Want to know a secret?
I’ve been writing about money, finance, and business since 2012, and I don’t read other personal finance sites. It’s not that I’m avoiding them on purpose, but usually, when I read a few too many money-related articles, I get overwhelmed. The panicky-tightness-in-your chest-and-want-bury-your-head-in-the-sand kind of overwhelmed.
I know I’m not alone in this, and I’m willing to bet you feel the same. Because if you’re a fan of reading personal finance sites, you already know that they’re full of advice telling you what you should do with your money. Sometimes it can be hard to drown out the “shoulds” and focus in on what’s right for your personal situation.
I’ll say it - I’m sick of the overwhelm and “absolute financial must dos.” If I did every single, financial maneuver that blogs and websites suggested to me, I wouldn’t have any money left over to, you know, actually enjoy my life.
So here’s another secret I’ve learned after four years of writing about finance: it doesn’t matter what you do with your money if that thing isn’t a goal you can commit to.
There often isn’t enough money or time in our lives to accomplish all of our financial goals in one fell swoop. So the task then becomes deciding which goals to set, how to prioritize them, and why. The "why" is the most important part.
If you take anything away from the rest of this article, let it be this: it’s not what you do with your money but why. The “why” is always at the heart of the matter.
The Importance of Articulating the Why
If you’re a business owner or salesman, you’re likely familiar with the exercise of the importance of articulating the why. Many courses on selling techniques start by asking: Why are you starting this business? Why do people need this product? After all, the adage goes, “they don’t buy what you’re selling - they buy why you’re selling it.” And this makes sense because, as humans, we’re hardwired to make emotional decisions.
In reviewing my personal financial successes and failures in preparation for writing this article, I too found that every win I had become such because I had a clearly articulated why behind it.
When I moved to New York City after college, I was more than $10,000 in credit card debt from a bad shopping addiction. I was very motivated to pay off this debt. I couldn’t live in the most expensive city on earth and pursue my then dream of being a Broadway actress while paying over $600 in credit card minimums.
So, I stayed at my hedge fund job for 14 months until the debt was paid off-- all $10,000 of it. This was the very first big financial “goal” I ever accomplished, and I attribute my victory to having a strong "why." I stayed at a job I hated for 14 months because I knew the debt needed to be fully paid for me to pursue my dreams to the fullest.
There was another period of my life where I found myself deep in debt again. I’d just purchased my first home after moving back to Atlanta and put $8,000 of renovation debt on my credit cards. (I hadn’t used my credit cards since becoming debt free in New York City.)
I’d started my blog by that point and had started to earn close to what I was making at my office job. That $8,000 was all that stood between me and leaving my job to work for myself full-time, so I vowed to pay it all off in just 90 days. Why? I told myself I couldn’t leave my full-time desk job to work for myself until I had the debt monkey off of my back.
I knew this was the right financial move to make so I wouldn't have to worry about making minimum payments while building my business. And guess what? I paid it all off in less than three months!
What Happens When You Don’t Properly Articulate Your "Why”
Looking at the above two examples, maybe you’re inclined to think that I just got lucky. To counter this, I’m including two examples of when I failed - both at articulating a strong why and meeting the goal itself.
Looking back on my biggest financial failures, I can distinctly remember what it felt like to flop. But what I can’t remember is why I wanted to meet those goals in the first place.
The fact that I can’t remember why I was doing something is a huge red flag. If you can’t articulate the why, it’s likely not as important to you as you think. When I bought and the renovated my home, I was doing it because I wanted to buy a home and get a good deal by buying a fixer upper. I don’t think this is a very strong or compelling reason to do something. What did I need a home for? Why was I doing all that work? What purpose was buying a home at 26 serving me?
I believe that not having a clear passion for making such a big financial decision is what led me to naively taking on a massive home renovation and buying more house than I could afford.
Earlier this year, I decided to switch my income streams from freelance writing to making money primarily from my blog. I’d attempted this once before in 2015 but failed miserably.
It wasn’t enough to simply say, “I want to make more money online and stop spending so much time managing clients expectations.” I didn’t articulate my "why" behind my desire to make this big business shift - so when I tried again, I made sure to dig deeper.
This decision wasn’t about the money; freelance writing just didn’t make me happy. I wanted the blog to earn more because my true passion was in creating digital products and content for those looking to get their financial act together. If I spent less time writing, I could spend more time doing what I loved, so that became a very powerful "why" for me.
I’ll admit it was a scary few months at first to make this switch, but now I make close to five figures each month from my blog alone.
Why You’ll Fail without the "Why"
I hope these anecdotes from my life serve as powerful examples to you on how the “why” is what ties it all together. Because that reason alone is what gives you passion and purpose and keeps you moving forward. You may not fail without a why, but you definitely won’t succeed as best you can without one.
The study of the psychology of goal-setting is full of the importance of tying your objectives to personal ambitions rather than just going through the motions. In fact, articulating the why is a big component of the first letter of setting S.M.A.R.T goals. Making them specific is half the battle!
S.M.A.R.T goals are excellent for businesses (and people) seeking a specific outcome. They can also provide a guideline for those looking to be more strategic with their ambitions. However, they don’t account for more emotional, long-term financial ambitions. (Ambitions like saving up to stay at home with kids or funding your own business.)
I’m not advocating that you should stop setting financial goals for yourself if you can’t come up with a strong why. Saving for retirement, saving for an emergency fund, paying down debt, or creating a side stream of income are all necessary steps to providing more financial security for yourself. I’m simply saying that to be more successful with your financial goals, you should find a way to tie a personal and specific “why” or “want” to them.
When brainstorming financial objectives, ask yourself:
- Why do I want to this?
- What will my life be like if I meet these goals?
- How will my life be better and different?
- What personal want is this goal fulfilling?
Unless you’re a millionaire, your money aspirations aren’t going to be met overnight. It takes long-term commitment to consistently chunk away money for most financial goals. This kind of drive can only be fueled by a passionate inner fire, one that can only be tied back to a specific and personal "why."