Financial enlightenment does not come from charts

I’ve always looked at websites and apps that purport to solve your financial woes and set you on the path to fiscal happiness with skepticism. It’s not that I think they’re not useful; but I think that making charts and graphs and having the ability to Tweet your receipts is, while fun, not essential to financial health, and sometimes even a distraction. I think of this association as breast self-exams are to breast cancer: useful, even recommended, but not going to save you from getting breast cancer in the first place. At best, they’re detectors, diagnostics.

That theme keeps repeating itself in my world of financial media, so I’ve been thinking deeply about it.

In a post on my financial relationship with my husband, for instance, I mentioned tracking my expenses. When he was home on leave at the end of October, he told me this was great. “Let’s sit down with your list of expenses,” he said, “and we’ll go through it. I’ll put a line through the ones I disagree with. Then we can discuss them.”

I balked. How was this going to help matters? A retrospective give-and-take over my spending would, at worst, bring up arguments over what I’d spent; at best, our discussion would give me a sense of pride over what I’d spent, hardly getting at any underlying financial issues.

Seeing all my spending through someone else’s eyes — even seeing it as percentages or pie charts — was not going to fix my financial problems.

My financial problem is that I often budget carefully, and I generally do spend sensibly, but when it comes down to a decision between buying something and not buying something, I’m making that decision only looking at the upside (whether the purchase is a wise one and frugal to boot), not at the downside (whether I’ll have money for my other obligations after I spend on this one).

I leap first and do the math later.

This is not the best way to approach financial life, at least, not in my currently limited financial situation. I’m working on it! But no matter how often I fill out my expense-tracking spreadsheet, no matter how many cool “sumif” functions I run (I could tell you, for instance, exactly how much money I spent on coffee in coffee shops as opposed to the money I spent for coffee beans and brewing equipment; how much I spent on meals and how much I spent on snacks and treats; how much I spent on babysitting for social functions and babysitting for writing), I am not getting at this core issue.

I can only get at my real problem — not through helpful lessons on budgeting tips or advanced iPhone apps — by real, hard, careful work on self-improvement.

I can only get at my real problem through psychology. Through practice.

I think the true path to financial enlightenment is something like those 10,000 prostrations I read about in someone’s memoir. I forget the details, but do the prostrations, day in and day out until you get to a big number, and you move to the next “level” of spiritual enlightenment. Doing the right thing over, and over, and over again is the only way I’m going to put my financial house in order. (Or a huge windfall might be nice!) (No! That’s not useful thinking!)

Over the past few weeks, right after having this financial epiphany and resolving to spend a bit more sensibly than I had been for the past year, I had less cash than I had planned due to some surprise bills. I found myself with about 10 days between the end of my cash and the next planned payday. What I wanted to do was to juggle, to promise to pay and to borrow from one account so I could buy (for instance) Irish Breakfast tea, and easy snacks for my kids’ lunches, and a book for my book group, and another that I discovered my name was in (I’m a “Notable” in Best American Essays!). Not to mention my usual small luxuries, like cappuccinos, salty-herby bagels and roasted vegetable cream cheese when I go to meet friends for work sessions in cafes.

But I had just had this talk with myself: I need to practice financial fidelity. So I did my best.

It’s not like I don’t know how to do this; I just don’t want to do this. I have a stocked pantry and plenty of resources. I did the frugal thing.

Instead of buying a new box of tea, I made do with the seemingly endless variety of bits of loose tea I’ve purchased over the last few years. Instead of buying easy snacks for my kids’ lunches, I got creative with the freezer and the pantry, making them meatballs, and biscuits, and healthy oatmeal cookies, and lots and lots of carrot sticks (luckily, they love carrot sticks). Instead of buying that book, I decided to get it at the library (I know! You keep telling me!). I made a stack of books the local bookstore would be likely to take in exchange for the one with my name in it. I looked for change under the couch and in the bottom of my bags to buy plain, ordinary coffee when I went out to meet friends, and ate oatmeal before I left home.

I planned ahead for busy days, making a huge pot of beef vegetable soup and lots and lots of mashed potatoes (my CSA has me overflowing with potatoes, cabbage and carrots!). I was so proud of myself.

The thing is: This is only the smallest, most beginning step toward meeting my financial goals.

Spending time on practicing my financial philosophies instead of recording them or analyzing them or even searching for great tips and tricks on Pinterest that fit “frugality” or whatever I want to call my philosophy was great. And I think it gets to something we often forget as personal finance writers: the psychology of money is far more important than the math.

If you want to be smarter about money, you don’t necessarily have to be smarter. You don’t ever have to learn how to do one of those “sumif” functions in your spreadsheet software (though they’re totally fun); you don’t have to be able to tell me what percentage of your “vice” budget was spent on coffee, and what was spent on chocolate. You have to be able to behave the right way (right = most sensible to reach your financial goals).

Any journey in personal finance is a journey in behavioral psychology.

I’m always amazed when I listen to the personal finance shows on the radio and hear variations on the same question. Either the caller is doing fantastically well, making far more income than she is spending, and wants to know whether (for instance) to spend more money paying off a debt or saving for retirement. Or the caller is in some variation of a dire situation brought on by bad habits. I relate to the dire situation and think, “Oh! I’ll do so much better! Because I understand the behavioral psychology behind this!” and then… I try.

I am a classic do-first, think-after person. Lots of time it works out brilliantly — it’s the perfect sort of trait for a creative overachiever, and I get a lot done! But it’s not the best approach to my finances, and I’m practicing like a yogi to do the numbers before I whip out the debit card.

What is your financial practice? Have you found charts and tracking sheets more useful than I have? Are you a scion of a noble line of disciplined financial gurus? Or are you, too, in need of 9,000-some more prostrations before financial enlightenment is reached?

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