What to do during money time
A while back, I wrote about handling money as a couple. (It's worth a read even if you're single -- many of the concepts carry over, with a little tweaking!) In that article, I talk about something called "weekly money time", where you create space to work towards your financial goals. However, I spent precious little time talking about what that actually means. What does "working towards your financial goals" even look like?
Let's talk about that.
First, a quick refresher
What's "money time"? In a nutshell, it's a weekly 30-60 minute meeting, with no distractions, at the same time each week, to work on your financial goals.
Pretty straightforward, right? The idea here is to create a space to be proactive -- to happen to your money, rather than your money happening to you! It's all too easy to just kind of pay bills as they come in, make your decisions on-the-fly, and generally manage your money by the seat of your pants. After all, we're all super busy!
But like it or not, money is a cornerstone of our lives, right alongside other pillars like health and relationships. Moreover, our money decisions compound over time: managing our money well gives us more flexibility, which in turn makes it easier for us to address threats and opportunities, while managing our money poorly creates a vicious paycheck-to-paycheck trap that becomes ever harder to break free of.
(To be clear: our situations are a combination of our decisions and the events of our lives. Some of us are playing the game on "hard mode" through little or no fault of our own, starting off our adult lives with crushing student loans, expensive medical issues, credit card debts, etc. When I talk about the compounding nature of money decisions, this is not to dismiss the unique challenges each of us face. Rather, it's to stress the importance of making the best decisions possible, week in, week out.)
In other words: creating intentional space for money is critical. Got it? Good. So: what does money time actually look like? What do you do?
Build and maintain awareness
The first step in making good financial decisions is being aware of your financial situation. What are the numbers, the gazintas & gazoutas? Do you really spend a lot of money on food, or does it just kind of feel that way? (Hint: you probably do, but it's still worth running the numbers.) Does having two thousand bucks in the bank mean that you're set -- or that you barely have enough to scrape by until your next paycheck?
So yes, one activity that's worth putting on your Money Time List is to examine your transactions. Whether you use mint.com or YNAB or your Seaborn eMoney account, you can use 10-15 minutes of money time to categorize your transactions from the past week, take a look at how your budget is holding up, and make tweaks as necessary. Simply looking at it every week will help to burn the numbers into your mind, so that you have an intuitive sense of how any given purchase will affect your budget.
Don't track your spending yet? Use money time to figure out how you want to go about doing it! Test drive some of the apps mentioned above, or try out Dave Ramsey's Envelope Method. (If you're a nerd like me, you're going to be tempted to put together your own budgeting spreadsheet. Try to resist the urge. Trust me -- expense tracking is a solved problem, and your time is better spent elsewhere!)
And if you're a couple, this means that you can talk about any thoughts this whole process raises. "Hey, we're at $30 for the restaurant budget. Do we want to go to Dai Due like we were planning? Argh, it seems like we keep having to downgrade our date nights. Maybe we should set aside a separate category just for that!" Because you're in a low-key environment with no distractions, you can have meaningful conversations as the need arises.
"Batch" your money chores
Of course, categorizing transactions is just one of many "money chores" that can pop up -- paying bills, cancelling services, etc. Whenever you find yourself saying, "hm, I should do [x money-related thing] sometime", just throw it on your Money Time List.
Not only does it free you from a vague worry about when it will get done (because your weekly money time is always at the same time), but it streamlines your life! Most engineers are familiar with the system cost of context-switching from task A to unrelated task B; by putting your money chores together into a single batch and tackling them all at once, you free up your time and mental resources. Out of your head, onto the list, on with your day.
(By the way, if this appeals to you, I've got some other thoughts on organization & productivity that might interest you!)
Have the deep discussions
One of the first things we learn as advisors is that finance is at least as much about psychology as it is about the numbers! Our behaviors around money -- like our behaviors around most things -- often stem from lessons we unconsciously acquired as children.
So it's worthwhile to do some digging. A great tool for this is "The 5 Whys": ask a "why" question, then respond to that answer with another "why", and so on. Strong emotion -- whether resonant or dissonant! -- is a good sign you're on the right track. (And no, it doesn't have to be exactly 5, but it should be enough to force you past the shallow answers!)
Example (edited for brevity) from a client conversation:
"Why do you want an advisor?"
"To optimize my money."
"Why do you want to optimize your money?"
"To make my net worth go up more that it would otherwise."
"Why do you want your net worth to go up?"
"Because...I dunno. [Agitation.] It's...like a way of keeping score."
"Why do you want to keep score?"
"Because...well, because I like winning, okay?"
Now, this sounds shallower than it is -- it turns out this client has a deep-seated drive towards achievement, surpassed only by their strong ethics and commitment to their family, and this ambition has fueled a remarkable success in many aspects of their life. But by understanding this, they were able to negotiate a path that better aligned all of their values, simply by adjusting their "score" from "net worth" to a combination of other metrics, including money given away, various goals attained, etc.
For another, more couple-centric example, check out this piece Nerdwallet did on travel cards. As you can see, even something as seemingly-trivial as what credit cards to use can spark a powerful, relationship-deepening conversation -- and money time gives you the space to have that talk!
Set aside time periodically -- say once every 3 months -- to do some orienteering during money time: figure out where you are, where you want to go, and how you're going to get there. The Financial Ladder is a good place to start, but everyone has different goals.
Don't be afraid to dream, here! One of the advantages of being a financial advisor is that I get to have a lot more conversations about the M-Word than most, and I find that most people fall into one of two categories re: money: "My situation's okay, not much to do here" and "Nothing I do will help, so I may as well not bother." What's interesting is that if you dig deeper, they're often the same at the core: "there's no point in dreaming."
While this may seem a depressing form of despair, it's often not that bad. It's just the end-of-history illusion, a natural human bias that has us consistently underestimating how much our lives will change, whether we're 15 or 50.
And I have seen financial lives change dramatically, not because of winning the lottery or some other windfall, but precisely because of many small decisions, made consistently, in the right direction. This is why weekly money time is so important!
So if you're drowning in debt: use your weekly money time to read up on Dave Ramsey's baby steps, and then chip away at them. If things are "okay", read up on Happy Money and see how you could make them even better!
Not sure what your goals are? Maybe you've thought about changing careers, or going into management, or retiring early, or moving to a different state, but you're not sure if that's what you really want? No problem! That's exactly what orienteering is about: taking an incremental step, then adjusting your course based on the new data.
And yes, that's exactly how I made the transition from engineer to financial advisor: one small step at a time, course-correcting along the way. But if I hadn't taken some time to step back push back against my own end-of-history illusions, I never would have gotten here!
Britton is an engineer-turned-financial-planner in Austin, Texas. As such, he shies away from suits and commissions, and instead tends towards blue jeans, data-driven analysis, and a fee-only approach to financial planning.