On the other side of the consideration of behavioral and mental health, it’s not all doom and gloom addictions, but well… health, well-being, and mindfulness. It isn’t an absolute, dichotomous condition of being healthy or unhealthy, well or sick, prosperous or in poverty. It’s a continuum of progression and improvement and adjustment to seek a sufficient degree of balance and contentment as we and the world around us continually change. How well you can adjust and adapt to those changes, whether reactively (car breaks down, hot water heater goes kaput) or proactively (save a little money each month for car and home maintenance needs before they arise) makes a big difference in your overall quality of life. And then being aware of what a high quality life even means to you is the piece that sets the stage for how you implement it. We’ll get to really explore and define this for yourself and your family later in the book, but appreciating the role mindfulness and awareness play in this whole thing called personal finance may not be immediately evident and so warrants a few words about it.
Many people think of personal finance as this highly technical world of numbers and interest rates and words that seem to be English but have no meaning in your lexicon (short put? long call?). And then there’s what you should have done 15 years ago to set yourself up for success which no one told you about and so maybe you’re being shown a compound interest chart where you could have had $2 million in the bank by now if you’d been saving this tiny bit each month, but now you have to save hundreds more (apparently foregoing eating, since that’s clearly an optional want) and in the end you’ll only have how much? It’s not hard to view personal finance as the domain of those who are technically minded, since that’s how they talk about it, and how they teach it.
But it’s also this mysterious thing where we’re encouraged by scripture and society that being generous is good for us and the world and we should be thinking abundance and not scarcity. It’s a way we can express our love, that if we really want to make a change in the world then the undertaking will require material means to carry it out. We need it to fund our schools and non-profits, to have sufficient supplies of dinosaur band-aids stocked under the sink as our kid instinctively wants to heal himself.
So what is this money and personal finance thing? Is it a technical number in our account? Is it a metaphysical way of engaging in the world? Is it material or spiritual? The more I study it from every perspective I can, the more I’m apt to believe that it’s perhaps all of the above. It’s fundamental, second only in rank to simply being human. If a human is temporarily a physical body in this material plane, associated with an eternal spiritual entity, then money is like the body used to carry on the daily activities of life, while the decisions, values, goals, habits, and attitudes, are the spiritual domain that guide its use. When these two sides meet, that’s when the rubber hits the road, the kinetic kicks in, and away we go. Before then, it’s all theoretical, hypothetical, potential.
There are a couple of implications that result. If you’re willing to go with me on the above framework for thinking about our financial lives in this physical/spiritual duality construct (at least until we can come up with something better), then perhaps we can consider the brain and mental domain as being the intersecting point where the physical and spiritual intersect. Good behavioral health usually entails mindfulness. It’s a matter of being present and aware. If you’ve ever done meditative mindfulness practice, it’s recognizing when you’ve gotten distracted, noting it, and then bringing your attention back to the point of focus. You don’t judge the thoughts. Just note, and let go, and get on with life. You’re not rehashing past decisions that are already done. You’re not fretting and worrying about decisions that have yet to come about. You’re sitting with the reality as it is, working with what you’ve actually got, assessing the options as they stand. (After all, there are ALWAYS options.)
As you move forward, you’re mindful of where your money is going and what it’s doing for you. In the beginning, it’s best to go all in with a clarity building exercise, to really take stock of where you’re at and what the heck you’re doing and thinking. After that, you take the learnings and move forward with intention. The sense of purpose and control that you now have by being intentional is profound. It’s lack of this that makes people feel so overwhelmed, when they feel like their money and bills control them. But when you are clear on what you want, and how you want it to go, and then direct your money to that purpose, the sense of power and happiness and fulfillment in not just the outcome but the journey along the way all become manifest with the purposeful, mindful, intention.
When I saw so many financial education seminars and books teaching personal finance as a technical exercise, I got this gut feeling that something big was missed. It’s the behavioral component. I myself have taught plenty of classes on personal finance and left with a realization that I just dropped all kinds of great information that wasn’t ever going to be acted upon. Why do they teach it this way? Because it’s easy. It’s where the teacher or trainer hired comes in, does a song and dance, and then leaves. The group that sponsored the event can say they’ve fulfilled their responsibility, and now it’s on the individual to magically transform their financial affairs. Even you, the attendee, feel great in the moment, now that you’ve been presented with all this information. But then you wake up the next morning, and you’ve got all the inertia of the life you’ve lived and the habits and attitudes you’ve built up over time staring you down and so you do the things the way you’ve always done and nothing changes. Except now perhaps you feel guilty that you couldn’t even do the stuff that the trainer said was so easy and would have such a profound impact on your life. Gee, thanks.
Behavior change requires a different approach. It requires tapping your personal values and motivations. It takes time over many sessions and experiences to establish new patterns of habits and beliefs. Unfortunately, we as a society, and individually, love to have immediate gratification: we want the quick fix, the one pill, the magical erase of all our debts in one bankruptcy proceeding. Except our habits don’t change that fast. And so we rack up more debt. Phooey. We’re in fact wired to crave the dopamine hit – ever wonder why you can’t stop playing that game on your phone, checking the twitter feed, or refreshing the news? It’s the quick hit, the quick win, the immediate gratification that we love. And marketers and game designers know how to tap it.
So, while you can employ behavioral hacks (such as automating your savings), these won’t actually yield the more meaningful and important results that you’re looking for. They won’t buffer you against all the distractions out to entrap you. That sense of control and the deeper connection with the world around you, that will require deeper work, harder work. But when you reach through to the other side, you’ll be wondering why it took you so long, having endured so much pain and frustration and anxiety and hitting bottom so frequently you’re actually bouncing. Developing mindfulness, awareness, reading the reality, is a bit of a spiritual awakening. It’s like the clouds of materialism and habit are lifted from your eyes and you can see not just what’s possible for someone else (that’s envy!), but what you really can have for your own life.
This book is a work in progress and we’ll all benefit from your input and collaboration. In the “Leave a Reply” below, please post examples, comments, questions, and needed edits. By posting, you grant permission for inclusion of any content to become part of the book, now or in the future, in whatever form it may take. I’ll give attributions to the extent possible. I know sharing about our financial lives can be sensitive, so if you want to share anonymously, please use the contact form instead and I’ll honor your request.