"Accept no one's definition of your life; define yourself."
1999: I see him coming. The used car salesman is driving a car toward me that he thinks fits me. I believe he's showing me this car because he's not sure I can get approved for a car loan at much more than this. It's a 1994 Buick Skylark with quite a few miles on it. I'm not really sold. It doesn't look very fancy. I think I need something that looks nice. I've had junky cars my whole life, so I'm ready to get something that's not junky. So I turn him down and instead opt for a 1999 Dodge Intrepid. This car is far more sleek, even though it's got four doors. It's also more expensive, and the car payment is above what I should be spending. It pushes above my limit, but I got the best car I could get given my income and credit score.
2008: My Intrepid is getting a lot of miles on it. It sits in my apartment because it doesn't start and I don't have the money to get it towed and repaired. If I pay to have it towed to the shop and they tell me it's too much for the repairs, I wasted the tow charge. So I let it sit. It's time to look for a new car.
This time I decide to get a Saturn. I'm making a lot more money than I was a decade ago, and there's a Saturn dealer downtown near where I work so it's an easy choice for me. The dealer shows me a used Ion, but I balk. I'm better than that. "Don't they know how much money I make," I think to myself. People who work at Wall Street type firms drive nicer cars, so I can't get a used Ion. Instead, I check out the brand new Aura. I love this sedan. It's roomy and has all the options I want. The thing is, I can't afford it. I don't have the cash to pay for it, and the monthly payment on a car loan is high. So I lease.
2015: I'm at the Minnesota State Fair eating something on a stick, and now I badly want a Jeep Wrangler. I was just walking past the Jeep display and jumped in a few. I start thinking about all the benefits. I live in Minnesota and the snow benefits would be great. Plus, I can take the top off in the summer. I can take it to Colorado or Utah and take it on some cool trails. I, along with my wife, start researching Jeeps. We spend months deciding which one to get, the two- or four-door version, where would we put our dog, how much gear can we store in it, what color should it be, and so on.
"Wait a second," we say to each other over a glass of wine. We don't value vehicles. We value reliable transportation, but that's all we need from a vehicle. Cars as status symbols do nothing for us*. We can't spend our money on an expensive toy that can't even tow our camper. We decide on a Ford Focus - the "go-cart."
It took me a while, but I got clear with my money is important to me. Without learning my values, default settings took over. Buying cars that I thought were cool were meeting my need for belonging. I thought if I drove the right car I would fit in better; I might even have some status. I learned I can meet my need for belonging in different ways, that are more in line with my values and don't cost as much money, allowing me to spend more on adventures and fun.
We all have basic needs that strive to meet to live a healthy life. These can be shelter, food, water, acceptance, or laughter. These are specific, and you can combine these needs until you arrive at our six basic human needs. These are:
Safety and security - we need to feel safe and secure. Things like food, shelter, health, rest, and exercise all fall into this category.
Belonging - we need to belong. We need to feel like we are part of the tribe. Things like acceptance, community, and support are covered by belonging.
Connection - we need to connect with people. This is different from belonging; belonging means we belong to a particular group - we fit in. Connection is connecting with other individuals. This is where you will find things like love, friendship, intimacy, and trust.
Purpose or significance - we need to feel like we matter. This is where you find peace, meaning, growth, and hope.
Self-expression - we need to be able to express ourselves. Adventure, fun, laughter, and creativity live here.
Autonomy - we need to be able to choose our own path. This is where you find things like independence and personal space.
Ted Klontz, a co-founder of Financial Psychology Institute, says that all of our behaviors are nothing more than desperate attempts to fulfill one or more of our basic human needs. Think of it like this; all human behavior gets funneled down into one or more need.
Some of these basic needs directly contradict each other. For example, have you ever felt lonely, so you called up some friends to get together, only to later want to be left alone because you don't feel like talking to anyone? Connection and autonomy are opposites.
We can't pursue all our needs at the same time, and not everyone chases the same needs in the same proportion. That's where values come in.
Our values are why we live our life; why we get up in the morning. It's a prioritization of our needs, based on what's most important to us. Values include things like family, adventure, travel, health, honesty, and spirituality. In an ideal world, our values would serve as our priorities when it comes to our money.
You might be thinking that your money priorities don't match how you're using your money. That's highly likely. Our behaviors and our values don't always match up. When this happens can feel like we're out of sync with ourselves; like we aren't true to who we are. We often know deep down that our behaviors aren't matching our values, but we are rarely able to articulate it, especially in the moment.
The behaviors we engage in to meet our values and needs are simply strategies.
If things are feeling out of balance, it's possibly one of two things. You might need to get more clear on your values. For example, without being crystal clear about your values, you may fall victim to peer pressure - trying to keep up to the proverbial Joneses. By doing so, you are meeting your need for belonging, but you may be missing more important values that you hold. This is an example of pursuing extrinsic rewards (going after things in the outside world, like money and status). Getting more clear about your values helps you pursue intrinsic rewards, which satisfy our human needs in a way that we can be proud of, because we are in balance with our values.
Alternatively, if you're feeling out of balance and getting more clear about your values wasn't the answer, you might need to try different strategies to meet your values and needs. You could use strategies like dining out for dinner, driving to work, and working out at the gym. But if your top values are family, environment, and outdoors, then better strategies might be to cook at home with your family, take the bus, and run on the local trails.
Neither of these strategies is right or wrong in and of themselves. After all, if you asked 20 people about their top values, you would get 20 different sets of priorities. The trick is to make sure your strategies, or behaviors, match up with what's important to you.
In her book, Loaded: Money, Psychology, and How to Get Ahead Without Leaving Your Values Behind, Sarah Newcomb suggests mapping our expenses to our values and needs. By doing so, we can bring awareness to how all of our expenses add value to our lives.
This exercise helps us in a couple of ways. First, it's empowering to figure out that money we spend doesn't just leave us; it supports us. It helps us feel better about how we're using our money. Even a boring old electricity bill, when viewed like this, becomes the price you pay for warmth in the winter, light when you are reading, or entertainment when you watch a movie on Saturday night.