The Framework

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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