Financial planning is misnamed. It really should be called Figuring Out How Much What You Want Out Of Life Will Cost And How to Pay For It By Finding The Happy Medium Between Doing What You Have To Do And Doing What You Want To Do.
I imagine this will never take on.
Don’t get me wrong: when I say financial planning, I’m not adding “by working with a professional” under my breath. The most important, most necessary part is the navel-gazing that only you can do. No amount of tax efficient saving or avoided debt can compensate you for an unfulfilling life, and no financial planner is doing anything that you can’t learn how to do for yourself. Anyone that tells you different is selling something (and it’s probably mutual funds).
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s entirely possible to live a happy and fulfilled life even if you pay interest on a credit card, underperform the market because of poor decisions or high MERs, or buy a house in an overpriced market, or retire with less than the optimal amount of money saved up. It might be harder than it has to be, but millions of people are doing it, and it’s rare to hear “I wish I’d earned more money and spent less time with the kids” on a deathbed.
And then there’s that word. Optimal. It’s such a science-fiction villain word, and I can’t help but imagine armies of shiny metal robots, marching through your bank statements and shouting OPTIMIZE! before blasting away anything that doesn’t add to your net worth.
I like robots. I like things to be tidy, and logical, and – as much as I rail against the word – optimal. It’s part of my personality, which helps explain why I like spreadsheets so much. But life with three kids isn’t tidy, it sure as hell isn’t logical, and money has functions more important than giving me a grade for how well I’ve lived my life.
Call me unambitious, but I want to be happy for all of my life, not just when I’m 67 and retired. I don’t want to save or pay down debt so aggressively that I do whatever it takes now to get a financial A+ thirty years from now, and that means consciously balancing my spending between what we need and want now versus what we need and want in the future. Sometimes that means recognizing that there are only so many clothes a toddler can wear between laundry days, sometimes it means forgoing date night at a restaurant in favour date night in the kitchen, and sometimes it means hiring someone else to clean my house because I’m better at spreadsheets than floors.
Right about here is where those of you with easier choices to make or online reputations to uphold are reading this as if I just said that I like to travel so I’m putting an all-expenses paid trip around the world on my credit card because YOLO. Ridiculous.
Almost every money celebrity out there wants you to believe ardently in the concept of short-term suffering for long-term gain, but Dr. Yonni Freedhoff has it right (albeit about dieting rather than money): there’s only so much suffering someone can take (podcast). Your job is to take a realistic look at what you want out of life and – when you can’t have it all – consciously pursue the things that make you happiest over the things that you might otherwise pursue just because they’re the default options.
Most of us want to do the best we can with what we’ve got. Some decisions are easy to make, some are easy to understand but hard to follow through on, and some are incredibly difficult – both to make and to live with. If you’ve been spending more than you make for years, it will take more than not spending to redress the imbalance, because you can’t Not Spend forever.
Here’s the crux of the issue: there is a happy medium between optimal and realistic, it’s different for everyone, and the only person who can figure it out is you. Someone like me can help clarify the issues and prioritize the trade-offs, but – especially when the trade-offs are hard – you’re the one who has to live with them.