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The First Step in Any Financial Plan is NOT What You Think. We Start by Knowing What is Worth Seeking (15-20 minute read)

This blog is the first of a 10-part series which covers everything you need to know to get started on your path to financial freedom:

1. The First Step in Any Financial Plan is NOT What You Think. We Start by Knowing What is Worth Seeking.
Developing Your Vision of a Perfect Life
Adopt a Savings Habit
Emergency Fund Basics
Eliminate High-Interest Debt
Saving and Investing for Retirement
Paying Down Low-Interest Debt and Building Taxable Savings
Simple, Basic, Mindful Investing
The Final Step – Portfolio Optimizers
10. The 10 Core Beliefs of Mindful Investors

Turn on the TV or scroll through your favorite social media feed, and you’ll find yourself bombarded with stories and advertisements of the latest things that you just have to buy, trips you just have to take, beliefs you just have to adopt. All the smiling faces of celebrities – and even your friends – showing off the newest gadget or investment trends feed the illusion that earning money to accumulate things is the path to a successful and meaningful life.

But if you look hard enough, you can find stories that tell a contrasting and more enduring narrative. The anonymous donor paying for kids’ school lunches. A former couch potato who transforms into a marathoner. The Wall Street banker who follows her passion and opens a restaurant. The 75-year-old widow who starts a school for promising young pastry chefs.

These are the stories that motivate and inspire. Your story can do the same. But first, you have to know your heart. You must define what is worth seeking for you.

Life’s substance and meaning arise from who we are and what we do, not what we have… or can earn. Does working long hours to buy a sports car create enduring happiness? For most people, no. The one who dies with the most (or the best) toys isn’t necessarily the winner / doesn’t have the greatest well-being / isn’t automatically the happiest.

In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, Australian palliative nurse Bronnie Ware asked patients what, if anything, they regretted or wished they had done differently. The most common regret was the wish to have “had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” This was followed by “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

Before my brother’s death in 2021, I was on this road. My default activity was work. I would work a normal 50-60 hour workweek. And then, when my wife and kids were busy, I would work an additional 10-15 hours. When I had a moment, I looked to complete a work-related task.

Of course, no one wants to worry about money, which is why we work. But people are working hard (usually regrettably hard) and then still worrying about money. You will get much greater return on your investment if you spend money on that which fuels your own unique idea of happiness, rather than the generic version you find in the marketplace. This requires self-discovery and introspection to come BEFORE money or work.

Sure, the road to financial success involves saving, budgeting, investing in a 401(k), building an emergency fund, and yes, maximizing your earning potential. But it starts with what matters most to you, because you get to choose what success means for you. The good news is that anyone can discover these things. And, a plan to cultivate them can be created by anyone… regardless of their current financial situation.

Well-being and happiness appear to be closely correlated to simple factors like health, optimism, meaningful relationships, and generosity. In my book, Mindful Money: Simple Practices for Reaching Your Financial Goals and Increasing Your Happiness Dividend, I write about eight essential elements that add real and lasting happiness value to our lives. Why is this important? If you base financial decisions on the pillars that support your unique version of happiness, it’ll help you create the kind of life you truly admire.

1. Health

Your health is a good place to start for many reasons. Not least of which is the simple fact that if you’re physically and mentally healthy, you’ll feel happier and be more productive. Health can provide tangible financial benefits, too.

Our health dictates how effectively we can work, which influences how much we can earn, which impacts our sense of security, which affects how happy we are. According to a study by Vasilios D. Kosteas of Cleveland State University, workers who exercise at least three hours a week earn an average of 9% more than workers who don’t.

A healthy lifestyle increases our income potential and reduces our medical costs, leaving us more money to spend on what matters most. It eliminates the need to buy pricey consolation prizes to compensate for the general malaise we experience when we don’t feel good.

Best of all, you don’t have to pay excessive expenses or have access to some exclusive workout plan to tap into health’s many benefits. It’s something you can start working on right this minute. Go for a jog. Take a few minutes to meditate. Good health is its own reward – and it’s free to anyone willing to put in a little sweat equity.

2. Engagement

Happiness studies reveal that the happiest and healthiest people are those who are actively engaged in the world. They continually seek new experiences and strive to learn new things. By comparison, there appears to be little evidence indicating that owning a lot of stuff or pursuing wealth or fame contributes much to long-term happiness or personal well-being.

Most of us are trading our time and energy for money. Wouldn’t you want that exchange to be as worthwhile as possible? You can give up less time and gain more satisfaction by concentrating on acquiring new and improved experiences, rather than working extra hours to bankroll your next big purchase or pay for your last one.

You can incorporate this behavior into your own life by mindfully shifting your focus from accumulating possessions or prestige to gaining meaningful life experiences and allocating your dollars accordingly.

3. Relationships

It seems unnecessary to mention that meaningful relationships are vital to a happy life. But it is worth mentioning just how powerful they are. A 2010 paper by Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez references numerous studies showing that those who make time for others and maintain close ties to friends and family report fewer illnesses, less depression, greater happiness, and longer life spans than those who don’t.

In my own life, the recent pandemic and the loss of my brother really brought the necessity of multiple deep relationships to the fore. During the pandemic, my live-in-person connections declined (admittedly not a unique statement) to my immediate family, and my brother’s family who luckily happened to live close by. When he died, one of the things that hurt the most was that I didn’t just lose my brother… I also lost my last remaining friend. I’ve been working ever since to rebuild friendships of old and cultivate new friends.

As we age, we will all lose people. If you are lucky enough to live a long and healthy life, you are bound to lose a lot of close friends. As that happens, you will absolutely rely on the existence of other close friends.

If you need additional encouragement to put your health before every other life goal, realize that declining health plays a huge part in our ability to maintain friendships. As we age, we – along with those around us – experience physical and mental challenges that make socializing ever more difficult.

In 2017, Aspen Ideas painted a portrait of loneliness like this:

“Loneliness is the 81-year-old woman who celebrated her birthday alone — after speaking with no one for more than a week before that. It is the woman who turned down a telehealth service that would have provided a virtual house call with a physician, because the doctor’s monthly home visit was her only human contact.” 

You can nurture the power of relationships in simple yet highly effective ways. Call your mother. Call a friend. Ask your barista how his or her day is going. Give a co-worker a hand-written thank you card after finishing a big project. Take someone to lunch. Find a group and go hiking.

This knowledge should have vast implications for how you choose to spend your money. If you want to be happy, you must earn, save and plan to utilize your money in ways that will increase, not reduce, your togetherness with those you care about.

4. Meaning

Meaning supercharges our joy when life is good, and keeps us moving forward when life is painful or difficult. For many, family is the foundation that gives existence its meaning. For others, meaning comes from engaging endeavors like art or working to make the world a better place. No matter how we define it, or where we find it, meaning is essential to a satisfying life.

This new version of Mindful Money – focused on free content and accessible advice for early career, mindfulness-curious, and well-being-oriented couples and families – is my own mid-career pivot towards meaning. I hope I can retain your interest and request your help while I move Mindful Money towards non-profit status. Financial education should be much more broadly available, and Mindful Money can play an important role.

One of the fundamental tenets of financial planning is to “put your money where your meaning is”. In other words, your money should serve what you consider most important. How? Align your financial decisions with your values. You become a “steward” of money, not just a user.

Fortunately, making a difference with your money is easier than ever before. For example, environmental, social and governance (ESG) and socially responsible investing (SRI) investment options allow you to support ethical businesses. You can build a better future for yourself and your family – and the world – at the same time!

5. Accountability

We all know what it feels like when someone lets us down. So, why let yourself down? By establishing what you care about most, you’re recognizing that your happiness is important to you. Now, it’s up to you to follow through.

Accountability may sound like more of a chore than a value worth seeking. But the only reliable way for us to realize our heart’s desires is through our personal actions, so accountability is a prime mover of happiness.

Before our reality can live up to its potential, we must identify the values and desires that are most important to us and translate them into specific goals and behaviors. Then we must practice those behaviors consistently over time and through adversity, committing all the resources at our disposal to fulfilling our deepest desires and advancing our values.

Every action of accountability makes a deposit into our happiness account and compounds our lifetime benefits. I want to help, but more importantly I believe that if you’re pursuing the life that lights you up, the universe will align itself to bring you all the help you need.

You’ve got this!

6. Generosity 

From religious figures to business leaders, the most admired people in history have emphasized generosity as an essential ingredient of true happiness.

Consider 600 Americans surveyed as part of a 2008 paper aptly titled “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness.” The happiness levels of those surveyed did not appear to be affected by how much income they earned or how much they spent on themselves. Instead, the single greatest predictor of increased happiness was the amount of money subjects spent on others.

You don’t have to be Bill Gates to exercise generosity. Not only your wealth, but your knowledge and talent can be part of your legacy. And, you don’t have to wait to start building that legacy. By saving generously for your own future now, you’ll enable yourself to be far more generous toward others at the end of your life.

We operate under an illusion of independence. The more we become aware of how intricately interdependent we all are, the less we feel the need to always focus on ourselves. When we let down our guard and become more open to the joy and suffering of our neighbors, we soften and become more approachable. How can this not boost the other Happiness categories of Meaning, Relationships, and Engagement?

People want to help people. People want to associate with people who help people. One of the greatest ways to build friendships is to work together on a generous goal.

One of my favorite quotes is from Marianne Williamson:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

The greatest generosity you can offer is to do the discovery work and to know your true self. Once known, share that self sincerely with the world. Don’t be afraid of going first. As you let your light shine, you give others permission to do the same.

Since it happens to be the most evolved way for us to behave as a species, generosity should be an integral part of our lives and financial plans.

7. Optimism

A common thread among happiness studies is that the happiest people share this one trait: unabashed optimism. Those who believe in a positive future for the world create that very future by acting in accordance with the belief.

Know that the media you consume has a negativity bias. As they say in the biz, “If it bleeds, it leads,” or, “Bad news is good copy.” You have to push back against becoming enthralled by the negativity. While the bad stuff is served up on a silver platter for easy consumption, you have to seek out the good stuff – but never doubt that it is there.

In today’s social media-connected world, you have to be extremely careful of the narratives. They can become overwhelming if you let down your guard and succumb to all the horrible imaginations of the punditry. Remember Mark Twain who said, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” 

You don’t have to be naturally optimistic for financial planning to enhance your life. Watching your assets grow over time to support your future can have a hugely positive effect on your thinking. Positivity reinforces your desire to save more and waste less, which in turn accelerates the growth of your money, which enables your relationships and generosity, and in turn generates even more optimism.

The cycle of authentic optimism, once you are on it, is endless.

8. Gratitude

We often get so lost in what we need to acquire, we forget to stop and express gratitude for what we already have. Take a moment to reflect on your past self and think about how grateful you would have felt then to be where you are now. Doesn’t your life seem better than you thought? This practice essentially changes your mindset from the default of envy to one of gratitude.

Gratitude is perhaps the most powerful of the eight pillars of happiness. A 2003 study by researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough found that habitual gratitude leads to a happier and more cheerful outlook, while giving rise to better sleep patterns, improved mental health, fewer aches and pains, less stress, enhanced job performance, and increased optimism.

Gratitude can enhance the financial planning process by acting as a filter, determining what to include in your plan and what not to. One of the first steps of planning is to think deeply about what you’re most grateful for in life: your family, your friends, your home, your health, your environment and so on. Those are the things you should seek to protect and support with your money choices.

Develop Your Vision

The illusion that is marketed to us from childhood to old age is that happiness derives from constantly getting bigger and better stuff, greater prestige, more followers and “likes.” Ultimately, the obsession with “More” only brings us more stress and less appreciation. If you don’t know what “Enough” looks like, you will always want more. If you are always looking for more, you will never have enough.

What most people would benefit the most from is more time – not stuff, fame, money, or followers. We need time for self-discovery, time to enjoy the things we already own, time to spend with loved ones, time to read a book or walk in the woods. Time brings peace, reflection, contentment, and sustainable happiness.

As you untangle your illusions about money from your ideas about happiness and consider what genuinely makes you happy and healthy, you’re ready to walk through the steps of building your vision of a life well-lived. This vision is the starting point of the only version of a financial plan that is worth pursuing. Starting anywhere besides an authentic understanding of who you are and who you wish to be in the world will be wholly unsatisfying.

My one wish for you is to stop what you are doing (however important you may think it is) and complete a journey of self-discovery before you take another step in the wrong direction.

If you need a little help, check out the Mindful Money Values, Purpose & Goals course. We think this is so important that we made it free.

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