It’s post election, 2016. I know I’m not alone in wondering what the hell I can or am supposed to do now. Everyone around me is asking what this means for themselves, for America, for the causes they care about, and the safety of their families and friends.
People are experiencing a collective, visceral need to get involved, make a difference… do something! But many I’ve spoken to, while adamant that they want to help, aren’t sure if they can. As soon as their minds jump to “I should donate money”, they immediately feel stress and anxiety because of their own financial situation, or lack of knowledge around money. These are good people who want to make a difference. They have the desire and drive to help, but don’t feel they have the means to do so.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be like this. If you want to give more of yourself but feel like you can’t yet – here is how you can!
This seven-step guide will lead you through the work you need to do in order to make your money matter. You’ll discover why money is important to you, how you currently use your time and money and how your money can better reflect your personal values. You’ll find the tools you need to help put you on firm financial footing so you can help others, and understand the empowerment that comes with a values-based budget. You’ll have the opportunity to choose where you want to donate your time and money and learn the power of gratitude. You’ll move from a sense of helplessness to empowerment as you make decisions with your money that allow you to truly make a difference and impact in your community.
So, let’s get it started!
Note to Self: This is a process. It will not happen overnight! Change rarely does, so don’t expect to blaze through every single step in this post in 30 minutes and come out the other side as conqueror of your finances. But if you are serious about making a difference in not only your life but in the lives of others, then the work you need to do will be well worth it.
STEP 1 – Why Does Money Matter to Me
Most people can agree that it’s important to understand why you are doing something before you dive into it. (Check out Simon Sinek’s book and great Ted talk about the importance of knowing your why.) When it comes to money and what you want it to help you get out of life, knowing your why is critical.
This may seem challenging at first—discovering money’s purpose in your life. Don’t get overwhelmed. Instead, start like you would when learning anything else in life: by taking one small step at a time. To get these ideas flowing, I’ve provided two writing prompts, below, that will help you take the first steps towards answering those questions by helping you think about the future you want to create. Set aside an hour or two to dive into them—you may be surprised with what comes out of it.
STEP 2 – How do I Spend My Money and My Time
In order to change behavior, you first need to build an awareness of your current habits and situation. If you want to lose weight, it’s important to know how much you currently weigh, how many calories you’re eating, and how much you’re exercising. Without that, you’ll be flying blind, have no feedback and won’t know what actions are affecting your results. The same applies to building awareness around your finances.
To do this, take the next two weeks and make a note every time you spend money. You can use a notes app on your phone, carry around pen & paper—whatever works for you, baby boo. I recognize you may not do this every single time over the whole two weeks but you aren’t going for perfection, you’re simply building awareness. Trust me: after you take note of the fact that you paid for lunch for the fourth time this week, you will start to notice that pattern and voila! Awareness.
Do the same with your time. Write down what you are doing throughout the day and for how long. Start off with one week, but try for two if you can. Take note of how much time you spend cooking, eating, commuting, working, watching TV, working out, reading BuzzFeed articles. Again, it’s not about perfection, but awareness.
STEP 3 – Compare What I Discovered in Step 1 to What I Learned in Step 2
Look back at your goals/values/what’s important to you and compare those things to how you’re currently spending your money and time. Are they in alignment and do you feel pretty good about it? Or did even the thought of comparing the two scare you, knowing they are already out of whack?
This can be a difficult thing to do, but it is so incredibly necessary. It creates a contrast between where you are right now and where you want to be. The idea is not to make you feel like a terrible person, but to pull back the curtains and reveal your reality. Only once you see the difference between where you are and where you want to be can you put together a plan to bridge that gap.
A quote by Lynne Twist in her book The Soul of Money captures this idea perfectly: “If you want a clear picture of your priorities in life, who you are and what you care about, look at your checkbook, your credit card bills and bank statement.” For example, if supporting local farmers is important to you, buy from your local farmers market. It can be more expensive, but if you discovered in Step 1 that supporting your local community is a value of yours, then get ready to put your money where your mouth is.
This same principle also applies to time. How many hours do you spend watching TV? Window shopping or buying things on Amazon? Volunteering? Playing video games? Spending time with friends? Again, this is not to pass judgment, but to help you find any disconnect between what you say you value and how you actually spend your time.
To help you get clarity around which areas of your life are already in alignment and which aren’t, use the exercise below. It will help you clearly see where Step 1 and 2 are already in alignment, where they aren’t, and will get you brainstorming on what you can do to bring them closer together.
STEP 4 – Put My Own Oxygen Mask On First Before Helping Others
If you realize that your day-to-day spending isn’t in alignment with your goals and values, you may have the urge to spring into action and immediately change your behavior. You’re going to stop eating out and start cooking more! Spend less on booze! Wear that jacket one more season! Then you can start donating to everything you value!
It’s great that you are fired up. But as they say in the airline safety videos, “Remember to put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others”.
What does this mean? It means you have to get your own financial house in order before you can be truly effective in helping others. Examples of this would be paying down credit card debt and student loans, and building a savings account that allows you survive the unexpected—car trouble, moving, medical expenses or job changes. This may seem contrary to what you’re trying to accomplish (i.e. giving generously to help others) but your ability to be generous will be far greater in the long run, when your own finances are on a firm footing. Otherwise, you will only be able to give for a short period of time before you burn out or get derailed.
So here is what you need to do:
Nearly 50% of millennials say they don’t believe they could come up with $2,000 if an unexpected need hit within the next month1,which means almost half of you reading this need to focus on savings before you focus on giving to others. Make it your first financial goal to establish an emergency fund of at least $1,000. If you already have that then great! If not, can you put away $20/month? $50/month? $100/month? The more you put towards that goal, the quicker you’ll get there. It should be your highest priority. It’s not a huge stockpile but it’s a start, and for many it’s a victory.
Second, pay down any high-interest debt that you have, which for most people is credit card debt. 53% of millennials carried a credit card balance month-to-month over the past year1, meaning they couldn’t or didn’t pay back all the money they owed each month.
For other types of debt with lower interest rates, such as auto loans, mortgages, etc., you should still continue to pay the minimum (ideally more), but it isn’t necessary to get rid of this debt before you start giving.
STEP 5 – Find Causes That Matter to Me
With a seemingly infinite number of causes and organizations that need help, deciding where you want your money to go can be overwhelming. Do you donate to the Salvation Army person ringing their bell on the corner, the organization your mom recommends, the cause highlighted on Good Morning America, or…?
My only suggestion is this: you just did some serious work in Step 1 to home in on your goals and values, so start there. Other people may have their recommendations, but look inward first for a value or cause that truly resonates, and donate your money/time to that. After that you can start searching for and asking others about organizations that support those causes/values.
Here are a few sites that have compiled lists of organizations for you to look into, once you’ve settled on the cause(s) that matters most. They also rate how efficiently each organization uses its donations, so you can be sure your money will be used wisely.
STEP 6 – Empower Myself With a Values-Based Budget
When you are sincerely motivated to align your spending with your values and give more to others, then changing your habits and paying down debt won’t feel like you’re depriving yourself. You’ll no longer feel that you’re “giving up” things by spending less. To the contrary, you’ll feel truly empowered when you say “no” to something because it allows you to say “yes” to something that actually brings you happiness.
In order to actually save $1,000 and pay down all high-interest debt—while waiting to contribute your money to the great organizations you discovered in Step 5—you’ll want to set up a values-based budget. A values-based budget takes into account not just your existing obligations (rent, credit card minimum payments, insurance payments) and wants (groceries, entertainment, etc.), but your future plans, as well. Realize that if you don’t have $1,000 in savings and still have credit card debt, you won’t be putting money towards those causes just yet. But you can create line-items for the things that matter to you (like donating) so that every time you go into your budget you’ll see them, and they’ll serve as a reminder for where your money will start flowing once your own oxygen mask is secure.
There are many tools to help you build a budget (from pen and paper, to Excel to Mint) and each person has their own preferences so I won’t tell you which tool to use. However, I will give you one piece of advice: when creating your new budget, DO NOT look at your past spending as a reference. Screw what has been. Who cares if you used to spend $500/mo at bars? You can make a new executive decision right now as to where your money will go. If you want to cut that down to $200/mo and put the extra $300 towards savings/paying down debt (or charity if you’ve done those already), then just do it.
STEP 7 – Express Gratitude
When you’ve arrived at Step 7, it means you are not only able to cover your needs/wants but are also putting aside money to help others. Take a moment to step back, think about how effing awesome that is, and be grateful that you are even able to do this. As Americans, we are in the top 1% of people in the world in terms of income and standard of living, and you are not only just surviving as part of this privileged group but doing well enough to think outside your own basic needs! That’s due in part to your hard work, but also due to the luck of simply being born in this already great country. Don’t feel bad because of your position and privilege; instead, be grateful for it and keep thinking about how you can leverage it for good.
Become the Change
You will probably find that when your spending and values are in alignment, you will naturally spend less. As a result of needing and spending less, you’ll start to feel less stressed, anxious and guilty around your finances, meaning you’ll have more mental energy and time to give. The more you give, the less you’ll feel you need…leading to this badass, virtuous cycle! When you spend on things greater than yourself, the ROH (Return On Happiness) you get is real.
Realize that financial decision that you make is a vote with your dollars. You can vote for J. Crew, Amazon or hipster bars. You can vote for local farmers, charity, or the social justice. It will probably be a combination of both! And there is no judgment on where you spend it, as long as you are intentional in your choices and know why you are spending it the way you are
If you’ve been feeling stressed and anxious around money, wondering if you’ll ever be able to make a difference in the world, the answer is “Yes you will!” These “Seven Steps to Making Your Money Matter” can give you a clearer understanding of your personal values around money and how you can let your money truly speak for you. They can help you move from helplessness to empowerment—to make decisions with your money that allow you to truly make a difference and create impact in your community.
You have the tools, now go make it happen! Put on that oxygen mask, latch on to a cause that really resonates with you, and start making your money matter!
The Tortoise and the Gare
1 “Millennials & Financial Literacy — The Struggle with Personal Finance” PWC White Paper.