Personal finance can often feel like a very self-centered notion. It involves looking at one’s own financial state and figuring out how to maximize that state, almost within a bubble. Most of the practices intended to improve one’s financial state – frugality, better money management, debt reduction and elimination, better career choices – are pretty individualistic, too.
Because of that individual focus, personal finance can often feel disconnected from the broader world without any meaning beyond simply accumulating wealth. In other words, personal finance often has no spiritual component and, for many, that can make good personal finance practice something that’s very hard to integrate into their lives.
What Do I Mean By “Spirituality”?
Before we dig in further, let’s define exactly what I mean by spirituality. Many people inherently tie spirituality to the individual faith that they might practice, so it can be difficult to define spirituality in a faith-neutral way.
I tend to subscribe to a broad, faith-neutral definition of spirituality: a person’s search for meaning and connectedness to something bigger than themselves. Most individual faiths have a specific adaptation of that definition, usually revolving around acceptance of and connection with a particular deity that can either partially or totally provide that sense of meaning and connectedness, but that presence of a particular deity isn’t necessary to find spiritual meaning. Every person, regardless of religious belief, can find meaning and connectedness to something bigger than themselves through their life choices and life events.
It is often the more strict and narrow meanings of spirituality that cause the idea to be problematic with some. Taken in its broad sense – a personal search for meaning and connectedness to something larger than themselves – it becomes clear that spirituality is a journey that most humans share.
My Own Journey
I’m no different in this regard. For me, personal finance didn’t work until it became meaningful. When I looked at finances as solely about me and my future, it was very hard to make good long term choices. It wasn’t until I had a child that I began to be drawn out of that individualistic perspective.
Here was an infant, solely relying on me for his care. It was a huge responsibility dropped on my lap, one that didn’t really make sense to me until that day in the hospital when I held the little guy for the first time. He was so tiny and completely unable to do anything for himself – it was up to Sarah and I to keep him alive and then raise him up to become an independent adult.
To do that well, we had to really stop thinking of ourselves first and think of him first. What could we be doing to ensure that he has the best chance of becoming a happy and independent adult with a life full of opportunity?
This type of thinking inevitably spread to our finances, which were a mess at the time. Our son’s birth was the first strong nudge in that direction (though there were little rumblings before then, and there were certainly big nudges to come). In fact, most of the nudges to fix our finances came from things outside of ourselves and in a desire to find meaning in our lives.
Here are six key elements and practices of spiritual meaning that helped Sarah and I move toward and stick with better personal finance practices in our life – and, honestly, vice versa.
#1 – Reflection Doesn’t Require Spending
A core part of one’s spiritual journey is self-reflection. It’s time spent in meditation or prayer or journaling or study of religious and/or philosophical texts. It’s that type of reflection that often leads people to a much greater understanding of who they are, why they’re here, what their place is in the world, and what their connection is to the world around them.
The thing is, such spiritual practices do not require any spending at all. You might need a few notebooks, and you might want to pick up your own copy of a religious or philosophical text so that you can mark it as you’re studying it, but the cost of such things isn’t very much in the big scheme of things. You don’t need spiritual “retreats” or anything like that in order to figure things out. You just need reflection, and reflection is something you do, not something you buy (which is a theme I’m going to return to later).
If you want to start seeking a deeper meaning to life and a deeper connection to the world around you, start with a simple daily practice of meditation or prayer. Set aside five minutes each day to simply close your eyes and pray, or if you prefer a secular practice that achieves similar effects, just meditate. I find that it’s really helpful to just focus on a single small thing with my eyes closed – perhaps a single line of prayer or a key quote or phrase or even just my own breathing. That’s a simple practice you can do anywhere at no cost whatsoever that has a pretty positive impact, especially over time and extensive repetition.
If you want more, try journaling. I like to do “three morning pages,” where I just open a notebook and start writing about whatever’s foremost on my mind until three pages are filled. The only cost here is a cheap notebook and a writing utensil.
If you want more, start reading and studying a religious text or a philosophical work. Start with a good study Bible or Quran or whatever your preferred religious text might be, or study a philosophical text like Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Read it slowly, a bit at a time, and then spend some time thinking on that passage. Many religious and philosophical texts can be found completely free online, and even if you decide you’d rather have a print one, it’s a small investment that will bring you a lot of study.
A lot of the most powerful spiritual answers come from practices of meditation, prayer, reflection, and study, and those practices cost very little. They can help you bring out the elements of who you are, helping you find your personal meaning, and helping you connect to the wider universe.
#2 – What Would You Do If Money Was No Object?
This is a trickier and more meaningful question than you might initially think.
Many people respond to a question like this by listing all of the things they might buy. A new house. A new car. A house for their mother. You get the idea.
But that’s not what’s being asked. It’s asking what you would do.
At that point, people might list trips that they wanted to take or “bucket list” experiences.
Great, that covers the first six months. What then? What does your ordinary life look like after your bucket list is empty?
It’s a hard question to answer, especially at first glance, but I’ve found that driving at the answer of the “post-money” question is incredibly revealing in a spiritual sense. It ends up being centered around how they would interact with and impact the world if the need to pay for one’s own needs ceased to be any sort of factor in the decision.
For me, figuring out the answer to that question was inspirational. I really want to do three things in this situation: one, write some things that probably will never “sell” but I think could be deeply meaningful to a particular audience; two, work full time for a particular local charity that is deeply meaningful to me in order to raise the charity to a point of much greater self-sustainability; and three, sell my home and “vagabond” for a while with Sarah in a small camper.
Those things ring a deep chord with me. That’s what I would do with my life if money ceased to be an issue.
This brings about two questions.
One, what can I do right now? Which aspects of this can I live out in my day to day life today to make it more meaningful? I’ve done a fair amount of charitable work in the last decade, studied charity management extensively, and sketched out some great ideas for writing.
Two, how can I use this as motivation to achieve financial independence? I do this by reminding myself of this big picture constantly and using it as a nudge to get my finances in order.
This brings me right into my third point…
#3 – Money as a Foundation
The truth is that the reason most people choose to improve their finances isn’t greed, or to sit on their pile of money and gloat, but to provide a foundation for things that they want to do that they’re unable to do while having to keep the lights on and food on the table and keep the creditors at bay.
When you’re in a paycheck to paycheck situation, you’re throwing many, many hours of your week into working for someone else’s goals. It saps your time and energy that you could use to do other things.
Working toward financial independence means that you’re working toward freeing yourself from that trap. By putting the effort into building a financial plan revolving around spending less than you earn and saving the difference, you’re building a financial platform from which you can spend your time and energy doing things in the world that are meaningful and connect you to the broader human experience without the big additional constraint of having to earn an income from that effort.
This is the big dream of financial independence and how, for me and many others, it becomes something of a spiritual journey.
Not only is the destination meaningful, though, the journey itself is meaningful.
#4 – The Skill and Challenge of Financial Stewardship
The choice to resist the financial temptations of everyday life is a challenging one that can really draw upon your willpower, internal strength, and values. Given how easy it is to fall into debt to fulfill material desires and other pleasures, choosing to not do so and seek out other avenues of modern life is in itself a spiritual journey.
In the western world today, materialism and consumerism are the default choices. We’re constantly assaulted with messages about how spending money will bring us happiness and bring us desirability, preying on some of our deepest desires in order to get us to open our wallets. It’s a siren’s call that many, many people listen to – around 4 in 5 Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
Overcoming that siren’s call is a journey of self-control and understanding one’s own desires and goals in a deeper fashion. Often, that journey is one with spiritual undertones because it often centers around a search for personal meaning. What is the meaning in spending the money you earn? Alternately, what meaning is there in saving the money you earn?
Then, the next step is making yourself live life in accordance to the path that has more meaning for you, which is a pretty challenging personal and spiritual path to follow, especially when it goes against the prevailing flow of the culture around you.
There are times when I view the journey to financial independence as a spiritual journey above all else. By following that path, I am moving toward a particular meaningful destination, but it is a challenge to merely stay on the path. It requires discipline and self-sacrifice, traits that, when cultivated, lend their strength to other things I want to do in life. It requires understanding myself and my motivations.
#5 – Connection Doesn’t Require Spending, Either
What about the other side of spirituality, a connection to something bigger than myself? The truth is that the elements of my life that provide that kind of connection don’t require much money, either.
Like many people, I tend to find that connection best in moments of shared experience with other people and with other living things. I firmly believe that part of the “malaise” that many people feel in our modern world is due to the fact that digital communication doesn’t really provide the level of connection that comes with face to face interaction with other people and with nature, and that having those face-to-face interactions and shared experiences with people and with nature are essential for feeling a spiritual connection to something beyond ourselves.
What’s the message here? If you want to achieve that feeling, you have to engage in face-to-face contact and shared experiences with other people and with nature. There simply is no substitute.
Of course, such experiences typically cost very little, if anything. You simply have to make time for them and seek them out. You can find them during religious services or at civic meetings. You can find them during a dinner party at your house or a book club meeting. You can find them in team sports or even individual sports if you’re training together. Any time where you’re doing something with someone else present who is also doing that same thing is an opportunity for connection.
For a connection to the broader natural world and the universe itself, you simply have to expose yourself to natural environments. Take time aside to go on nature walks or to simply rest in a natural place. I am a big believer in “forest bathing” as it explains how a hike in the woods brings me to a sense of internal peace that few other things can bring. All you have to do is simply spend more time outside in natural environments, and doing that doesn’t cost money.
You don’t have to spend a bunch of money going on some sort of “spiritual retreat.” You can find these things at the park or at a group you found on Meetup or a house of worship. You can seek those things out whenever you like and there is no cost of admission.
#6 – Using Your Other Resources
Many people get locked into the idea that the main resource they have to offer to the world is their money or the things they can directly trade for money. That’s not true at all. We all have lots of resources that we can share with others and with the broader world to build deeper connections.
Time is perhaps the biggest one. Spending some of your time doing something simple like reading a book to children at the library or to an elderly person at a retirement home, or running an errand for a shut-in, or simply putting aside 10 minutes a day to meditate or 30 minutes a day to go on a walk in a park after lunch, or one evening a week to go to a group meeting or a religious service.
Energy means that you put forth effort to go the extra distance to understand yourself or to build connections. It takes energy sometimes to do anything more in the evening than just browse the internet or watch a television show, but when you use that energy for something else, you can further your connection to the world.
Skills and talents are simply abilities that you have that enable you to do things for others that they can’t do or to do them much more efficiently than they can. It’s also a great way to facilitate connections, especially when you’re sharing those skills and talents or trading them with people.
Focus is perhaps my favorite non-financial resource these days. We all have a certain amount of focus in our lives (though it can be built up over time), and giving that focus to certain things and to certain people builds connections with people, ideas, and things.
You can use all of those resources – and many more – to sharpen your spiritual life without spending money, which means that you can enhance your spiritual life without negatively impacting your financial trajectory.
Almost everyone seeks a greater level of meaning and connectedness in their life. Yet, in the constant demands of living a modern life, the need to earn money, the need to maintain our physical selves, and the many other draws on our lives, that type of spiritual journey is sometimes shoved to the side.
However, spiritual answers can be found throughout life, even in the actions one takes in order to improve their financial state. There are spiritual answers at the start of the journey, at the end of the journey, and throughout the journey. You just have to choose to seek them out.