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Make Better Financial Decisions

I spend a lot of time teaching concepts like credit, debt, saving and investing. Surprisingly, the hardest question I’ve been asked wasn’t about these topics. It came from a college student who asked, “How do I decide what to spend my money on?” He wasn’t looking for specific purchase advice. He was looking for a guideline he could apply to help him cut through all the noise and guide his decision making. He was a smart business major. He had finance, tax, and budgeting knowledge. I could hear he was feeling the weight of all the outside messages he was getting about what he should and shouldn’t buy.

That’s when I knew our financial literacy problem isn’t about education or information. It’s a deeper social problem. When our financial literacy was high our consumption of stuff was low and so was our consumption of media. Our person-to-person connections were significantly higher.

To reach the financial literacy levels we hope for, we have to help people separate their personal worth from their net worth. And to do that, we have to cut through the cloud of media and connect to who they really are.

My answer for this young man at the time was with each purchase play the Would You Rather game. Would you rather save for your goal or have whatever you are considering purchasing. Like how I would rather drink what comes out of my kitchen counter Mr. Coffee than buy coffee shop coffee. The money and time it saves me allows me to reach my savings goal and still have the monthly salon appointment I value.

The Would You Rather game works for a lot of situations. Yet, there was a longing in the young man’s question that kept nagging at me. The messages we are all getting these days aren’t that simple. If information alone was enough, we would all have a healthy balanced diet and exercise regularly. It goes much deeper than knowing how to budget our money.

A better guideline for that young man, and for all of us, is when facing financial decisions, separate your personal worth from your net worth. We are all receiving so many messages that tie our personal worth to something we own or do. Somehow our social status can now be influenced by the container we use to carry our water. If we can be clear on who we are, we can see the trendy container is about water and our wallet. Not our social standing or personal worth.

Our personal worth is about who we are in the world—as a person, friend, family member, co-worker, neighbor, partner, or volunteer. When you appreciate your personal worth, you aren’t likely to be swayed by the promise of a better family life if you order the right take-out. Or better friends if I drink the right beverage.

When we can separate who we are from what we own, our purchases will be focused on need, function, and value. NOT ego, status, or envy.

When our purchasing is reflective of need or function, it becomes a simple economic decision. Our ego isn’t wrapped up in it. Our wallets have more as a result. When we separate our personal worth from our net worth, our financial decisions are more about our finances and less about proving something to ourselves or others.

It also forces us to pay more attention to who we are in the world. Are we showing up for our friends in a meaningful way? Are we spending time with those we care about? Are we adding value?

I’m not suggesting this gives us easy answers, but it gives us a filter to sift through the purchasing decisions. When we ask ourselves if this purchase will add to my personal worth in exchange for some of my net worth many quickly fall to the wayside. Leaving us with more money and a stronger identity.

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