The point: There’s no universal equation into which you can plug your details and receive a perfectly optimized solution to all your personal finance questions.

 

RationalityJumpsOutAWindow

 

I still pay bank fees.

(Hear that? That’s the sound of ten thousand personal finance bloggers picking up pitchforks)

Wait! There’s more: I don’t pay all (or even most) of my expenses on a credit card.

(And that, my friends, is the sound of torches being set alight)

Before the personal finance lynch mob gets here to punish me for violating yet another of the foundational tenets of the creed, let me explain. Quickly.

Until fairly recently, I enjoyed one of the most addicting perks of being a bank employee: free banking. For seven years, I reveled in it. I had accounts for everything; accounts for Christmas, for regular bills, for irregular bills, and for spending, and I never once had to think about the cost.

 

Edgy, that’s me.

 

Now I do, and – believe me – it bugs me. But you know what bugs me more? Forcing myself to think about my money in a way that doesn’t naturally fit my personality. I am motivated to stay within my budget for discretionary spending when I see the bank balance go down, not when I see a credit card balance go up. I get all edgy when I can’t look at my phone and know immediately how much I have left to spend on groceries without having to subtract the mortgage payment, carry the twelve, and divide by five.

What’s more, my husband and I have joint everything. (Oh, listen, they’ve let the dogs loose) Neither of us is interested in separating our spending into Yours and Mine.

With free employee banking, I had the luxury of creating a method that suits us perfectly and constructing a world of accounts around us to fit it. Now I’m faced with a choice: stick around at my bank and pay the service fees, or study the free banking rules and reward tiers and adapt our system – the one we’ve used quite happily for almost a decade – to fit within them.

So here’s the crux of the issue: I’m not happy to sit on my hands and moan about how none of the free options work for us, but neither am I going to jump into bed with the first company that offers me free banking or 3% cash back without spending some time planning how it’s all going to work.

And – to be clear –  by “work”, I mean “take up no more than a few minutes of my time to check, involve no transaction tracking, and keep me on budget no matter how much I want to cheat in my weaker moments.”

 

Yes, I have weaker moments. Surprise!

 

As much as I’d love to believe otherwise, I’m not a completely rational spender. Our finances are under control only because I took the time to observe our spending behaviours and adapt existing bank products to fit. I know how we spend, and can identify pretty easily the ways in which we’re jointly or individually tempted to go off-road, which means that the systems I’ve built around our spending through rational observation are there to protect us when rationality takes a flying leap out the window.

This is what I mean when I throw around a kind of meaningless phrase like “optimizing behaviouralist” to describe myself. It means that while I believe that optimal solutions are possible, what’s optimal for my single, naturally frugal and debt-free friend making $92,000 a year isn’t exactly optimal for my married next-door neighbours who bring in $80,000 a year between them and have to cover a mortgage, two kids in daycare, and a car payment, and have a hard time resisting the urge to eat out every single night of the year.

 

Optimal is relative

 

You can be forgiven for believing that there’s one (optimal) way to carry on your financial life, because the entire financial media is constructed on that faulty premise. It’s why articles like “Should I Save for Retirement or Pay Down My Mortgage?” spring up like mushrooms every few months (or weeks, depending on the season and whether the author is trying to sell you RRSPs or not) and are so quickly found and read by folks desperate to discover the secret personal finance sauce so they can pour it all over their bank account and then sit back and watch the dollars (and peace of mind) roll in.

Believe me, I’d love for there to be a simple answer for every possible personal finance question that contains no trace of the phrase “it depends”, but the truth is there’s no Grand Unified Theory of Finance. There’s no formula you can plug your paycheque and net worth into that will spit out whether you should increase the deductible on your car insurance, switch banks, or join the (shudder) smallenfreuden revolution.* There’s only you, your behaviour, and the systems you set up to optimize your strengths and bypass your weaknesses.

*Ask yourself this: why on earth would a credit card company sign off on a marketing campaign that encouraged consumers to use their card for everything in exchange for “free” rewards? If you’re one of the super-disciplined minority who pay off their balances every month and are getting something for nothing, good for you. If you’re part of the majority who actually spend incrementally more on rewards cards, under-estimating your actual spending and getting caught short by faulty mental accounting when the due date comes around…well, there’s your answer.

Some Housekeeping:

 

The best posts, articles, and news items I find every month are housed in the Canadian Personal Finance News list, curated by me and you, because – much as I’d like to – I can’t read everything. Get selective, get critical, and get listing.

Comments are turned off on Spring (the blog), so if you have a burning disagreement you’d like to share, and can limit yourself to 140 characters, find me on the Twitter machine (@SandiMartinSPF). If you need more space to brawl in have a gentlemanly discussion, you can find me lurking around the Canadian Personal Finance Community mumbling about CPP reform.

The Because Money podcast with me, +Jackson Middleton and +Robb Engen is live the first Wednesday of the month (usually) at 9:30 Eastern, and available for post-show viewing in all its glory immediately thereafter. Questions, comments, or observations on how much I wave my hands around and say “I don’t know, what do you think?” are very welcome, and can be posed on Twitter or G+ using the hashtag #becausemoney.

Sandi Martin

Sandi Martin is an ex-banker and fee only financial planner who specializes in working with regular folks who suspect their money might be a bit of a mess. She lives in beautiful Muskoka with her husband and three children, and works online and by phone with clients across Canada.

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