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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Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
Katy @ The Non-Consumer Advocate
9 years ago

J.D.,

It was nice to chat with you, although somewhat frenetic. Sorry I couldn’t stick around, but it was enjoyable nonetheless.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

First Gen American
First Gen American
9 years ago

I think the only area where my values clash with my actions is that I work full time and I would like to spend more time with family. That being said, my kids enjoy the daycare situation they are in, and I save a big chunk of my salary (after daycare expenses). For now I want to focus on getting myself setup financially to be able to make that plunge if I want or need to. Everyone has a different level of debt tolerance and I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving work before paying off all my debt (consumer and mortgage).… Read more »

LifeAndMyFinances
LifeAndMyFinances
9 years ago

Great post! I would say my values are the 5 F’s. Faith, Family, Friends, Finances, and Fitness.

My wife and I tithe regularly, but I think we are lacking when it comes to friends and family. We don’t spend much time with them, or money to show we appreciate them. But we are certainly looking to change this in the future!

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago

The thing about fitness is that there is no reason it *has* to take a significant (noticeable?) portion of your budget. The best program I’ve ever done can be completed with simply exercise bands and a chair–which I purchased for $20. Most of the exercises don’t demand any other equipment (though there are a few low priced items that make it a little easier to do). When I stick with that program I get in far better shape than I ever did at gyms on fancy machines. Even without specific workouts, there’s walking, yard work, and just playing sports recreationally… Read more »

Carla
Carla
8 years ago
Reply to  Nancy L.

I agree with you, Nancy. When I lost the bulk of my weight, all I had was running shoes, a jump rope, tennis racquets and a bike with a bike trainer and a great diet. I got the tennis racquests and bike trainer free off of Craigslist. That lasted me several years. Now that I’m in to power lifting; partly because I can no longer run and play tennis, and the fact that I plateaued in terms of my fitness goals, THAT requires a gym membership. With that said, I use it way more than the average gym member statically.… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Adding on to #4 (Nancy L), there’s no reason that you can’t substitute time for money.

And sometimes relative prices of things really are cheap enough not to justify more spending even if you value things… but as a heuristic it isn’t a bad exercise to do a money/time audit, especially if you’re not reaching your goals over the long haul.

Shalom
Shalom
9 years ago

I agree with you, Nicole. A minister at our church likes to say, “I can tell what you truly value by looking at two things: your checkbook and your calendar.”

Mary
Mary
9 years ago

When we had our first child almost 4 years ago, we sat down and figured out where we wanted the bulk of our disposable income to go. We decided we most value education and experiences for our kids and that’s where we put our money. Much of it goes into savings right now in anticipation of private school/college tuition and future trips since they’re not in school yet and too much trouble to really travel with at 1 and 3! But having clearly defined values makes saving and spending so much easier. We skip most of the toys and buy… Read more »

Ellen
Ellen
9 years ago

Obviously, this site is about finances, so money is an important thing to consider. I would add to the list, though, that you should see whether the time you’re spending reflects your values. I have a very low income and live in a very expensive city, so I’m beyond frugal. My expenses on fitness amount to running clothes (and not fancy ones) and sneakers. However, I make a point of prioritizing running in that I schedule other obligations around it and am able to run 3-4 times a week. I also have several creative pursuits that are very important to… Read more »

Andy
Andy
9 years ago

Great post, but it did bring up two separate thoughts in my mind: 1) Wellness includes far more than working out and physical activity to stay in shape. It includes eating well (increasing your intake of fruit and veggies can reduce your monetary output if those healthy options are replacing junk food), spending time with friends and family (which doesn’t need to be an expensive outing), getting outside (parks and nature trails are often wonderful, beautiful and cheap), and just flat out smiling and being happy with what you have (instead of wanting more). 2) How does your monetary spending… Read more »

Tiffany
Tiffany
9 years ago

hmm…this is interesting to think about. I value most my fiancee and our life together, family, friends, and health (for me that is exercise and organic, vegan eating). I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and am realizing that I alot money accordingly, but not time. I tend to jam-pack my schedule because I’m so worried about not seeing friends. That leaves me with little time for my fiancee, and even less time alone! Not good. I’ve started really planning where I allot my time, and am learning not to overschedule. It’s very hard to do in this fast… Read more »

KarenJ
KarenJ
9 years ago

Recently I was advised by a nutritionist to follow a low glycemic diet and eliminate wheat, dairy and white sugar. I am now eating differently, more fresh foods, more organic. Our food bill has gone up as a result. On the other hand, we just canceled our gym membership and are working out at home with (secondhand) dvd’s. I think that spending on healthy food is important, but we’re looking for ways to save money there as well.

Allison
Allison
9 years ago

For a while now I have used a mini-mantra: your priorities are not what you SAY they are, your priorities are what you actually spend time and effort and money on. The flip side of this post is that just because you spend a lot of money on something doesn’t mean it’s a priority. This is why buying a home treadmill is so often a bad idea, because spending money doesn’t make something a priority. Time is also the important factor. I’m very happy to say that this year my husband and I are going to start donating 5% of… Read more »

Wayne Mates
Wayne Mates
9 years ago

A number of commentors have hit upon the idea of time as well as money. Larry Winget, in his book The Idiot Factor, says it very well. I am paraphrasing…. “If you aren’t spending your time and money on it, it isn’t important to you.”

Like I said, I am paraphrasing, but I believe what he says is true!

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

I recently decided to commit real effort to start running again. I’ve purchased the clothing I need and have discussed with my husband how I’ll need his help managing our 5 month old. I am always reluctant to spend money on myself (I’m still exploring the why of this.) I’ve started telling myself it’s okay to spend money on the things that matter and my health is definitely one of those things hence the purchase of one running outfit. I think I’ll look at our overall budget and have a talk with my husband regarding this topic – nice post… Read more »

Kevin M
Kevin M
9 years ago

I agree with the intent of this post, but spending money is not always a requirement. I value my wife and kids above anything but spending more money on them won’t make our relationship better or make me value them more. Another example, I’ll pick on JD because he can take it :). JD pays for Crossfit, but you can find the daily workouts free on the website. Yes, you may need some equipment, but with a little work I bet you could find a lot of it free or very cheap. Now a compliment – I love that you… Read more »

evelyn
evelyn
9 years ago

Thought-provoking post! My family’s financial focus has been on education. Every extra dime my husband made, plus all my income, went to private school education for our kids. It was a great investment. We made time for weekend outings–hiking, fishing, camping out–which didn’t cost much, and took two yearly week-long trips to the Outer Banks, renting a house at the beach. Our kids had forts in the backyard, a big garden, things to keep them busy every day after school. We lived a simple but full family life on a strict budget. In terms of fitness, after a year of… Read more »

Alex
Alex
9 years ago

I say to each his own, but I choose to spend little on fitness. I consider myself a very fit person, but this doesn’t come at a high cost. Of course you must have relatively new shoes to take care of your body, but past that there’s running, workout videos (Insanity is my favorite, JD you should check this out if you really want a hell of a challenge, plus it takes no extra equipment) and smaller gyms for lower prices than a trainer and big gym membership. Can there be fitness and frugality…I think so!

chacha1
chacha1
9 years ago

J.D. thrives in the Crossfit gym environment, so that’s not unfrugal. Spending money on a gym you don’t go to – *that’s* unfrugal!

I hate gyms, so my fitness program happens at home. It still doesn’t cost “nothing,” though. There are the subscriptions and fitness conferences and association memberships and a few pieces of gear. And there’s the high-quality food.

Lifelong health is a value for me and I do spend for it. My spending used to be hugely out of balance with my values, and I appreciate the quick mental exercise J.D. recommends.

Adrian
Adrian
9 years ago

J.D, I feel that the concept you hit upon in this article is the core reasoning behind frugality. Frugality is not simply about “being cheap” or skimping on most things in life for greed or purely selfish reasons, but rather it is a well-defined plan of how to live a life through financial decisions & planning that is in accordance with your personal values & beliefs. For example, a woman who values organic foodsmay choose to cut back on her monthly cable package in order to ensure the right amount of money is allocated towards her organic needs. THAT is… Read more »

Adrian
Adrian
9 years ago

P.S. SPELLING ERROR J.D.!

IN #1 IN THE WRITING EXERCISE YOU DETAILED, I THINK YOU MEANT TO USE THE WORD “YOUR” RATHER THAN “OUR”. THIS IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE IT CAN MISLEAD/CONFUSE READERS TO THINK ABOUT GENERALIZING WHAT IS IMPORTANT IN “OUR” SOCIETAL LIFE, RATHER THAN THEIR OWN (YOUR)PERSONAL LIFE.

TAKE CARE. 🙂

Sara
Sara
9 years ago

Adrian @19 nailed it. Well said.

toni
toni
9 years ago

I just signed up for Bar Method classes as it is cheaper than going to my monthly chiropractor! Thanks Great post.

Eileen
Eileen
9 years ago

This is also a great way to think about Time. I used to say lame things like, “I don’t read as much as I want to.” But as it turns out, I was probably reading exactly as much as I “wanted to” and doing other things I wanted to do with the rest of my time. It does help, though, to set up your living space to facilitate this kind of conscious time-spending: my husband and I chose a small house where we can’t see much besides the yard, piano, carpentry tools, books and cats. It makes us spend our… Read more »

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@Adrian #20
Blarg to the spelling error. I proofed this thoroughly last night, but I was also physically and mentally exhausted. I just wanted to get to bed. Apparently, it shows. 🙁

Thanks for flagging that for me.

David
David
9 years ago

@Alex

Fitness is about more than being able to run and complete workout videos. Being able to lift heavy objects is just as important, and I doubt you can accomplish that without touching a barbell.

Kate
Kate
9 years ago

Kevin M (#15) said: “I value my wife and kids above anything but spending more money on them won’t make our relationship better or make me value them more.” I think there’s still a way to relate this back to money. Some people may spend a lot of time working to pay for things they don’t really need. If they could prioritize their spending and cut out things that don’t matter to them as much as spending time with their family (or whatever activity is important), maybe they could get a part-time job or work somewhere else that requires less… Read more »

fetu
fetu
9 years ago

No matter how fit I want to be, I am afraid that I am just too cheap to want to pay big bucks to exercise. I am willing to pay $15 a year for my swimming pool pass to go swimming at least once a week but that is it. The rest of the time it is walking and riding my bike as much as possible as part of daily life. Actually those two activities pay me as I pick up bottles and cans for recycling at 5 cents each as I go along. A good point about putting more… Read more »

Ryan Waggoner
Ryan Waggoner
9 years ago

I think this is a really valuable way to see if you’re spending too much on something you say isn’t important, but I’m not sure the reverse is true: does not spending a lot on something indicate it’s not that important to you? Some things just genuinely aren’t expensive, and you might actually spend LESS on them if you make them a priority. Eating healthy food prepared at home comes to mind; it would be easy to rack up an enormous food budget if you ate out every meal. So I’d go through this exercise, but mainly to see if… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
9 years ago

I like the idea of this exercise. It sounds really insightful. I don’t have any spending records to look at, though. Spending records fall pretty low down my list of values.

Janette
Janette
9 years ago

Time, Treasure and Talent
I am pretty good at spending the first two on my family. Now I have to kick my own tush and get the talent part going.
My current concern is that I feel no need for extended community- and I know that will be important in the future. I’d rather work with one kid, and teach him how to read, than an organization where I could develop friends in a new town. Maybe it is my age?

wanzman
wanzman
9 years ago

I really enjoy/value playing golf and practicing golf. That’s why I recently began paying $450 per month to me a member at a country club.

Worth every penny. Most people who golf there play a lot, so the rounds go quickly, and it is enjoyable to play with other folks that have a high skill level.

I wish I could spend all day every day there, but alas, must have a job…

Sherry
Sherry
9 years ago

Actually – this is a timely post for me and my husband. We just decided to go on a trip in a few months to Europe. We have said for years that we wanted to travel, but with the exception of 2 trips, we have not really gone anywhere in the last 10 years. So, we are taking some savings that had been earmarked towards house renovations to go. We are not shorting anything important in the house, and the older I get, the more I realized that experiences mean a lot more to us than just stuff or a… Read more »

lawyerette
lawyerette
9 years ago

I think the spending money on fitness thing comes down to some extent to discipline and ppl’s natural aptitude to do fitness stuff. Some ppl like nothing better than to go for a run at dawn. I’m not one of those people. I have learned that I am much better off paying a triple digit number monthly for a membership to a gym that has classes I enjoy and can fit into my schedule. I need the discipline of going to classes. Otherwise, I just don’t work out as much as I should. I’ve bought so many fitness dvds only… Read more »

Tara C
Tara C
9 years ago

Thank you for this post – I have been talking about going back to yoga classes for 2 years but kept rationalizing that I didn’t want to spend the money. Meanwhile, I have spent plenty more money on stuff I didn’t need, and neglected my health. This year I am going to put my money where my needs truly are!

Dan Blakely
Dan Blakely
9 years ago

I could not agree more. Earlier in my life it seemed that spending was more about the moment at hand and what filled immediate wants and desires. As I grow older, I find that although I spend more frugally when I do spend it is in line with not only my values but my goals. A good example from my life is with groceries. We have made the decision as a family that we want to buy more fresh, whole foods that are natural and organic. We make this decision for better nutrition, personal health and the belief that eating… Read more »

Gerard
Gerard
8 years ago

Great article, but I think you missed out on one aspect. You can track you spending both financially, but also timewise. It is not only what you spend your money on, but also what you spend your time on.

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