I’ve read lots of information on personal finance; everything from articles on retirement planning, insurance, investing, saving, emergency funds, and budgeting, to how to earn a side income to complement your day job. Most of these focus heavily on the mechanics of the topic: the how to. There is a wealth of information on the HOW, and without question I’ll spend time on the blog talking about the tools and techniques to build your financial foundation. But like any behaviour that takes root and lasts over the long haul, the WHY is far more critical, because it is the WHY that drives the behaviour and ensures it will last long term.
I have a friend named Mo. Mo is a great guy. Mo works at a construction company as a mid level manager. He’s been married for 10 years, and just recently had his third kid. Mo has a great wife, awesome kids, and a solid job. But Mo is stressed. His wife is always trying to get him to change some of his bad habits, and though he loves his wife and really wants to change, he hasn’t been able to make them stick. Whether it is trying to change his unhealthy eating habits (he’ll occasionally crush a huge plate of nachos, more so now that he’s stressed) or hitting the gym more, he knows he needs to change some things. She’s been encouraging him in this, and has subtly mentioned he should begin exercising to help with his stress. And recently, she has been bringing up the state of their finances. She’s worried. There always seems to be more month left at the end of the money. Mo knows she’s right. About all of it. He needs to eat better and lose weight, for his wife and kids. He wants to grow old with her, to be around to see his kids graduate and play with his grandkids, and he knows they need to get their financial house in order. But he’s taken an out of sight, out of mind approach to all of these issues. He doesn’t think about them, doesn’t dwell on the concerns or think about the things he’ll miss out on if he doesn’t figure things out. But, the spare tire forming where his once tight stomach was, and the stagnant retirement and RESP accounts have made it impossible to ignore. He’s tried to do things differently, but it’s never lasted. He’s not getting any younger, and he feels like he’s in too deep, like he can’t make the necessary changes. And he doesn’t even know where to start.
Simon Sinek, in his book, Start with Why, writes, “There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” Most of the time, when we try to change our behaviours, whether that is eating better, exercising more, or getting our finances under control, we try to manipulate them.
And that’s what Mo does. He and his wife decide to buy healthy food in the hopes that with less sugary and salty treats in their home, he’ll be successful. But alas, the siren of the Tims drive thru calls to him incessantly as he drives by to and from work, and after a few days, he caves to the bagel and cream cheese with a smoothie. But, he buys a gym pass. And he is more serious about it this time, so serious that he buys the year long membership. He figures if he commits his money for one year, he’s more likely to use it. But, again, a few weeks in, when life gets busy, it gets cold outside, or he’d rather binge on Netflix for the evening, he crumbles. But his finances, he really wants this time to be different. He’s seen the charts about starting late in saving for retirement, and he knows he has to start now. It’s February, RRSP season, and Mo is being overwhelmed with ads about contributing before the deadline. He figures this year is the year he’s going to get his finances in order. He’s put it off too long. He’s seen the shows on T.V. and heard the pundits talk about how Canadians are more in debt than ever before; how people are struggling financially under the weight of bloated housing, stagnant wages, and excessive spending. He thinks, “I’m not one of those people. I’m not terrible with my money, but I could be better.” So he decides to invest in a few stocks in his RRSP, to get the ball rolling, since he doesn’t really know where to start. He’s not totally sure how it all works, so he decides to go to his local bank. After about an hour, where he opens a line of credit and applies for a new GOLD rewards credit card, he walks out the proud owner of stock in some of his favourite companies: Tim Hortons, Lululemon (for his wife), Apple, Amazon and Netflix. He feels good about himself, but after a few days, he’s forgotten about his new financial resolution and he goes back to living his life without financial intentionality. It’s not until he checks his bank account balance, retirement fund, or he hears on the news about his stocks plunging, that he ever really considers how his new financial “plan”, or lack of a plan, is actually working out.
Why is this well meaning, hard working, intelligent, strong willed person not able to bring about lasting change? Why. That is the answer. Why. What is the deep why behind wanting to eat better? What is the why to exercising more, or wanting to get your finances under control? The more deeply you can internalize the why, the more vivid the why is, the better you can understand the psychology behind the why, the greater the chance the behaviour will stick.
In Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath state that feelings inspire people to act. For people to take action, they have to care. To illustrate the effect of emotion versus reason in determining behaviour, a group studied the effect of asking for donations for starving children in Africa with two appeals: One appeal based on statistics and the other focusing on a single child, with their name given. Of course, the latter won. The surprising part of the study was that any time reason was evoked the amount of giving decreased. For example, if they used both the stats regarding poverty and the individual named child, the giving decreased; and if they asked a person to do a simple calculation not even related to the charity, the giving decreased. When it comes to our behaviour, once we put on our analytical glasses to view the world, we react to emotional appeals differently; reason hinders our ability to feel and to act.
So how does this relate to you, to your money, your plan, and your future? As I said earlier, there is tons of financial information out there: retirement calculators, investment portfolio allocations, Excel spreadsheets to save, spend, budget, and countless other tools. And they are good. But not good enough. They all focus on the numbers, the analytical, the logical. But when is the last time you read anything on personal finance that asked you to imagine your ideal future? To think about what your life would be like without the stress of debt, or the pit in your stomach when the talk turns to your money. To really think about it and to dream deeply? What does it look like, feel like, sound and smell like? Take time to do this using my free Dream Money Plan tool in the box at the bottom of the page. Use these questions as a jumping off point to dream in living colour, to discuss with your significant other about what you want your future to look like, to REALLY build your foundation of WHY you want to master your money. We’ll get to the how, but without the why, the how won’t last.
For Dion and I, we’ve talked a lot about our whys and what we want our future to look like. Some of the reasons are classic future money goals: we’d love to travel, give our kids experiences abroad that expand their horizons and open up their eyes to the world they live in. We’ve dreamed about what it would look like to be generous with our time and money, and of course we’re not waiting until we’re retired to do this. But being financially responsible now will expand our ability to be generous with our time and money in the future. We’ve talked about going on short term missions trips, about being able to thrive financially while having flexibility with our jobs. And maybe one of the biggest reasons for me is being able to grow my list of what Chris Hogan calls “want to’s” and shrinking my list of “have to’s”.
Those are some of our WHYs. I’d love to hear about yours. Please share in the comments section as a way to inspire us to all take action.