Goals, Values, and Methods

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In a few years, we hope to pay off our home mortgage. After that, we’re intending to save up for a parcel of mostly wooded land in the country, then we’re going to build a home on that land.

We’re both using retirement savings vehicles with the intention of starting to use them the day we reach eligibility, around age 60.

We’re also saving money for each of our children in 529 college savings accounts with the intent of paying for some but not all of their college savings.

These are our three big financial goals at the moment. They are the targets for most of our money and they’re the places our money goes when we are frugal or find additional income.

Each of the goals is particularly powerful for us, not because it results in a better net worth or because it amounts to some sort of prestige. These goals are powerful for us because they’re directly in accordance with our deepest personal values.

Our goal of saving for our own piece of land and building on that land is tied heavily to our identification with nature and with rural living. We both want to live in a place with easy access to beautiful natural environments that draws us outdoors all the time. Such living also makes it easier to deeply reinforce family bonds without constant distraction.

Our goal of “retiring” at age 60 is tied heavily to our desire to commit a period of our life to charity and public service and to chasing a few personal windmills. This world has given us so much and we want to give back to it. It’s difficult to do this while having three young children, so we’ve placed this period at a later stage in our life and are doing things now to ensure that it happens.

Our goal of saving for the education of our children is tied heavily to the value we place on education. At the same time, our desire to not pay for their entire education is tied to the value we place on learning how to be responsible for yourself.

It is those deep values that we reflect on every time we make a financial choice that takes us closer to one of our goals.

When we choose not to eat out, we’re giving ourselves more money to pay down our mortgage. Instead, we eat at home. We prepare the meal together, set the table together, enjoy the simple food and the company of each other, and tie together our family bonds.

When we choose to wait before replacing a vehicle, we’re giving ourselves more money to save for retirement. We put a bit more effort into maintaining that car, keeping it out of the junk yard for longer, and the proceeds from that increase our ability to retire at a younger age. Our older paid-off vehicles, driven for a few more years than we might have otherwise liked, aren’t just taking us to today’s destination. They’re also carrying us to the type of second career that we dream of.

When we spend most of our afternoons at the park with our children instead of hooking them on video games or going out for expensive activities, we’re giving ourselves more money to save for their education. We’re building their creativity and their character through imagination-based play and physical play that’s free, giving them a healthier mind and a healthier body.

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My son learning how to assemble a simple bed loft

The connection between the personal values that define who we are and the goals we have set for the future set our actions for today.

It is the reinforcement from both sides of the equation, however, that makes it much easier for us to make good choices today and stay on track for tomorrow.

Let’s say, for example, that we lived by our values but had not set goals for the future. We would still be deeply involved with our children’s intellectual growth, but without the financial restraint we need to have for them to have financial security with their education down the road.

We’d fall into a pattern of buying workbooks and educational tools to help us teach our children things. The truth, though, is that most of the value comes from having an involved parent. I can teach my children how to spell and how to write on any scrap of paper.

We’d fall into a pattern of taking them on expensive educational excursions when almost all of the same lessons can be taught in our neighborhoods and in our state parks. I can teach my children a great deal about nature without an expensive excursion.

We would buy lots of things today to help them along, but the one thing they most need is focused time. I can buy all the workbooks in the world, but they’re not going to be useful unless I sit down with them and impress upon them the value of the workbooks, at which point I might as well be using blank sheets of paper to teach. I can take them on all sorts of trips, but they don’t become valuable without my interaction, and they can get much of the value of many of those trips locally.

The solution is simple. I give them what they most need today – my focused time – and conserve for them what they’ll need for tomorrow – money for their education.

Let’s look at our “retirement” savings under a similar microscope. We could easily spend our time working full-time for charitable causes. The result of that choice, right now, would be an immediate positive impact on the causes we care most about, but it would provide a detriment to many of our other goals in life.

Instead, today we save for our “retirement” thanks to careers and businesses that produce a healthy income.

That’s all well and good, but what about the causes we care about? Right now, my spouse and I both give our spare time to various causes and nonprofit organizations. I’ve served on the executive council, serve as finance director, and have re-drafted the governing documents for a local charity in my spare time. Both my spouse and I have served with various local groups and activities.

We give our time to these groups for several reasons. For one, many of these groups need time as much as they need money. They need people willing to do difficult and often boring tasks. For another, filling some of our spare hours with time spent on such charities means spare hours not spent doing something idle and likely expensive. For yet another reason, volunteering sets a great example for our children in terms of putting your time where your mouth is when it comes to the causes you care about.

The overriding theme here is simple: our values lead us to our financial goals. The goals come from the values, not vice versa.

Earlier in my life, I found it incredibly hard to set financial goals and stick to them. The core reason wasn’t that I couldn’t come up with financial goals, nor that I didn’t understand that I needed plans to get there. The core reason was that I didn’t have a sense of what really mattered to me. It took years for me to really figure that out.

My revelation when I reached my financial low point wasn’t some epiphany about the virtues of savings. It was a simple realization that my family, particularly my children, were at the heart of what mattered to me as a person. I had spent the last few years using my money in ways that weren’t in line at all with that core value of mine, and because there was no real core value behind how I was spending my money, I had neither reason nor desire to save for my future.

In the absence of a core reason to save for the future, it’s incredibly easy to spend money on whatever seems enjoyable at the moment.

My financial turnaround following that realization wasn’t the result of some sort of financial wizardry. It was simply looking at how I was using my money through the filter of that new realization about my life. How is this dollar going to most help my family and my children? I asked myself that over and over and over again.

Over time, my perspectives on a lot of money-related issues changed.

Take frugality, for example.

Originally, I saw frugality as something my parents did and something that I had left behind because of my newfound income. Frugality was boring. Frugality had no role in my life. Frugality simply meant depriving yourself today in order to benefit some unknown future.

When I began to connect the values I held in my life to my goals for the future, I began to see frugality as a tool to help me achieve the goals. Frugality enabled me to shave money from my spending in non-essential places, the end result of which was more money in my wallet and thus more money for the goals I wanted to achieve.

Eventually, though, I began to see frugality in itself as an expression of my values. Being frugal gives me a window to teach my children how to repair a pair of shoes. It gives me another reason to prepare a meal at home for them and to get them involved in the process of preparing it. It gives me yet another reason to have a garden in our back yard that all of us seem to find our way into almost every day during the summer. Being frugal constantly pushes me toward activities where my family is either at the center or involved in some deep way.

It is the deep connection between personal values, goals, and the means of achieving both that makes sticking with those goals seem easy and natural. The goals sprang forth from the values and the methods of achieving those goals often directly express the values that the goals came from. Having all of these elements together makes it easy.

At the core of personal finance is, well, you. It is your values, whatever they may be, that you’re working for. It is the things that are most important in your life that are the real reasons you get out of bed in the morning.

Perhaps you’re aware of those values. If you are, then use them not only in setting goals for your future, but in the methods you use to achieve those goals.

Perhaps you’re not sure why you get out of bed in the morning. If you find yourself there, as I once did, I suggest exploring life and figuring out what really matters to you. Start with things that other people care about: social causes, political causes, religion and faith, family, friendship, personal fitness, leadership. Keep exploring and digging until you wake up one morning and simply know what the important things in your life really are.

Once you have those core values, the goals and the methods to achieve those goals will fit as naturally and with as much appeal as a glove on a cold winter day.

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37 thoughts on “Goals, Values, and Methods

  1. Interesting that someone would destroy part of that “beautiful natural environment” in order to enjoy it. I’m sure there are existing rural homes for sale.

  2. “The connection between the personal values that define who we are and the goals we have set for the future set our actions for today.”

    Beautifully written.

    There are some hard truths in this post that I agree with, but don’t discuss with other friends that are parents. Namely, that the most valuable gift I can give my child is my time and attention. My husband and I decided to reduced our spending and get out of debt soon after my son was born. We gained a lot of clarity about what our priorities were once we had a child. The connection between working more to buy more stuff became apparent. We had to ask ourselves, do we want a bigger home, new car, more stuff or do we want time as a family?

    The answer was easy.

    We chose each other. Not a bigger mortgage or more things.

    I feel strongly that this was the right choice for us but when the subject of our lifestyle change comes up, I brush it off. I don’t want friends or family to feel that I am judging them because they have made other choices.

    Of course, I do blog about these things and as my family and friends read my blog… there is some awkward conversation at family dinners.

    How do you deal with that in real life conversations? Or are all of you friends and family on the same path as you?

  3. #1 KM – that’s precisely the continued discussion my spouse & I are having, as we look toward relocating in the next several years. (I’m on the side of buying an existing home – & modifying it if necessary.)

  4. I’d just like to say that I harbor at least a small amount of resentment towards my mother for never taking me anywhere when I was a child. I feel like I missed out on opportunities that other children had like visiting Mount Rushmore, or going to Disney. You might think that you can give your children experiences locally, and that these types of things aren’t important, but I think you’re failing your children on some level if you don’t provide them with some of the most “basic” of childhood experiences. You might see them as being unimportant or frivolous, but I can’t understand that if you have the means to give your children these experiences, why you’d neglect to provide them simply because you’d rather stick money into a 529.

  5. Very interesting food for thought. I’ve been working on defining my core values and how they lead to financial goals. You would think it’d be easy to identify them, but it’s not. However, the process has very worthwhile. Thanks for this post.

  6. I hate to even bring this up, but you might want to crop that picture of your daughter swimming so that the other children aren’t visible. I imagine most parents would not be impressed to come across a picture of their child online…

  7. #3 Steven, I’m sorry but I don’t agree at all. I never went on any Disney vacations or anything similar but I still remember playing all summer and having tons of fun around me locally. My parents paid for most of my college tuition (not living expenses) from their hard earned money. Looking back I’m glad they didn’t blow it on a Disney vacation. I don’t think it’s a “basic” childhood experience or neglecting your child. As for the small amount of resentment, get over it!

  8. I’m having a similar experience with my vehicles. I have been casually looking to replace at least one of them for a few weeks.
    What I have found is that the more I look at the vehicles that I want to replace mine with, the more I apprecaite my current vehicle.
    I do not want to part with the money to “trade up” for a new vehicle… the reasons that I thought I wanted a new vehicle seem much less important now.

  9. #3 – I went to Disney World twice as a kid and it’s not exactly a life changing experience. The “magic” is all in the marketing, I assure you.

    It’s definitely a very silly thing to harbour resentment over.

  10. I’ve been to Disney as an adult (because I missed out going as a child), and I have no delusions of it being a magical place as an adult, but as a child, I think it’s an experience that is quite memorable for a child. I wouldn’t call it life changing, even for a child, but it’s something I wish I could have experienced as a child.

    It’s not like I hate my mother for not taking me to Disney, but growing up and hearing about other kids’ experiences at Disney, I was certainly jealous. And it isn’t only Disney, but other places like Mount Rushmore or Washington, DC, Yellowstone, the Badlands, etc. I never went to any of these places as a child. As a matter of fact, I never went anywhere as a child except for the local state park. Not that I didn’t enjoy my time at the park, but I believe there are certain experiences that should be had when we’re young.

    Since moving out on my own, I feel like in a way I’ve been playing “catch up” to see all the places I didn’t when I was a child. I felt like I missed out on a lot of learning experiences or perspective that I couldn’t get from books.

  11. Steven, I wonder why you resent them for that. I wasn’t taken anywhere when I was a kid, either my parents couldn’t afford it or it just wasn’t important to them, I’ve never thought about it. Do you think that all adults should feel resentful for not having been taken anywhere as a child? This is a real question, I’m honestly curious what you think.

  12. Steven–I completely agree!

    I wish my family had travelled more when I was a child. It’s definitely an experience that will be a top priority when I have children of my own. (As well as something I will budget and save for!)

    Trent did mention in a previous post that he and his wife were saving for several big family trips in the next few years–which is great. But it would be nice if he mentioned that in posts like this one, rather than acting as if his children can get EVERY possible experience without ever needing to leave their small town!

  13. Steven, I’m not sure what it was like where you grew up, however, for my childhood (and I’m only 31!) trips like that were definitely the exception and not the norm.

    I went NOWHERE as a child and I’m pretty sure I was well into my teens before I ate at a restaurant with actual servers (out with my aunt and uncle, not even with my parents). First flight when I was in my 20s, first hotel in grade 10 (school trip), and definitely not much money for extras when I was a kid. We camped in the back yard or shared a site with another family at a campground less than 30 minutes away. Like I said, I went nowhere. Never once would I say I “resented” my mother for that and to do so would be disrespectful. She did what she could and I’m grateful for the experiences I had.

    Feeling deprived is in your state of mind.

  14. Ditto what Riki (#11) said. It just wasn’t part of our life or the lives of my friends and nearby family to be taking trips, even in our own country. I got on my first plane at 19 to Australia and since then I’ve travelled a lot, not to play catch-up but because it’s how I want to spend my time.

  15. Maybe resentment isn’t the right word to use. Really, I harbor no ill feelings towards my mother for not taking me to these places, but I do feel that I missed out on some level by not going to these places.

    And no, I don’t think people should feel resentful towards their parents for not taking them places as children, but I do feel that if a parent is capable of providing these experiences for their children, I can’t really understand why they wouldn’t. I know that when I have children, one of my highest priorities is to share as many of the beautiful and “magical” places in this world as I possibly can. Maybe it’s a matter of parenting priorities…

  16. Michelle,

    I think it depends on the local norms. If you are the ONLY kid who did not go anywhere, and you sat quiet at the beginning of every single school year when your friends talked about where they went- you might feel deprived and jealous. (As a teacher I have witnessed these moments every year- one kid embarrassed and quiet.) Many years of this and you might resent it as an adult.

    If several of your friends also did not travel much, or there was some discussion worthy event over the summer at home, then you might not care. Camping is a great low-cost solution. (I got all my gear from freecycle.)

    But I do feel strongly that expensive trips are wasted on children under 4- they will probably not even remember it, or only have the most vaguest of memories of the trip.

    And Disney? Yuck. The mouse house is not a nice corporation to its employees or business associates. The Walmart of family entertainment, at Nordstrom prices. And the over-the-top saccharin marketing gives me the willies. Colonial Williamsburg/ Busch Gardens is an incredibly fun and worthwhile trip. And the “buy this” is not ubiquitous.

  17. And ditto #5. You should not post pictures of other people’s kids, even at a public place.

  18. @Kristine (and everyone else): Maybe my example of Disney was a poor choice. I’ll be the first to admit that Disney is not the magical place it’s made out to be, and when I went as an adult, I hated it, although I was very impressed with the fireworks at the end of the night.

  19. I understand what Steven is saying. A friend of mine has never been on a vacation. Ever. I’m sure she feels similar to Steven – wishing that her parents had taken her places when she was younger.

    I know the vacations I’ve taken with my family led to a lot of new experiences and I put a large value on that. I flew for the first time (Ohio to Florida) when I was in the 6th grade – something that makes me much less nervous about flying to Italy in the fall by myself.

  20. Ditto again for #5.

    Without a model release, you can’t publish photos with people who can be identified in them. That’s the law…but…I don’t know that their usage here constitutes ‘publishing’, except that this site is ‘for-profit’.

    Either way, I’d err on the side of caution and crop.

  21. Luke,

    Yes, and yes. As a former Creative Director, I am painfully aware of every frigging photo usage stipulation. Ugh!

    Without a model release, on a for-profit, he is in violation, but unlikely to be called on it. (Corporations weigh this risk frequently. It is not an actual ad, so it is less risky). But still-why infringe on people in your own community?

    Hey- you never know who might be in witness protection, or dodging a stalker ex-spouse -especially in places like the midwest and Vermont!

    I give it one year before Facebook’s facial-recognition capabilities are mimicked and used to troll the web phishing for long lost friends, relatives, witnesses and potential victims!

  22. You have a great point, if our goals match our values it is so much easier to achieve those goals. I have discovered that I am happier when I do not have to work, therefore my goal is to have financial independence. When we get extra money it goes straight in the Roths. I feel happy when I do this because I know it will help me make my goal. It makes making the choice so much easier.

  23. We hardly took vacations when I was a kid. However, my dad was in the military so we moved around all the time and I sometimes feel more “worldly” than my current peers who grew up going to Disney, other theme parks, etc. but lived in the same town their whole life.

  24. Trent took the picture at a public swimming pool — you are allowed to publish pictures taken in public.

  25. Common sense – never post pictures of friends, family, acquaintances or associates without permission. NEVER post pictures of children, too many weirdos.

    Many homes are selling for less than it would cost to build them new. In areas with few employment opportunities, the savings are considerable. Currently, approximately 1/3 of all existing home sales are cash transactions. Perhaps building a custom home is not a frugal choice with a glut of bargins on the market, there must be several gems that fit the bill.

    I grew up on a farm. Vacations were unheard of, the only trips we ever went on were day trips to visit relatives. I don’t feel deprived because I travel to exotic or popular places as an adult.

    My biggest school related embarassment was filling out the emergency contact card at the beginning of each year; all the other kids in my class had a house number, street name and phone number. Our address was a box number and rural route number, we didn’t have a phone (or electricity) and teachers always wanted an explanation as to why I filled out my card out “wrong.” Imagine being a six year old explaining to a strange new teacher in front of all your middle-class classmates about your life in poverty, rinse and repeat each new school year.

  26. Josh- it’s not that simple. I can’t take a picture in Times Square of the naked cowboy and publish it, even if he is in a public space. He is registered and owns his image.

    At Doubleday, we never, ever, used photos of public scenes that were not from an agency that guaranteed releases from every single person recognizable. I could not even use, for the History Book Club, photos taken by my own ancestors on public streets, of the Nazis marching into Norway. There is 50 years past death stipulation, and we had no way to verify that every young man were all deceased more than 50 years, and that the heirs were not due royalties.

    Why? When you get sued (and we were intermittently, before my time), you have to pay 3x the going rate, per use, as penalty if you are for-profit.

    Another for-instance- public schools (a public space) are required to offer a written opt out option to parents if they do not want their child’s photo used in local newspapers should they be in a big game or win an award. I routinely opted out, and had the right to litigate (though I did not) when they published a photo of my son in the newspaper.

    Courts are much touchier on the public space vs. child endangerment aspect. If a kid is running around naked in a public park, you might have a problem if you post those shots and it was not your child.

    What is Trent’s risk? Next to noting, monetarily and legally, unless one of those kids happens to be a child model, or in hiding, for whatever reason. What is his risk socially? Who knows. But I would be annoyed if I saw my kid on his site without his asking, and start avoiding him when he had a camera.

  27. Cmon Trent! I know you are knee-deep in soul searching and espousing wisdom at your tender stage of early child-rearing, but heck… can we have some more posts on how to make gift soap, or specific summer projects in the mix? Maybe some clever garden how-tos?

    I am not a fan of formulaic writing, and I respect inspiration, and I understand the appeal of writing off the cuff sans research, but lately this blog is like a granola mix with way too many raisins.

  28. Ugh, sorry for the poor grammar in the form of incorrect pluralisms and missing conjunctions. That’s what happens when I rush and change only one half of a sentence!

  29. I agree with KM and Valleycat1, but would only advise that WHEN you go look at rural property don’t narrow your search to undeveloped acreage. We looked at every listing in our target area that included natural water sources/woods/cleared acreage/some road frontage. We found the perfect piece of land and it included a very imperfect house. Making improvements to the house has been fun for us and what we have not been able to do ourselves has put us in contact with lots of local people and has led to some nice friendships. It will never be my dream house, but as my husband says “I love this house because it is the house that is HERE.”

  30. “The connection between the personal values that define who we are and the goals we have set for the future set our actions for today.”

    Thanks Trent. I really appreciate your insight in this post. Hope to work through some of these same ideas as I make decisions in daily life

  31. First, I really LOVED this post, very well written, thought provoking and fun!

    second,I would like to hear more thoughts on the issues regarding Stevens problem – I relate to the issue at hand and for me I found that the frustration was connected to a feeling of being invisible, somehow, not listened to and taken into consideration when the choices were made for how to spend family time together, holiday or not?? for me that made even the most expensive and luxurious getaways burdensome… as I would rather have had time for more low-key but intimate and in-depth explorations together with the people I loved and was dear to me, my family… … with a good throw-in of hilariously fun and magical merry-go-round- self-exploring -moments in doses in between;)!

  32. My husband and I both work hard and like to take a vacation every year depending on our budget. We’ve been fortunate enough to take our daughter to disney, Maine, Mexico, Florida beaches, Amish country. Of all of these memories, my 6 year old’s fondest is the afternoon we spent when she was 3 at the local park looking for four-leaf clovers. :)

  33. My family spent a lot of time traveling across country. But it was miserable. It was not a healthy or happy family. When we got somewhere on our rushed trips, it was get out, see it, okay back in the car and another 5 or 8 hours driving frantically to get to where we were headed.

    I grew up 90 miles north of Yellowstone Park, one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth. But until i was 18, the only time i saw it was on a day trip, rushed thru, with visiting family. Get out, walk by the mud pots, back in the car, rush to be “on time” to see Old Faithful, back in the car, rush to walk about near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, etc.

    Yes, i’m glad i saw those places, tho to be honest i don’t have much memory of most of them. But they are not warm fuzzy feelings about those family trips. I think i kind of resent those trips, but it isn’t the trips so much as the lack of love and care they represent. If your children know they are loved and the parents are doing the best they can to raise them well, i think that makes up for all manner of things.

    I think the kind of family in which you are raised, and if the people in that family treat each other well and with kindness, makes a much bigger impact than if you did lots of things together. I understand why my parents did these trips the way they did, but if they could have included some down time in those trips, some family joy, instead of the rushed, “Did you see it? Okay, back in the car,” i’d have much kinder memories of those trips.

    On the other hand, while the family may not have treated one another with care, my parents did hold friends in high esteem and they definitely modeled what is now called “networking” very well. I do appreciate that very much.

  34. When I was younger, my dad travelled every week for business. I would travel with him in the summer (and occasionally during the school year). I got to go to New York City at 13, and I had a blast! Ditto for driving with him to New Jersey (my dad usually drove places). I also got to travel with him to places like Fargo, North Dakota, and Lafayette, Indiana. And what I remember is seeing “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” with him in the theater. The conversations about what music we would listen to in the car. Him handing me napkins to wipe away my tears and talking me through some relationship problems when I was about 19. I remember spending the time with him, and it didn’t matter if we were in Southern Indiana or Hoboken, New Jersey. Knowing that my dad loved me, wanted me to be there, and was always willing to talk with me about anything and everything was the important thing. And FWIW, I went on a family vacation to Florida and Disney when I was 7, and I didn’t like it. I preferred Sea World. :) So while my husband and I have a few vacations planned for when kiddo gets older, Trent is absolutely right that time is what you should focus on. It is the relationship that is important, not the location.

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