Updated on 02.07.10

The Framework

Trent Hamm

We all have lives that are chock full of distractions.

Television. Radio. Magazines. The behavior of other people. The comments of our friends and family. We use all of these things as cues for how we should behave. Often, we even try to think ahead about these things and use them as a behavior guide.

I’ll hear my mother’s voice all the time, for example, when I’m at the grocery store. I’ll think about my friends and their reactions when I look at cell phones. You can’t help but get at least a few cues planted in your head when you read a magazine or watch a bit of television – beyond the ads, the material itself puts such ideas in your head.

All of these cues add up to a big influence on our decision-making process.

There’s another big factor, too – the short amount of time we have for such decisions. We make thousands of little choices each and every day. In order to make so many snap decisions, we have to rely on our almost instinct-like quick thoughts to make many of them. We don’t spend ten minutes at the grocery store comparing two different versions of the same item. Instead, we combine together the cues we have in our head – and various pieces of information about the state of our life, from what we have in our kitchen to what we have in our bank account – and make an instantaneous decision. We put an item in the cart and keep going.

This quick decision phenomenon is simply a constant in our lives. A day doesn’t go by when we aren’t making hundreds, if not thousands, of them. At the same time, we have countless cues about what decision to make thrown at us around the clock.

The end result of all of this information and all of these choices is that it’s incredibly easy to make some poor choices along the way. Every single person does it. I do it (particularly when I’m in a bookstore, for example).

Here’s the big secret, though. The big framework for personal finance success is to override those cues in our decision-making process.

How does one do that?

First, you have to spend some time figuring out what’s truly important to you. This is purely a soul-searching adventure, but for most people, there’s a group of one to four things that really form the center of their lives. These things bring them lasting happiness and fulfillment.

It can be a real challenge to find these things. There are many things in life that seem to fulfill us at first glance, but really don’t bring any lasting joy. I put them into a category I call “time fillers” – things we do that fill our hours without really fulfilling us.

Spend some time teasing apart the things that really matter from the things that don’t. One great way to start is to ask yourself what your most enjoyable moments and things of the last year were. Make a list of them and start looking for commonalities. My list quickly fills up with great books I’ve read and moments spent with my family, for example.

Second, isolate what’s really at the center of those things. Again, for me, it’s my family and reading/writing. Those things are really the two things I’m most passionate about with my time.

Let’s dig a little deeper here with the reading element of things. I love reading books and, for a long time, I confused that love of reading with a love of buying and owning books. Thus, I would go to bookstores and allow that passion for reading to take over, causing me to way overspend.

In truth, though, it’s the act of reading that I love. I really don’t care much at all whether I own the book I’m reading or whether it’s a library book, or whether the book is used or new.

Once I realized that, my bookstore spending went down. Way down. Instead, I started doing most of my book browsing at the library or on PaperBackSwap.com or in my friends’ book collections.

Once you’ve figured out those true key central values in your life, use them as the first filter for everything that you do, especially spending money.

When I go to the grocery store, for example, the first thing I ask myself is whether or not my family will get genuine value out of this item. Thus, my shopping starts in the fresh produce area (and I shop at farmers markets during the summer).

Does my family get genuine value out of “premium” toilet paper? Not really. Then why spend more on it?
Does my family get genuine value out of a new digital camera? My old one takes great pictures. So why spend the money on it?
Does my family get genuine value out of a round of golf on the weekend? Maybe once or twice when I take my son and/or daughter out with me, but not every weekend, not by a long shot. So why spend money on this, especially when there are much less expensive ways to relax?

Here’s the big idea: once you’ve figured out what really matters in your life, start passing everything you do through those filters. Cut your spending hard on the areas that don’t matter and you’ll find that you have the money you need for the things that do matter, plus you’ll be able to be debt free and start building up savings for yourself (which itself is a protection for the things that matter most to you).

Note: I’m giving a talk on Monday evening concerning the above topic. As I was sketching out the notes for the talk, I decided it would make a pretty good post, too.

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  1. Justin King says:

    “Once you’ve figured out those true key central values in your life, use them as the first filter for everything that you do…”

    I think this is the greatest thing you’ve ever said on The Simple Dollar.

    I’m only 23, but looking around that framework seems to be what most people are missing. That includes my peers, those a few years ahead of me, and those way ahead.

    It’s almost like people are too busy living the way they think they should, never taking the time to realize those central values and make adjustments as appropriate.

  2. Great post Trent. I find that it takes me time to process what’s really important. This winter I’ve been finding myself sitting in my chair. Yes, just sitting in my comfy chair. It can be tough on me because my tendancy is to be busy and when I’m ‘busy’ I can also be forgetting to do those things that are important to me. Sitting in my comfy chair in front of the fire is a good sign. It means I’m slowing down and thinking about what’s going on around me. It gives me time to plan for the upcoming season. I’ve found that becoming more responsible for my food supply is important to me. Right now I’m looking into adding to my brood of chickens for this Spring.

  3. Molly says:

    Can you give us some examples of the cues you’re talking about? I realize we’re all influenced by others when we shop, but some hard examples would really help me see this. Thanks.

  4. Kim says:

    Of course the pleasure I get is from owning the book. We are book collectors and handling and tending to the books themselves is part of the ritual. We have lots of old books, many not able to be found in libraries or the normal bookstore. This is what is important to me. I’m an avid reader too but collecting is another passion. And so we spend money on books and not on other things because that is where our passion is. It is one of he frustrating things about many finance blogs is that they always suggest that we should stop buying books because you can get the same thing from libraries or paperback swaps. YOU can get the same thing from libraries and such and so should do so. I can NOT get the same thing from these resources and so I don’t.

    As you say here–it is knowing what is truly important to you. Makes it very personal.

    Thank you.

  5. While I agree that this is an important concept, I’m finding a lot of repetition in the posts about it. For example, this post rehashes much of a post from just the other day (“I Just Want to Have Fun, Live My Life, and Worry About All That Stupid Personal Finance Stuff When I’m Older”), right down to deciding whether premium toilet paper is important to you.

    While I can appreciate looking at one topic from several different angles, some fresh details and examples would improve the posts…

  6. Nicole says:

    Funny you should use premium toilet paper as an example. We DO get pleasure from it. Yesterday we were at Target and they were having a sale on one size, so we agonized over which package was the best deal. DH even used his calculator watch to get the per-roll price. Then when we got up to the register, they didn’t give us the sale price. Normally we wouldn’t be willing to wait in line at customer service for $3-4, but (ignoring sunk costs) we were totally willing to wait this time since we’d spent so much time deciding which package to get in the first place. We value toilet paper and not being ripped off if we wouldn’t have made that choice if we weren’t being ripped off.

    (And yes, books are not gazingus pins when a room without books is like a body without a soul.)

  7. Heather B says:

    I also buy the not-cheapest toilet paper. The really cheap stuff is a mild annoyance when life is going well, and pure misery when one is sick in a gastrointestinal way. (I buy the nicer tissues with lotion in them for a similar reason.)

  8. Jeannette says:

    One of the things that I don’t believe I’ve seen addressed here (perhaps I missed it) is dealing with issues you bring up, but how they affect people who are, for example, single, and do not plan to marry or have children. People who may or may not even have any immediate family (parents or siblings) alive. And some who literally have no family (only children of an only child whose parents’ parents are deceased).

    Life choices are made much differently in those instances, because both the financial and emotional issues are different. And the challenges are different too.

    And fyi, it’s not all about spending on one’s self.

    We’ve known singles who put nieces and nephews through school and all but paid for every expense (since the aunt/uncles had little income). They were often the “sponsors” of special lessons, trips and gifts. In general, every single we know is a huge gift giver to any of the kids and often to many of the adults as well. (And often expected to be and when they are not, look out. Family criticism is high.)

    And it is the single person who is normally expected to give the most in time and money to a parent…and from our experience, usually does.

    Constantly reading how one makes one’s “family” (spouse & Kids) the focal point in choosing how to spend is valid, but it does not apply to a lot of the population.

    Ah, but wait. I forgot that the folks who don’t have kids are not really here doing anything important–they don’t really contribute to society because they did not reproduce. So I guess those folks are not worth addressing.

    One last observation: When people put their own families first in everything, they often neglect or bypass other life responsibilities, including other family and civic contributions.

    The core family should be strong and stable, so that its members can then reach out and beyond their own comfort and concerns.

    Sometimes, reading this blog, it feels like it’s all about this one little unit and nothing more. Just keeping it safe in its own walls.

    Life is not just spouses/companions and kids.

    And there really is not a lot about single parents (male or female) who have kids and no spouses on this blog that I’ve seen.

    Need some diversity and other thoughts on frugality, etc. from their perspective. Just a thought.

    Doesn’t take away from the quality of what you’ve written, but maybe it’s time to expand beyond your comfort zone of knowledge and learn more and write more about other citizens. That said, I totally support your right to focus solely on what you choose when you write. It is YOUR blog!

  9. triLcat says:

    Actually, I enjoy nice toilet paper. We use it to wipe our kids’ noses too, so it’s important for it to be soft.

  10. Shevy says:

    While I’m a compulsive reader, for me, *owning* any book I really enjoy reading is an important (maybe even vital) aspect.

    When I borrow a library book, one of 3 things generally happens:
    1. I end up keeping the library book, paying huge fines and a premium price for the book
    2. I give it back eventually (usually after several renewals and fines) and then wish for years that I’d kept it
    3. I end up buying it somewhere else.

    For instance, I read a library book in Calgary 30 years ago about cooking on a budget and I wish to this day that I had that book. I don’t remember the title or the author but it had great planning tips and recipes I tried and liked but no longer have. I have no way to even track down the book to find it again.

    I’ve finally started looking on ebay and in used bookstores for books I loved and lost along the way (ones I have hard info on, so that they’re findable) and am slowly buying.

  11. Tuan says:

    The best example I can think of is potato chips. When you are eating a sandwich or hot dog, you got to have potato chips or some kind of salty snack. It’s been programed from the commericals that we have watched or see other people doing the same, to have chips with your sandwich (and a coke). So when you are creating a meal, a sandwich usually is followed with some salty snacks followed with a soft drink.

  12. kristine says:

    KM- ditto! When I got to the TP line, I thought this was a recent blog I had already read. Realized it wasn’t, then was at a loss as to why he recycled material so quickly.

    I always shop alone, and have luckily outgrown those cues. I used think of those voices as “the invisible judge”. Once I silenced that invisible, mythical judge, I was much more relaxed about my house as well.

  13. jgonzales says:

    It’s not about toilet paper and it’s not about whether you own books or not. The point is what’s important to you vs. outside influences that make you feel you “have” to have it.

    It’s funny you have been talking about this, Trent because it’s actually been a huge issue in our own house right now because we have made a goal to move in the next year. We tried to last year and found that many decisions we made during the year prevented it. Now we’re trying to make decisions that help us move instead of preventing it. We’re doing it with both big things (like not buying a new TV even though we’d both like one) and the little things, like my husband switching his morning Monster for flavored water.

    Thanks for the post Trent, it’s posts like this that help keep me on track for the important things.

  14. Tara says:

    I loved this post! It is the core of truth that has slowly been overtaking me for the past year. Thanks for stating it so clearly and simply.

  15. Ari Herzog says:

    How do you respond to the clothing debate over, say, buying a $500 pair of boots at a boutique vs $100 for a pair at a discount retailer? Or, $50 for a pair of J. Crew jeans vs $20 for a pair Levi’s?

  16. Carol says:

    Trent states: “Spend some time teasing apart the things that really matter from the things that don’t. One great way to start is to ask yourself what your most enjoyable moments and things of the last year were. Make a list of them and start looking for commonalities.”

    At the beginning of January, I made a list entitled Best/Worst of 2009. I had several entries right away for both sides of the list, and each day more things would come to me and I’d add them to the list. It put alot of things in perspective to make that list. It was also re-assuring that the *Best* list was way longer than the *Worst* list. Also, it’s interesting to see which things were in my control and which things were totally not in my control. I saved the printed list with my 2009 tax returns and I plan to do this every year from here on out.

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