Purpose and the Value of Money

I mentioned the other day that my financial philosophy has changed a bit since I left Get Rich Slowly in 2012. One of the biggest shifts is where I believe we should place our focus.

  • In the olden days, I thought money itself was a fine focus. I wanted out of debt. To achieve that goal, I needed money. Today, I view debt reduction as a side effect, not a goal.
  • After I got out of debt, I wanted to build my savings. To achieve that goal, I needed money. Today, I view savings as a side effect, not a goal.
  • After I built a modest nest egg, I wanted to gain greater wealth. To achieve that goal, I needed money. Today, I view wealth as a side effect, not a goal.

After I gained greater wealth, I realized something. I’d been chasing the wrong thing. What I really wanted was happiness, and happiness isn’t something you can just go out and grab. Just as debt reduction, savings, and wealth are side effects of certain choices, happiness too is a byproduct of our choices and the lives we lead. Happiness comes when our actions are aligned with our purpose.

Gradually, I came to understand that purpose was actually my goal all along. Truly, it’s the goal for each of us. When we have a purpose, and when we’re able to pursue that purpose with passion, everything seems to fall into place.

A big reason I returned to writing about money after three years away? I realized it’s part of my greater purpose. That’s also part of the reason I bought back Get Rich Slowly.

None of this is new, really. People have been thinking about this and talking about it for centuries. For millennia. But each of us needs to come to this realization on our own.

Some folks never have this epiphany, and that’s fine. But for those of us who do experience it, it can change our lives. It changes how we view our work, our play, our relationships — and our finances.

The Real Value of Money

This is all on my mind because a couple of weeks ago, I read an article from Mark Manson on the real value of money. Money, Manson says, is merely a store of value — one of many stores of value in our lives. It’s not that money is intrinsically valuable; it’s that it represents value.

He writes:

Money is a touchy subject. That’s because most of us, to a certain degree, associate a lot of our self-worth and identity to our job and how much money we make. It is, quite literally, a market valuation of our skills and competence as a person, and therefore we all get a little bit testy and scooch around uncomfortably in our chairs whenever money is brought up. But money is merely an arbitrary store of value. It is not value itself.

Manson spends some time discussing the nature of money: its nature, its fluidity, its effects. He describe how money creates what he calls “experience cycles”, some of which are positive, and some of which are negative. “People who fall into these experience cycles with their money soon become slaves to earning a buck,” Manson writes. “They begin to see money as the singular purpose of their life. It becomes the whole of their motivation.”

I think you can see where he’s going here. Like me (and millions before us), Manson is arguing that true wealth isn’t really about money.

To Manson, true wealth only occurs when the way you earn your money is aligned with your values. True wealth only occurs when the way you spend your money is aligned with your values. And true wealth only occurs when your earning and spending are aligned with each other. “Money is often a means towards success,” he writes, “but it is rarely success itself.”

Here’s the key takeaway:

The real value of money emerges when we leverage it as a tool towards our success rather than making it success itself. When we channel it towards the experiences and values that we find more important. When we use it to build an innovative business, when it fuels our creativity or infuses our community, when it supports our family or shares love with our friends or adds to our personal health and satisfaction.

In short, the real value of money comes when it helps you pursue your purpose.

Instead of simply reading the handful of quotes I’ve posted here, I encourage you to read the entire article at Manson’s always excellent site: The Real Value of Money.

Do What Works for You

And here’s the key takeaway I want you to get from my article: Purpose is powerful — but there’s no single right purpose for everyone. Each of us is different. Each of us has unique strengths and weakness, unique value systems. What’s right for me may not be right for you.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of folks who are passionate followers of certain authors and speakers. Sometimes these authors and speakers focus on money, sometimes they focus on religion, sometimes they focus on politics. Their followers like what they say (or, sometimes, how they say it), and without realizing that it’s happened, they gradually adopt the value systems of these gurus. In effect, they adopt the guru’s purpose as their own. I think this is a mistake.

The path to purpose is different for each of us.

Instead of adopting a guru’s purpose (and belief system) as your own, you ought to sift through what he writes or says to find the bits that ring true to you, the elements that are applicable to your life.

The thing is, most of us never consciously consider our purpose. In fact, a lot of folks think this sort of talk is a bunch of new age bullshit. It isn’t. (Or it doesn’t have to be.) Taking time to consider what you truly want out of life is an excellent way to help steer you in a direction that makes you happy, a direction that brings you true wealth. (Coincidentally, it often leads to monetary wealth, as well.)

Who Are You? — and What Do You Want?

The first thing I ask readers to do at Money Boss is to to create a personal mission statement. I think that’s a great exercise, and I encourage you to do that too, but I don’t intend to fully promote my Money Boss agenda here at Get Rich Slowly.

Instead, I hope you’ll set aside a few minutes to answer three simple questions, questions that can at least prod you toward thinking more about your purpose — and how that purpose relates to money. These questions come from The Seven Stages of Money Maturity by George Kinder. (He, in turn, seems to have borrowed them from the work of time-management guru Alan Lakein.)

Here are the three questions Kinder uses to help his clients get clear on their values:

  1. Imagine you’re financially secure. You have enough money to take care of your needs, both now and in the future. How would you live your life? Would you change anything? Let yourself go and describe your dreams. What would you do if money were no object?
  2. Now imagine that you visit your doctor. She reveals you only have five to ten years left to live. You’ll never feel sick, but you’ll have no notice of the moment of your death. What will you do in the time you have remaining? Will you change your life? How will you change it? (Note that this question does not assume unlimited wealth.)
  3. Finally, imagine your doctor shocks you with the news that you only have 24 hours to live. Nothing can be done. At this time tomorrow, you’ll be dead. What feelings arise as you confront your mortality? What did you miss? Who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

Answering the first question is easy (and fun). There are many things we’d do if money were no object. But as the questions progress, there’s a sort of funnel. They become more difficult to answer, and there are fewer possible responses.

According to Kinder, the third question usually generates responses that follow five general themes:

  • Family and relationships. Ninety percent of responses to the final question contain this topic.
  • Authenticity or spirituality. Many responses involve leading a more meaningful life.
  • Creativity. Surprisingly, a large number of respondents express a desire to do something creative: to write a science-fiction novel or to play guitar like Eric Clapton.
  • Giving back. Further down the list are themes about giving back to the community, about leaving a meaningful positive impact.
  • A “sense of place”. A fifth common theme (though nowhere near as prominent as the top three) is a desire to have some connection with place: a desire to be in nature, to live someplace different, or to help the environment.

Kinder says that some people — the facts and figures people — look at these questions and ask, “What does these have to do with money?” They have everything to do with money. When you understand what you want to do with your life, you can make choices — financial and otherwise — that genuinely reflect your values.

All of these questions are meant to cause the participant to ask herself, “Who am I as a person, stripped from what I do as a job every day? Is it possible to derive meaning and satisfaction with this stripped away?” Inevitably, the answer is yes.

From my experience — I’ve used these questions in workshops for several years now — your answers can also be like a roadmap to help you discover true value of money.

The first time I wrote about Kinder’s work here at GRS was in February 2009. I’d just attended a conference where he presented his three questions. Answering them had a profound impact on my life, changing its course entirely. I didn’t see my exact purpose all at once, but I did see that my life wasn’t congruent with my values. I made changes — one of which was selling this site. (Ironic then that re-purchasing Get Rich Slowly is congruent with who I am in 2017!)

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