There are lots of reasons to spend money, some good, some bad, most compelling. Of course, this is by design.
Not spending money, though… that’s a trickier thing. The reasons not to spend—or to save, if you’d like to put it more positively—are often vague, rooted in a fuzzy sense of what one should do.
When people are tired or temptations are especially aggressive (hello, holiday season!), the vague thought: I should pay off my debt, crumbles in the face of beautiful store displays or delicious scents wafting from strategically open bakery doors.
More than this, advertising often appeals to our sense of self, frequently tying products to concepts or feelings that we truly believe in. How many bath bombs have been purchased on credit cards in the name of self-care? How many unused vitamins and supplements under the name of wellness? Pink things for breast cancer awareness? Maybe an embarrassment of water bottles and reusable bags under the name of environmentalism, even though the environmental thing would be shopping less overall? Against all these compelling, ego-supporting reasons to shop, the vague adulting calls to save more and spend less don’t stand a chance.
Just as advertisers know to tap into your sense of self through fairly specific identity appeals—Are you a dog-loving hiker? Here’s a four-wheel-drive station wagon—you can also meet your own financial needs by developing your own money mantra, or “why.”
The importance of considering our feelings and values when it comes to money has gained traction in the field of economics. As the journal Applied Economics reports, “individualized cultural values measures do indeed explain part of the financial behavior of households.” Becoming more concretely aware of cultural, familial and personal values might thus be an important key to better personal finance.
Here are a few techniques to use for getting in touch with your money “why”:
1. Tap into your core values.
What’s most important to you? Unlike with the next two exercises, you’re allowed to be a bit vague here. You might find yourself naming things like “beauty,” “health,” “community,” “family” or even something grander, like “justice.” Faced with spending decisions, you might ask yourself whether a purchase supports your core values. Now, sometimes the answer is an obvious “no.” This new lip-gloss/headset/hamburger does not contribute to social justice. But sometimes advertisers will attempt to target your core values in sneaky ways. For example, a fuel-efficient car seems like a truly environmental choice; however, it’s not as environmental as simply not buying something.
In her book Loaded, behavioral economist Sarah Newcomb writes about these values in terms of “needs” and explains that the infamous “latte factor” can in fact be scratching the need for “social connection.” If you enjoy visiting your local coffee shop. If this is the case, then simply saying, “I’m cutting the coffee” isn’t going to work, because the latte was never just about the caffeine hit to begin with; it was about the bond with the other regulars at the coffee shop. As you spend time reflecting on your values, start listing low-cost and free ways of sustaining them. For example, if you feel advertisements for green juice are exploiting your value of “good health,” turn to your list of other habits and consider a vigorous workout or make a water-drinking chart for yourself in your notebook. You may still get the “hit” of supporting what you value without the hit to your wallet.
2. Do the priority exercise.
Prioritization can be a painful practice because it involves choosing one option above all others. Not wanting to make such choices can be part of how we end up in consumer debt. The good news about priorities, though, is they can be seasonal. Too often, companies make us feel like we have to choose everything at once, but choosing to spend in one area now needn’t mean we can never spend another way.
Take a moment to list your financial priorities: remodeling the house, saving up an emergency fund, freeing yourself from credit card debt, building a college fund. Don’t list too many. Now, among these, which is the most important for this season of your life? You’re not committing forever and ever, just choosing a point of focus for a time. Making this choice should be active, and you might practice writing the choice out or saying it aloud in this way: “Right now, I am prioritizing my emergency fund.” Making this active declaration might help stave off feelings of deprivation that come from the vaguer and more negative, “I can’t buy x because I’m on a budget.”
3. Choose your identity.
It’s a bit grim, but take a moment to picture your obituary. Or, if that’s too much, imagine the speech a colleague might give upon your retirement. What are the key highlights of your life? What do people remember and admire best about you? Maybe over your lifetime you were an intrepid traveler. Maybe you were a father who created wonderful opportunities for his children to express themselves creatively. Maybe you created a groundbreaking language-learning program. Maybe you brought joy to your community by developing a series of urban gardens based on experiments from your own backyard.
Spend some time thinking through the identities you’d want people to describe you by at the end of your lifetime. Put your favorite one or two on an index card or sticky note and put it someplace visible like your bathroom mirror or your wallet. When you are faced with decisions about spending, use these identities—bold painter, curious wanderer, community leader—to ask whether the expense is helping you move closer to the person you want to be. Doing this may also help clarify savings goals, such as taking art classes, saving for trips, remodeling the backyard, and so on.
There are millions of things to spend your money on, and advertisers are happy to supply you with reasons for purchasing any number of them. Having a money “why” clarifies decision-making around money both in a day-to-day way and in moments when you’re faced with a big decision, whether that’s a happy one such as a windfall or something darker like a job loss. In moments big and small, decide what action would be most in alignment with your money “why.”
This article was published in November 2019 and has been updated. Photo by @anjemaster/Twenty20