his word. Even if that means foolishly risking his life. Over and over his actions reinforce what he cares about.

Looking at your own life, an example could be staying at the same job for a decade. If that job doesn’t excite you, then maybe stability is something you highly value.

What you choose not to do is just as important.

I chose to go to a public college instead of private. I’ve never changed jobs to get a promotion. And I haven’t checked my blog traffic stats in like, a year. 

It’s safe to say that prestige and achievement are not big priorities for me.

And the values you do hold tend to cross over into other areas. For me they inform how I run this blog. How hard I push for a raise as an employee. What type of pictures I choose to post on social media.

What Do You Choose to Sacrifice?

We all have to make everyday, inconsequential decisions. Should I get pineapple or watermelon today? 

But true values are revealed by how you use two precious resources: your time and money. 

I will sacrifice hours of my life to choose my own hotel each and every time. Sorry, no polyester floral bedspreads for me! And when I was younger I found myself grappling with a common money dilemma:

Should I knock out my debt but wipe out my savings in the process? Two equally appealing options with not-insignificant downsides. My values helped me make that decision.

I know people who live in cheap, sketchy neighborhoods so they can travel all the time.

Others who never travel so they can go to Michelin-starred restaurants.

Parents who will spend nothing on things, but won’t blink twice at activities for their kids.

And some who are happy to spend half their paycheck on your rent. They highly value a calm, peaceful home, even it means they have less money leftover to save or spend on other things.

Look at the decisions where not only are the stakes high, but when you’ve happily accepted the trade-offs.

Spend Time By Yourself

My friend and I were hanging out on a summer day when I asked him what he wanted to do. He said he didn’t know. So I reframed it: “Well, what would you do if you were by yourself?” All of a sudden he lit up with an answer.

Moving in groups has been a survival tactic since the beginning of time. But the group mentality has a downside. Too much of it and all you know is being judged and criticized and assessed by others.

So if you’ve had the opportunity to spend a decent amount of time alone, consider yourself to be very lucky. You’re rare.

Which is unfortunate, because spending some time alone is critical to discovering your values. You get a chance to learn what makes you tick, without anyone’s influence or judgment to color your decisions. That’s when the real you tends to shine.

I keep mentioning travel, because it has a way of magnifying what you care about. You’re put into high-stress situations where things don’t always go your way, and you have to make choices on the spot. If you were dropped off in London right now all alone, what’s the first thing you would do? 

But you don’t have to go far. Carve out some time to spend a whole day doing whatever you want.

What would your perfect weekend day look like?

Consider Your Non-Negotiables

In any article about values, the common wisdom is to start by making a list. If you follow that advice, you’re just going to list the values you think you should have. 

A truer method is to look at times you’ve made non-negotiable decisions. If you had compromised in any way you would have felt out of whack.

When I first started dating my husband I told him that I “didn’t do dates on Fridays.” Those nights were reserved for Me Time. 

Then when we were talking about me moving into his already-established place, I asked him to clear out a room for me. A room that would be mine–a blank slate and I could decorate any way I wanted.

At the time, I wasn’t conscious of why I was asking, because it felt so natural to me. But if I look behind those seemingly ridiculous demands, it’s clear: being in a serious relationship felt like a threat to my independence, and I was afraid of losing myself.

What have you refused to compromise on?

Values, Not Tactics

The real money work lies in understanding your behavior. It’s not blindly following the tactics. But assessing the tactics and bending them to fit who you are.

When you have your core values down, the money tends to fall into place as a byproduct.

So if you find yourself pouring over every financial literacy resource, or jumping from self-help book to self-help book, and yet things don’t seem to be improving, it’s worth reflecting: are you living your life based on your values?

How about you–do you have a sense of what you value? How do you know? Have you ever felt your life didn’t line up with what you truly care about? And lastly, are you bad at group trips, too?

Feature Image: Unsplash

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