Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Parsing past purchases: value and integrity

About a dozen or so years ago, I used to do a lot of travelling for my job.  And because I'm really not at all a happy person when I'm not focused on a task, just about every time I passed through an airport I bought another book to read on the next plane.  (Because I'm an insanely fast reader, I don't mean I'd buy one book per trip, or even one book per direction; I'd often buy one book per leg of the trip: 4 books per trip).

About the same time, about once or twice a month, I would go out for lunch with some friend of mine, usually to a fancier restaurant than I would ever go on my own (as you might guess, I'm pretty strictly a brown-bagger when it comes to lunch).

I remember both of these expenses very well because I had just come fresh out of my first reading of Your Money or Your Life, a book that really did change my life, at least in the financial sense.  The authors convinced me that, to understand my financial situation, I ought to spend some time keeping track of all the money I spent.  And I was surprised, once I started doing this, at where my money actually went.  The size of both of the above expenses were unexpected to me, although in different ways.

The big idea behind the book YMoYL is trying to align your finances with all the values and goals of the rest of your life:  the authors call this alignment "financial integrity" and lay out a goal of "financial independence" (meaning, reaching the point at which you no longer need the money from your job in order to support yourself).

The "integrity" part was probably the most interesting to me. I love my job and really see myself working at it for a long, long time, so I wasn't as hooked as others might be on the idea of financial independence, except in the abstract.  [Although, as an aside, after I married my husband I decided that I really want to get our family to the point where his job is gravy-money, and not something he has to be tied to.   And we're getting darned close to that point, so the book may eventually help my guy become a kept man.  Yes.]

But the "integrity" part has colored all my views of how I spend money since then.  Because, back in 1996, I was spending about $25/month on airport books.  Given my salary (minus taxes, minus professional expenses, etc), you might say that was about 3 or 4 hours of my life each month earning the money that I spent to amuse myself while I was on airplanes.  That floored me (but fortunately for everyone else involved, didn't floor the airplanes).

On the other hand, I was spending almost the same amount -- about 3 or 4 hours of my life each month  -- on staying in touch with friends.  As somebody who cares deeply about community, I realized that number was low -- way low.

And after that exercise, things changed.  I started yard-sale purchasing books (eventually I realized I had to store them in my suitcase, or I'd read them before my trip and wind up buying books in the airport anyway).  My travel book budget went from $300 a year to $15 a year.   But my lunches with friends got a corresponding bump -- I was spending both time and money on these friendships that were  valuable and precious to me.  And it felt right.

Off the top of my head, this is what I remember about the steps the authors suggested:
  1. Convert dollar amounts into something personally meaningful to you.  They suggest computing your "real hourly wage" (money you earn minus taxes and work expenses, divided by the amount of time you actually devote to your job, including dressing, commuting, and de-stressing), so that you know that, say, $3 = one hour of your life.  But you could I suppose convert it into ice cream sundaes or time on the golf course or some such equivalent.
  2. Write down everything you spend.
  3. Once a month, look back at your spending, and for each item (or collection of items), consider whether this was really in alignement with your values and goals.  Was this thing worth spending 3 hours of your life (or was it worth foregoing 3 ice cream sundaes)?  
  4. Would you rather have spent less (of your time or of your ice cream) on that?  Or -- here's the question that got me to sit up and pay attention -- do you feel you should be spending more on that?
Needs?  Wants?  For me, this is not quite the right question.  Alignment and integrity?  That's closer to what I'd like to do.

The danger in this approach is the smugness factor -- the tendency I have to start thinking of my spending habits as "The True Way", capitalized words and all.  (This is especially easy when I'm not actively coveting apple peeler/corers that I could just as well borrow from my neighbor).  After all, smugness is something I'm especially prone to as a professor/environmentalist/evangelical christian.  So my yearly massive outlay to our local theater is A Good-and-Righteous Thing, because it supports the local arts and provides cultural enrichment for the family, whereas my husband's sports drinks are a sign of moral weakness: a nutritional and environmental degeneracy.  Or something.

To which the moral is, keep my morals to myself.  Or, at least, remember this is a way for me to think about my own spending, not a way to judge the spending of others.

No comments:

Post a Comment