Learn to live within your means.
Isn’t that what every financial advisor and soapbox motivational speaker tells us when it comes to managing our personal finances?
But with a plummeting economy and an uncertain future, I think that this idea of living within our means misses the point. The focus is on our means, what we have and what we earn, not on living. It occurred to me that there’s a way to reform our personal finances without trying to fit our lives within our means.
Learn to live within your values, not your means.
It might be a radical idea in our society. After all, it’s often encouraged to work our values around our lives rather than the other way around. The things we enjoyed are categorized as hobbies while the things that we don’t enjoy but feel obligated to do get billed as work. Societal emphasis and class ranking happens around the amount of our paychecks and not on the quality of our work, our happiness, or our contribution to society.
It’s no wonder our values are skewed!
Right now, with individuals and businesses experiencing financial loss, we’re getting a good look at the underpinnings of our society — the jobs that few values but keep our world running smoothly. Many of the high-powered big money jobs have been deemed unessential while the daily workers that drive the trucks, handle our financial transactions, and bag our groceries have been deemed necessary to maintain our lives.
The point isn’t that one person’s career is more valuable than others. This isn’t to say that a grocery store worker ranks higher than a ballplayer or that a truck driver is better than an artist. That’s missing the point entirely. Instead, it’s about re-evaluating how we assess our work from the perspective of our values rather than societal appreciation or financial remuneration.
If we throw out all the ideas surrounding money and perceived success and look only at our values, we might have a better idea of the work we should be doing and lives we should be living.
The real question isn’t how to live within our means. The real question is how to live within our values.
Figuring out what we want our lives to look like is important. Those priorities then inform our financial decisions. For instance, if a minimum wage worker enjoys luxury and wants a much more glamorous lifestyle, their spending needs to reflect this.
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying they should spend at the luxury level. Rather, they should make decisions that will allow them to move toward that lifestyle. Perhaps, based on their monthly income, they can work in small luxuries, appeasing that need without breaking their budget.
But it can go a step further. If, inside those values, there’s a passion for a particular type of work, then spending needs to go toward making that possible. This isn’t the old adage of “you’ve got to spend money to make money”, a philosophy I think powers a number of poor financial decisions. Instead, it’s about investing our time, energy, and-yes- money into the areas of our lives that we value.
On a minimum wage paycheck, the money is going to be the most limited resource. But time and energy might be in more abundance. When we understand our values and priorities, we can then begin to shift everything into making that happen. Over-spending and running up debt won’t serve those values while saving and investing in our dreams will.
I started my life with a dream. I knew what I was good at, what I wanted to do more than anything else. But in the small, low-income town where I grew up, every peer and adult cautioned reason. Everyone told me I needed a backup plan, but the way they said it seemed to imply that my passion should be my backup plan rather than my first choice.
I heard this for so many years that by the time I entered college, I selected a more “reasonable” career to study. I chose Psychology. My friends had always said I was a good listener. Maybe I would make a good counselor. I’d need to collect an undergraduate and post-graduate degree, but I was good at school, even if I didn’t like it. I kept going, all the while working in a corporate finance position while I maintained my studies.
Long story short, I eventually got out of school. I got a job in my field. And never was it more apparent that it wasn’t a good fit for me. I think I did my job well, but I wasn’t happy. I’d long given up my earlier dream. I’d spent years of my time, money, and energy into this other career path. And I was dying inside.
That sounds dramatic, doesn’t it? But the very first suicide ideation I’d had in my life came in that dark time when I knew that I had gone in the wrong direction. I’d gone so far down that road I had no idea how I would ever get to where I wanted to be. I didn’t do anything about those thoughts, but the darkness of them terrified me. I would not survive if I continued down the path I’d put myself on. I’d have to take another.
Everything fell apart. My finances. My marriage. The life I had painstakingly built because someone told me I should came crashing down around me. I stood in the wreckage with the absolute certainty that I was supposed to follow my passion all along. That passion for writing pulled me out of the wreckage and propelled me toward a life that aligns with my values.
Of course, most people don’t become writers because of the money. It’s not an easy life, and making money from art isn’t exactly a sure-fire plan to accumulate wealth. But since I was basing my life on my values, I learned to be resourceful with my income and to keep my overhead low. If writing wouldn’t make a lot of money, I’d learn to live well on less.
To live the life I wanted, I needed to make adjustments to my way of living and spending. I had to reform my relationship with money and shift it around the kind of life I wanted to live. I enjoy small luxuries, and I work toward larger ones. I have created a beautiful life with my priorities and values at the heart of it.
Living within our means is often meant to say that we shouldn’t spend more than we make. We shouldn’t get ourselves into debt and make our situations worse. We shouldn’t keep blowing our budget to smithereens because we want to buy coffee and lunch every day and soothe ourselves with pretty purchases.
That’s all great advice, but it doesn’t go any deeper. It doesn’t ask us to look under those impulse buys to see what it is we’re trying to achieve. What feeling do we want? What life would we like to live? When we have those answers, we can’t start figuring out how to get there. We can start thinking of our personal finances as more than money — factoring in time, energy, and even intention into the bargain.
We stop blaming everyone and everything else for why we can’t have what we want, and we determine a way to work toward it. We put our values at the center and start making choices. There will probably be sacrifices, but there will just as likely be tremendous rewards. Not always of the financial variety either.
Rather, when we live within our values and not just our means, we begin to shape a life that feels good to us, that satisfies who we are and what we want. The bigger picture of the life we want to live will inform our financial decisions, not the other way around. We’ll start investing our time, energy, money, and intentions into what we value and begin living the lives we’ve always dreamed of living.
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