Your finances should be in better shape than they are. You ought to be spending less. You need to be saving more.
Do any of these statements sound familiar?
Should, ought, need. These are all terms that indicate value judgments. When reviewing your finances, it’s easy to fall into the judgment trap. Instead of objectively evaluating your balance sheet, these value statements come into play. As soon as the mindset shifts from “this is the state of my finances” to “my finances should/ought/need to be in better shape” you bring emotion into the conversation.
As I mentioned last week, money is a means to an end; money is not an end in itself. This is a powerful idea. When you stop thinking of money as $$MONEY$$ and start thinking of it as a tool, you can stop obsessing over how you should be handling your finances.
There is no singular way to prioritize your personal finances. Over at r/personal finance, folks have put together a great flow chart that walks you step by step through how to handle debt and prioritize savings goals. For someone who is looking for guidance on, for instance, how to utilize retirement accounts for the greatest tax-advantaged savings, this is an invaluable tool. But this type of concrete advice on what to do with money also supports the idea that there is a finance roadmap out there, and if you don’t follow it exactly, you’re doing it wrong.
The truth of finances is that, so long as you spend less than you earn, you can be successful in a number of different ways. Everyone also comes to success on his or her own time frame. On top of that, you create your own definition of success!
If you have a shit month where you fail to hit your savings goals, it’s going to be okay. You don’t need to do better. You want and hope to do better.
You break your promise to yourself and spend more money than you budgeted for a trip with your friends. Don’t just tell yourself that you should have done things differently. Analyze why you went over budget. Did you budget realistically for the trip? How can you set up the next trip differently? Spending time in this impartial activity sets you up for success in the future. Spending time on guilt doesn’t change the past.
What to do if you have fallen into the judgment trap:
List out the judgmental terms you use most. In my internal dialogue, I use “should” and “need” often. Being aware of that fact helps me flag those terms when they pop up. For the first few weeks this was hard. I was stuck in my negative, judgmental mindset. I realized how frequently in life I was passing judgment on others and myself. I was holding myself to an uncompromising standard that let to me feeling trapped and without hope.
Don’t judge. Evaluate. Judgment isn’t helpful, particularly because it brings emotion into your finances. Money isn’t easy, and it’s impossible to make it through life without making money mistakes. Sitting in judgment of yourself and your finances inevitably leads to guilt. Instead, look at your money with an inquisitive eye. Replace your judgmental terms with questions. If you catch yourself thinking, “I should have saved more money last month,” stop, and ask yourself some questions instead—for instance: “Why didn’t I save more money?” “How did this month compare to the past few months? What was different?” “What seemed more important at the time than my savings goal, and is that actually more important to me?” “Are my goals reasonable?” “What steps can I take to meet my goal next month?” Evaluation can help you reach your goals, judgment won’t. This is because evaluating the decisions that you make with money gives you actionable behavior in the future. Additionally, evaluating your money decisions can help you clarify what you actually value, and what you want to spend your money on.
Forgive yourself when you screw up. Judgment leads to guilt. Guilt sucks and often leads to anxiety. Instead of focusing on how you should have handled things or wishing you could change the past, remind yourself that you’re setting the standard. You set your own goals, your own timelines, and your own measures of success. Remind yourself of the progress that you have made. Ultimately, money is just a means to an end. Money isn’t life. It just helps you through it.
Some of the solutions mentioned above are methods I picked up from my counselor. They not only work for me, but after practicing them for the past year+, I feel that they are important. It’s hard to break out of the judgment trap, in money and in life. These tools can help you start.