Does Your Spending Match Your Values?

Last night, I joined a large group at Powell's Books in Portland to see my friend Chris Guillebeau speak on the last stop of his 50-state book tour. Afterward, I got to chat with several GRS readers, including Dakota and Katy. I also talked with Tsilli Pines, whom I've mentioned here several times before.

“You look great,” Tsilli said. “You've lost a lot of weight.” She and I talked about fitness, about Crossfit, and about growing old. She told me how inspiring it is to see her in-laws staying fit as they turn seventy.

Aligning spending and values
“That's one of my goals,” I told her. “I may have been unfit when I was younger, but now I want to be fit when I'm older. And I'm willing to spend a little money to do it.”

“Exactly,” Tsilli said. “I used to say that wellness was a priority for me. I said my priorities were family, wellness, and travel. But when I looked at how I spent my money, it didn't reflect my values. I mean, I only spent $200 a year on wellness.”

“Realizing that made me understand it's okay to sacrifice unimportant things to spend more on priorities — like wellness,” Tsilli said.

I feel the same way. For years, I've paid lip service to losing weight, but I've never done anything about it. It's not just that I wouldn't spend any time to get fit, but I wouldn't spend money to do it either. I found the cash to buy videogames and comics, and to dine out at fancy restaurants, but money for the gym? For running shoes? For a bike? It wasn't in the budget.

When I decided to make 2010 my Year of Fitness, I made a deal with myself. I agreed that I could spend what it took to meet my goals. I wasn't willing to go in debt to do this, but I was willing to sacrifice other expenses to make fitness a reality. I aligned my spending with my values. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this method has worked.

A quick exercise
Does your spending match your values? How can you be sure? Have you ever taken the time to actually compare the two? After my conversation with Tsilli, I realized there's an easy way to see how well your spending and values are aligned.

  1. Grab a piece of paper and a pen. Quickly — without trying to overthink it — list the things that are most important in your life. For Tsilli, those things were family, wellness, and travel. For me, they might be family and friends, education, fitness, and travel.
  2. Next, pull out your spending records. (You might use Mint or Quicken or your checkbook register, depending on how you track your spending.) Run a category report to see where you've spent your money for the past year.
  3. Compare your priority list with your spending list. Does your spending reflect the things you say are most important to you? Or are you spending money on things that don't really matter in the grand scheme of things? What's more important: cable television or fitness? Which do you spend more on?

This is a quick and simple exercise, but I think it's powerful. It's like a scaled-down version of George Kinder's life planning questions, and the lesson is the same: When you understand what you want to do with your life, you can make financial choices that reflect your values.

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