Charting Personal Finance Progress, Internally and Externally

If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re in the midst of a personal finance journey of your own. You started at a place that you weren’t happy with for some reason (too much debt, unhappy with your living situation, unhappy with your career, etc.) and you’re heading towards a place that seems much more desirable (debt freedom, a home of your own, a new career, etc.). In other words, these journeys have a beginning and an end.

Here’s the question, though. How do you identify where exactly you are on this journey?

The obvious answer is pure dollars and cents. If you had $10,000 in debt and are marching toward debt freedom, your exact debt amount reveals how far along your journey you are. If you’re saving for a house down payment or for retirement or for education, you can easily just glance at your account balance to see how things are.

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Pure dollars and cents work well for other goals, too. Let’s say, for example, that you’re striving for pure financial independence. One great way to keep track of this is to keep a careful eye on your crossover point.

But that just scratches the surface.

One of my biggest personal finance goals is security and health for my children. I invest in their well being in many ways. I buy healthy foods for them, focusing on health as the primary factor, not cost. I contribute to their educational savings. I buy educational supplies for them all the time (at their age, that means crayons and drawing paper and so on). I invest time in them every day, time I might otherwise spend on writing or research or other such things.

Pictures of my kids on my desk

How do I judge my success there? I look at them. Are they healthy? Are they curious? Are they happy? Do they interact well with children their age – and to everyone else, too? Do they have manners and behave well in public? Are they growing physically, mentally, and socially? If I can wholeheartedly say “yes,” my investment is paying off – if I can’t, then something needs more attention.

When I went through my lowest days, my real dream was simply “financial security.” By that, I meant that I wanted to not worry about individual bills that came in. My definition of success in that respect is simply being able to sleep well at night without money worries – if I find myself stressing out over money, then I know there’s a problem.

To put it simply, there is no one simple way to keep tabs on your money goals. A bank account balance might tell one aspect of the story, but success isn’t always measured by your absolute net worth – or the changes in your savings balances.

Instead, I’d argue that personal finance success is often best measured by you. I’m not talking about getting rich and accumulating wealth. I’m talking about things like getting out of debt, having a big emergency fund, having stable retirement savings, being able to take care of those important to you, having a career that makes you feel fulfilled, and spending less than you earn so that you can progress towards the other goals you hold dear to your heart (like a home that truly fits your desires, stewardship of the community, volunteer projects, and so on).

We all have different goals, but they all have one thing in common: achieving them – and the process of achieving them – lifts our moods and who we are in many ways, subtle and otherwise. In the end, personal finance goals are much the same – success is worth more than mere money. As you work hard and succeed, you feel it inside, not just in your bank account.