It’s far enough past the holidays that we’re finally getting the bills for those festive purchases. Seeing our spending tallied up, along with interest charges, can make for a stressful way to start the New Year. Resolutions that make financial goals and savings a priority are a common response when we come face to face with what we owe. In the past, I habitually made pledges to tighten my wallet each January.
Sometimes I’d go a bit further, though, and reflect on the larger financial picture of my life: the credit card balances and car loans that needed paying off or the need to save for far off objectives, like a mortgage down payment or college tuition for the kids. It was painful to admit how our uncontrolled spending had left us constantly stretching our resources.
What I’ve learned recently, however, is that the process of a financial review can tell us more about our lives than just the balance of our bank accounts! Whether you regularly reevaluate your finances or steadily stick your head in the sand, taking an honest look at your spending habits will shine a light on more than your pocketbook. Provided you ask the right questions.
The first step to evaluating the bigger picture is to choose some sort of budgeting or tracking method. You need to accumulate numbers over time in order to draw useful conclusions.
If you have a system that’s working, gather your data. If not, don’t worry… There are a lot of options, from paper worksheets to computer programs, and even web-based services.
I’ve tried them all over the years, so I feel confident giving this little piece of advice:
The best system is the one you’ll stick with.
Either way, you’ll be surprised to learn more about who you are rather than just where your dollars go each month.
There are lots of ways you can view yourself in regards to your relationship with money. Some of these distinctions are ingrained habits you developed from your upbringing or after surviving financial adversity. Other outlooks may be a deliberate choice because of your future goals and aspirations.
Take a moment to consider where you fall on the following three spectrums:
First and foremost, we must meet our basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, transportation, work expenses). When we choose to save, however, it can say a lot about how we see our future.
Recognize that there’s no judgment for where you fall on these spectrums. For example, saving may not be possible when every extra penny is going to pay off student loans. On the other hand, you might be confident that you’re managing and growing your money well. What’s important is that we have a clear idea about our habitual behaviors and attitudes towards spending.
This can be a daunting question to answer, especially if you’ve never considered it before. But looking at where your money is being spent goes a long way to recognizing your values. Start by evaluating your spending categories, which can be defined as broadly (wants/needs/savings) or as detailed as you’d like (for example, my budget has 160).
With the data in front of you, or in preparation to begin tracking, consider the following questions:
This is asking about more than what categories you spend money on, but rather who or what you pay first.
Which categories are at the top of your spending list versus which ones you allow yourself to skimp on from time to time?
In our budget, for example, retirement and college savings are paramount—they get funded first through auto-deposits. However, in a lean month, I can tighten up our spending on food (fewer take-out nights), clothing (we have a thriving consignment store in town), and entertainment options (Netflix for family movies rather than the theaters).
Or are there areas that you rate as highly important, yet fail to fund first?
When I first started budgeting seriously, I identified travel as a priority for our family, but it was often neglected due to “lack of funds.” So we committed to save on a monthly basis towards a vacation where we could share amazing experiences and memories. Some years were big trips (a visit to Disney or an Alaskan cruise) while others were quieter and closer to home (renting a house on a local lake). In either case, we made the commitment, adjusted according to what we could afford that year, and paid ourselves first.
And are you treating it as a focal point in your budget?
Remember that making something a spending priority doesn’t require breaking the bank by trying to fund it to an unsustainable degree. It simply asks you to decide what you can afford, and then to protect that amount from being spent elsewhere.
No matter how you decide to spend your money, track your balances, or share your financial outlook, can you move past the numbers?
Our daily receipts and bills really do reveal our values. Since we live in a currency-based economy, our spending reflects how we choose to prioritize our lives. How do you want to feel about your fiscal habits at the end of this year?
What about at the end of your life?
After this extensive reflection, are you ready to take action and put your money towards what truly matters? Are you willing to let go of any other, less important expenses that are currently in the way?
If improving your finances is a goal for the new year, then ask some of the preceding questions and listen in the stillness for your answers.
Regardless of where you are with regards to your money—whether you can track it to the nearest cent or are blissfully unaware of your balances—set aside a few extra minutes to consider these final financial questions:
It doesn’t have to be a lot, just enough to ensure that your priorities aren’t being overwhelmed by more urgent, but less important, matters.
It could be practical (saving for a major milestone) or fulfilling (satisfying a heart’s desire), but it should be unique and essential to you.
Give yourself a few moments to see if any of those questions prompts you to take a small step.
Your micro-action might be a conversation with a partner or family member. Maybe it’s researching some budgeting options. It could even involve starting a monthly savings goal.
Whatever you decide, mark time on your calendar to take the action that enables your money to start serving your greater goals and dreams.
Finally, allow yourself to feel good for making this deeper inquiry into your spending. You’ve considered some challenging questions—ones that most budgets and financial plans fail to tackle. By addressing these issues, and allowing the space for answers to arise, you’ll have a leg up on where you were before.
As the designated money manager of our household, I understand there’s an overload of information to keep track of when it comes to one’s financial picture. I’ve spent plenty of billing cycles feeling overwhelmed by the inflow of statements and the outflow of cash.
Rather than get caught up in the minutia of dollars and cents, I’m inviting you to use these questions for a deeper exploration. In this moment, what’s your bottom line…
Does your spending reflect your values and priorities?
Yes or No?
Whatever your answer may be, know that adjustments can be made if you’re willing to back what matters to you with your time, energy, and ultimately, your dollars.
Download your free worksheet and review your spending habits today.