"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.
Doing this also helps us identify areas where our spending doesn't match our values. This will be right out in the open when you try to assign a value to your spending and can't find one. A second level here is that it helps you figure out if there are strategies to meet these same needs and values that maybe cost less, or are more enjoyable, or both.
If you're like most people, many arguments with your partner tend to be about money or at least start about money. They seem to come out of nowhere. One minute you're getting your mail and the next you find yourself in the midst of a heated discussion about how much was spent doing X which leads to a counterstrike about how much was spent on Y. And on and on it goes.
Arguments, fights, disagreements, and heated discussions between you and your spouse, while they seem to be about money, are almost always about a difference in values. One partner, for example, might value fun and friendships more highly than health. For one partner it's difficult to see so much money being spent buying expensive food, while the other partner finds it difficult to see so much money being spent each month on coffee and happy hour.
Now that I've planted that seed for you, I'm going to tell you there's another level below values, and that level contains the strategies we use to meet our values. Most people have not done any work to determine their values, so they aren't able to articulate them. Thus, the articulation of values shows up in our spending. Most people can get on board with having different values. But since we are usually unable to articulate those values, fighting ensues when one partner sees a strategy that is incompatible with his or her values.
How to Address
Our brains work in funny ways, but the best way to think about it is that there are two systems (not physically - this is just the best way to understand it). Some call these the Primitive Mind and the Higher Mind, System 1 and System 2, the animal brain and the scientist brain, or the subconscious and the conscious (although these comparisons aren't perfect, they all highlight that we almost never make as many rational decisions as we think we do).
In a nutshell (read about this in more depth here), the first parts of our brains to develop are focused on instinct (lizard brain), and emotion (monkey brain). Only much later in life does our thinking brain develop (it's not really fully developed until age 25). It normal times, everything works together and is a well-run machine.
In times of stress, including when our energy levels are way down, the thinking brain basically shuts off. The subconscious brain works a lot faster when it doesn't let the conscious brain overthink everything. This is called emotional flooding; our brains fill up with chemicals designed to get us out of the stressful situation. In essence, our fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered in an effort to meet one of our basic needs. If you push your spouse to not see friends as much, he or she is likely to push back in an effort to meet the autonomy or connection need, for example.
Have you ever had a fight when, after it was over, you said to yourself, "why did I say that?" Emotional flooding is why. You literally weren't thinking like yourself.
If you are feeling your energy level drain, or if you sense your partner's energy levels are getting low, it's time to take a break. Arguing while emotionally flooded will get you nowhere. When you are calm, and with good energy levels, it's a good idea to talk about what's important to each of you and talk about how you've been attempting to meet those values and your needs. You might surprise yourself. You might learn that you've been spending money on something that's not important to you. You might discover that you've been underspending in areas that are really important to you.
Most of all, you might learn something about yourself that you didn't know yet, and you might learn something about your partner.
Watch your energy levels, seek to understand, and you'll be well ahead of the game.
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
* This applies to me and my personal values. There are people who do value vehicles as status symbols and this in no way is meant to say anything negative about those people. The opposite of me is someone who buys Teslas and Porsches and can't stand the thought of spending a night away from a bed. Nothing is wrong with either position (as long as they are spending within their means).
Derek Hagen: Aligning Your Money and Your Values
Derek Hagen: Healthy Money Conversations
Daniel Kahneman: Thinking Fast and Slow
Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Financial Psychology Lectures
Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money
Ted Klontz: Exquisite Listening® Seminar
Sarah Newcomb: Loaded
Carl Richards: How to Talk About Money Seminar
Carl Richards: The One-Page Financial Plan
Marshall Rosenberg: Nonviolent Communication
Simon Sinek: Start With Why
Wait But Why: The Great Battle of Fire and Light
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