identifying values

A Time to Rest

I have struggled with goals lately. As a financial planner, I’m naturally wired to set goals. An integral part of working with my clients is looking at their goals and the financial ramifications of those goals. In fact, some of the most powerful meetings a financial planner can have the privilege of attending are those in which someone realizes that a dream they never thought was possible could actually become a reality.

Goal setting is powerful and necessary. I understand that, but I found myself resisting the idea of setting goals recently. This resistance was unfamiliar and something I simply didn’t understand.

When I don’t understand something, my first response is to try to figure it out. Why was I having an aversion to setting goals for the first time in memory? I had conversations with business consultants, goal-orientated friends and anyone who would talk to me about it. The common theme I heard was that once you achieve your goals, which was where I was at, you reassess and create new goals. It’s the cycle of success: set goals, achieve goals, set new goals, achieve those goals. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I found myself asking – what if I’m content, what if I have everything I want? I have a business I love, my family’s income is comfortable and I’m further along in my career than I could have imagined even a year beforehand. What if I don’t want or need more at this point?

Recalling my conversations about goals, I realized there is a lot of wisdom in being content. The purpose of life is not simply to achieve more, be more and have more.

After recognizing this, I decided to appreciate and enjoy this season of life that I had worked so hard for. I began, for the first time in my career, to allow myself to have slow afternoons and not look for a new designation or training or ways to grow my business.

As I freed myself from the pressure of achieving bigger and better goals, I found that I was resting.

Resting allowed me to focus on my daily life and enjoy my daily routine. Resting meant that my husband and I started spending time together instead of sacrificing that time for future career goals. Resting opened time in my calendar to drop everything for a friend who needed help one afternoon.

Resting has given me a better perspective. According to an article by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American, "downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life." Times of intense, focused work are for a season and are not supposed to be the constant. It’s good to allow periods of time to enjoy our accomplishments, instead of pushing them aside to move on to the next goal, just as it is good to have times of intense work. Besides, life has its ups and downs and different phases. There will be times in my life when I won’t have the luxury to relax; I’m guessing it’s wise to enjoy this slower pace while I have it.

Looking forward, I have several projects I want to start, but happily realize that I’ll be starting from a place of rest rather than a place of exhaustion. I now have the energy and focus to dedicate the time and mental exertion to what needs to be done.

I have come to realize the wisdom in pausing to breathe as part of the goal setting cycle. In fact, I would argue that resting is essential to successful goal setting and accomplishment.

Lifestyle Creep is Gonna Get You

“I have no idea how we did it back then,” a client couple commented on a copy of their budget from fifteen years prior. They laughed as they remembered their early struggles. They knew that their life had altered over the years, but hadn’t realized how much it had transformed financially.

The changes that take place over many years can be hard to identify as you go through daily life, but looking back over time, the changes can be shocking.

Lifestyle Creep

Most people see their incomes rise over the course of their working years, and as it does, that extra money is added to what they spend. With more money to spend, lifestyle spending creeps up.

Lifestyle creep happens over years. When you were younger, you might not have imagined eating fine dining on a regular basis, or having the ability to shop at Whole Foods or to take vacations. Your own children have grown accustomed to having the gifts and luxuries you never had growing up.

We don’t notice the innocuous changes and grow comfortable with the gradual adjustments. Because it’s not a sudden change, we don’t make conscious decisions about spending. It just happens.

Lifestyle creep is normal and expected in life, but looking at it from a financial perspective, there can be negative consequences if you don’t plan well for it.

How Lifestyle Creep Effects Your Financial Plan

You become inured to spending money

The danger here is that you may not even realize it. An increase in income means an increase in spending. What use to be unimaginable, becomes the norm.

Your perception of money changes

Spending $20 outside your budget may once have thrown your finances for a loop. Now, you don’t even blink at $20 spent here and there, and may spend even more than that without a second thought.

Your lifestyle changes

While you were once able to live comfortably on a certain amount, several years later, that amount has increased. You value the experiences and luxuries of the life you enjoy now. You didn’t know what you were missing before!

Not only has your lifestyle changed, your friends and social circles have changed. Social expectations may include dining at restaurants that would have never fit your budget before. You may feel (consciously or unconsciously) that in order to maintain those relationships, you have to maintain the spending.

Your retirement numbers change

This is the most important way that lifestyle creep affects people. For most, the goal of retirement is to maintain how you are currently living your life, or even increase the amount you live on; meaning that your income level will stay the same or higher.

As your lifestyle spending slowly rises, the amount you need in retirement will also rise. A small lifestyle change now has a dramatic effect on how much you’ll need in the future. As a basic example, for every $1,000 increase in your yearly spending, or $83 per month, you will need to have an additional $25,000 saved for your retirement years to sustain that lifestyle.

People feel compelled to save more money as they near retirement. Saving money is very important, but the biggest impact a couple can make on their retirement is to decrease their expenses.

Proactively Planning for Lifestyle Creep

Track spending and income

If you had a financial plan done in the past, be aware that your income and expenses are likely to have changed over the years. To keep current with the amount you need to be saving, track spending and income and revisit that financial plan often.

The most important element of a financial plan is the dollar amount that goes out every month. When that number changes, it is critical to let your financial planner know. Together you can determine an appropriate savings plan.

Implementation

Many people intend to save their raises or bonuses. They plan on increasing their 401(k) contributions or putting extra money away for the children’s college fund or another financial goal. However, it’s far too easy to have good intentions and still miss implementing them.

Your expenses will always rise to your income unless you have a plan in place. A plan requires intentionality, energy and time. Frequently it’s on the to-do list, but can feel so enormous that it never gets done. Don’t let this happen!

Your first step is to realize how important this task is. These simple decisions to save or invest windfalls can be the defining point in your financial plan's success. Next, make the commitment to plan and take the time to put systems in place to make it easier to allocate that money. Set up an automatic investing plan or arrange to make extra payments on debt. Check into budgeting apps that help you save without thinking about it. Implementing these seemingly small steps throughout your life will yield big results.

Don’t let lifestyle creep wreck your retirement goals. Being conscious of your spending and having a plan in place will not only pay off financially, it will bring peace of mind as well.

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The Hazards of Comparing

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In my freshman year of college I had to take the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. Two of my top five strengths were “Competition” and “Achiever.” Over the years I’ve had to come to terms with the blessings and curses of being a competitive overachiever.

“No matter how hard you tried, no matter how worthy your intentions, if you reached your goal but did not outperform your peers, the achievement feels hollow,” reads the description of the StrengthsFinder Competition Theme.

I have no doubt that my competitive nature helped me all throughout school. It served as a motivator when subjects seemed far from interesting and kept me focused on my education. But after I finished school and completed all my professional certifications, I was left with an emptiness. Without courses, I no longer had a yardstick to measure my success. There weren’t assignments and projects to overachieve on, there were no more “A”s to show or professors to tell me what a great job I had done.

I had to find a new way to compete and achieve. The obvious way to do this was to compare myself with those around me, my peers and friends, but I quickly realized how pointless that was.

Our Financial Perspectives

One of the incredible privileges I have in my career is getting an intimate look at other people’s finances, learning what is truly important to them and observing how they choose to live their lives.

I’ll never forget the conversation I had with one client couple. Their net worth was in the eight figures, and they lived well within their means. At the end of the meeting, they looked at me and said “We know we don’t have that much, but do you think we’ll be okay?”

At that moment I realized that, no matter how wealthy you are, there will always be someone who has more. Someone who has more money, a nicer house, a better education, a better career. Even people with lots of money feel this way.

I’ve worked with families who have far more money than I was raised with and people who have incredibly successful careers. I quickly realized that the happiest people were the ones who weren’t in a financial race. Yes, they had financial goals, but the goal wasn’t to simply make more money, the goal was rooted in a deeper value.

The happiest clients were the ones who knew what was important in their lives and pursued those values rather than simply valuing the accumulation of more money. They knew, accepted and weren’t bothered by the fact that there will always be someone out there with more money.

I’ve also seen people who were miserable in their careers despite making incredible salaries. Some would say they were winning at the comparison game, but losing at life.

Dangers in Financial Competition/Comparison

The very nature of competition is being aware of other people. But there is danger in judging your life by comparing it to other people’s.

It defines what you chase

It becomes far too easy to chase financial goals because you are trying to keep up with those around you, or worse, just because you want to beat someone. Jealousy, competition and keeping step with your social circles become the motivators instead of your core values.

It says where you're at isn’t good enough

Competition runs on the same premise as the advertising industry: that you need more. You need to be more successful and have more money and move faster through your career. Competition can easily sit at odds with contentment.

It defines happiness

Far too often, happiness is found in knowing that we are better off than others. A shallow sense of satisfaction is derived from knowing that when people visit our house, they will be impressed because it is nicer/bigger/better than theirs.

It breeds discontentment

The same is true when you don’t “win.” Comparison can breed discontent when you realize that your home will never compare with others, or that your career path with never result in a salary like your brother-in-law’s. Comparison shifts our focus from our lives to others.

Looking at Comparison in a Different Way

The best example I have of re-framing comparison is my mom. My mom has three daughters-in-law who are incredibly talented and amazing women. She has acknowledged that it would be easy for her to compare herself to them, to always try to play catch up with their beautifully decorated houses and various accomplishments.

One day, while talking with my mom, she said “I decided that instead of feeling insecure about my house not being as nicely decorated as theirs, I was going to be their biggest cheerleaders. I want to be the one leading the way in telling them how incredible they are and showing them off to the people I know.”

What a great perspective.

She continued by telling me how freeing it was when she made the decision to be their greatest supporter instead of subtly comparing herself with them.

How to Avoid the Hazards of Comparing

The first step in redefining the comparison game is to know what you value and the goals that you want to pursue. Know what is important to you.

The second step is to think differently about other’s successes. When you find yourself observing other people’s situations, instead of getting the emotional high or low, stop and think about what values the other person is holding to make those decisions. Are their lives or decisions ones that would fulfill your values? Are your motivations for living the life you have in line with your values?

The third step is to cheer others on. It doesn’t come natural at first, but when you see someone else's successes, be the one to applaud for them. Changing your mindset this way can be liberating and allows you to experience contentment and joy in seeing other’s successes.

I’ll leave you with a practical example of this. Several personal friends have been taking incredible vacations around the world. My husband and I were talking about this recently in light of our values. While we would certainly love to travel overseas, with limited vacation time and managing our budget, we realized that this couldn’t be and wasn’t our priority in life. We decided that instead of taking exotic trips overseas, we’ll be making more trips to South Dakota to visit family. Our values guide us to prioritizing our relationship and our future children’s relationship with their grandparents and extended family.

Yes, we would love to go on elaborate vacations, and we very well might do that someday, but letting our values dictate out choices has fostered contentment. We’re happy with the lives that we have chosen.

Recognizing Success

I once heard Michael Port, a successful author and speaker, talk about goals. He wrote Book Yourself Solid, which was released in 2006 and held the number 2 spot on the Amazon best seller list for three days. That would have qualified as a wild success for most, but instead of being pleased with this accomplishment, Michael was disappointed that he didn’t make it to number one.

Michael said that if he would have set a specific goal of making the top 10 on the Amazon bestsellers list, he would have been thrilled with his success. But he hadn’t set a definite goal – he had just thought that, based on his current success, he would see his book reach number one. Rather than experience the joy of success, he felt the defeat of failure.

How often does this happen in our personal lives? If values and goals are not defined, we may miss those successes simply because we weren’t looking for them. Missing success happens far too often.

Why We Miss Success:

Not setting clear goals

All too often, we go about life without intentionally thinking where we are headed. Or if we do think about where we are headed, we think of a general direction rather than clear goals. “Setting goals gives you long-term vision and short-term motivation” says an article on MindTools.com about personal goal setting. Having clearly articulated goals allow us to see progress and know when we should be celebrating success rather than letting these moments of victory go by unnoticed.

Comparison to others

Many times we set out to achieve a goal and reach it, only to find out that the person next door beat us to that same goal or exceeded where we wanted to be. Our successes seem to diminish in light of someone else’s success.

One of my favorite quotes is “comparison is the thief of joy” and it couldn’t be truer here. We lose sight of our own story and journey and instead focus on other people's when we constantly compare ourselves. And many times we don’t even know their full story or where they started from or how they got to where they are.

There is always more

Regardless of how great your success is, there is always more. There is always more money, more prestige or a more enjoyable opportunity. And the more we achieve or move along our journey, the more opportunities we are presented. Our expectations shift and suddenly our focus is on the next achievement or desirable outcome, forgetting what we originally set out to do.

In an article in Psychology Today, Jay Dixit states “one of life's sharpest paradoxes is that your brightest future hinges on your ability to pay attention to the present.” If we don’t mindfully appreciate what we have accomplished, we do ourselves a disservice.

Why are goals important?

Never being satisfied

Because there is always more, it becomes far too easy to stop being satisfied with what we have and strive for what we could have. We look forward to what could, or what we think should happen and forget to look to the present and appreciating what we do have.

Happiness cycle
Happiness cycle

This creates an endless cycle of dissatisfaction. We believe that happiness will be waiting upon achieving the next milestone, yet when we finally get there, happiness can only be found hiding behind the next achievement. It's easy to forget that happiness is the journey, not an elusive destination.

Avoid lifestyle creep

As a financial planner, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the financial implication of continually striving for more without giving heed to why.

As incomes rise, spending naturally rises as well. Lifestyle creep is innocuous: you get a raise and you treat yourself. Soon, you are treating and upgrading and splurging regularly; and before long, spending more becomes de rigueur. It’s a subtle shift in expectations. We become used to what were once far off luxuries, and now can’t imagine life without them.

Many times, I’ll hear clients comment on how differently they live their lives now than they did before. Sometimes it’s intentional, other times they look at their financial path and wonder how they got to the lifestyle they are at.

Improving your lifestyle isn’t necessarily a bad result of success, what’s important is whether or not your goals are intentional. Have you made a conscious decision how to spend any raises or windfalls, or are you floating down the lazy river of mindless spending?

Anchor your life

Making conscious financial goals anchors your life to your central values. It gives meaning to accomplishments and progress. It gives you the opportunity to make sure that the important things in your life stay important. It allows you to move forward with success without losing sight of where you want to be.

Set goals, recognize when they are achieved, and allow the sweet taste of success to fill your daily life.

When Values Cause Pain

Some of my fondest memories growing up include Sunday afternoon lunches with the family. My parents, four brothers, numerous cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents would all get together to have a home cooked meal and enjoy each other’s company. I don’t have that in Dallas. My future children won’t experience the weekly love, safety and joy my extended family brought to me as a child. I won’t be the aunt that is actively involved in my nieces’ and nephews’ lives and I will continue to miss the birthdays, new babies, basketball games and everything that brought fullness to my life before.

And it is painful. The choices I have made in life have made it impossible for me to be regularly active in my extended family’s day to day lives. This core value, close family ties, a thing that I hold so dear to my heart, is simply not an option for me.

Values are usually thought of in a positive way. We simply need to identify our values, live by them, and then we will be fulfilled and happy. Case closed, end of story.

It simply is not that easy. Identifying our values is important (read more), but what happens when we can't live those values?

This is when values can cause pain. Families who desperately want children and struggle with the deep pain of infertility know this firsthand. Or the parents whose deep desire to spend time with their adult children and grandchildren is met with a lack of interest.

This is the case many times in finances as well. Maybe your goal to explore the world or retire early is hindered by the fact that you liquidated your investments in the 2008 stock market crash and haven’t regained what you lost. The retirement you envisioned continues to be postponed, even though you saved your entire life for this ideal and did everything “right.”

How do we naturally respond to a dichotomy of values, especially when we have no control over them?

We compensate

We try to ease the pain from the void in our lives by promoting other values. I know a woman whose family moved for her husband’s job. She had to leave behind the home, town and life she dearly loved. Her consolation was choosing the perfect house and throwing herself into decorating to create a stylish new place to call home. This is how she responded to her pain, whether she acknowledged it at the time or not, by compensating for her loss with an aspiration to create a fabulous new home. She replaced her value of living in a place she loved with the value of being surrounded by beauty.

We not only compensate with new values, we compensate financially. It is all too often that I see parents lavishing gifts on their children or grandchildren, wanting to make up for not being able to spend more time with their family.

We avoid

Instead of facing these hard values issues, we avoid them at all costs. We don’t talk about it. We don’t acknowledge what we really want in life because we know we can’t have it. We hold true to the mantra “out of sight, out of mind.” We pretend that it really isn’t that important or that other things in our lives make up for this loss. We have so much to be thankful for, why would we dwell on what we don’t have?

For financial losses, this is further complicated by our aversion to talking about monetary losses. Psychotherapist Bobbi Emel says this is because of a “lack of social ritual for this kind of grief: We have many rituals for the death of a person: funerals, memorials, sitting shiva, wakes, etc. These customs help us with closure and adjusting to the world without our loved one. But there are no rituals around the loss of finances and the dreams that went with them. We are left feeling unfinished and lost.”

We hold on

With the constant changes of life, sometimes we want to hold on to a time when our values were fully realized or when we had the options we wish we had now.

We don’t want to accept that our lives are naturally changing over time. We may treat people the way we wish they were instead of who they are, or cling to outgrown, but familiar roles, like doting mother or dutiful child.

“If I can just get back to where my investments were in 2007, then I’ll be okay/happy.” We use the past as a measuring stick against our current situation rather than fully realizing where we are today.

What should we do with the values that cause pain?

Grieve the loss

When we desire something and are unable to have it, there is a sense of loss. Whether it’s the loss of a relationship, loss of a dream or loss of an ideal, it deserves to be grieved.

For me, I have to grieve the fact that my life in Dallas will not include the close family ties I cherish and the fact that I will miss seeing my nieces and nephews grow up. Yes, we can argue that there are positives that should outweigh this loss, but when it comes to loss, the positives are not the point. I have a lot to be thankful for, and I am, but I also have a lot of losses that are real, that deserve to be recognized, owned and grieved.

Financially speaking, people need to grieve investment losses as well, even if they’re eventually recovered. It’s more than just a “paper loss”; it can be the loss of a sense of safety, or a sense of control, or confidence in their financial future. These are real losses that need to be addressed, even if the account values have recovered and everything is back to “normal.”

Find ways to creatively incorporate your values into your life

You can experience fulfillment by finding creative ways to incorporate your values into your current life. However, this can be difficult if acknowledging and grieving the loss has not happened first.

If you value spending time with your family, but their busy lives preclude it, explore mentoring or otherwise seek out someone who would welcome you into their life.

If your value is exploration, but you can’t afford to travel, try to connect with people from different backgrounds and countries in your community or visit local groups that offer that diversity and feed your curiosity.

Don’t fall into the “all or nothing” trap. When it comes to values and what really fulfills us, many times there are various degrees in which we can find that fulfillment.

Why bother?

Why not just leave good enough alone? Is it really worth unearthing painful reminders of unrealized values?

Yes, I believe it is. Pain is part of the healing process. It’s worth it, because whether we admit it or not, those painful values can continue to affect our lives, sometimes leading us to difficult situations.

In my own life, if I don’t grieve and acknowledge the losses that have come from my decision to live in Dallas, away from my family, it will affect my relationships with the people I find myself surrounded with now. I may expect my friends to become what my family was to me, subconsciously expecting them to fill that void in my life. It could lead to unrealistic expectations, sabotaging the unique and special relationships I have with them. Instead of trying to re-create an ideal in my mind and plug people into roles that aren’t theirs to fill, I need to be open to a new reality and appreciate the beauty of what I have now.

I see the lingering effects of change or loss in people’s finances as well. People who sold their investments when the stock market crashed and never recouped their losses often make financial decisions out of fear or the same sense of desperation they experienced before. Whether they realize it or not, those feelings become central in their decision making.

Many times financial decisions are made that don’t quite make sense to anyone involved, including the person making the decisions. These unexplained decisions can often be traced back to unmet values or losses that they are trying to compensate for without realizing it.

Reconciling with your new reality

The goal here is simple: don’t ignore or forget unrealized values. Reflect on the impact of the events that led to those broken values and allow them to inform your future decisions without dictating them. Don’t let events that compromised your values defeat you. Learn from them and look for the good. Reexamine what is really important to you and what is realistic in your current situation. While they might be refashioned, you can reclaim values that are central to who you are.