Balancing Act

Joel's note: this is a guest post from Mike Pumphrey.


Wendell Berry, the author, famously said that “eating is an agricultural act.” This is a phrase designed to connect two seemingly unconnected realms – your food and someone's farm – so that you can better understand the implications of your actions.

To this end, I would like to add my own phrase: keeping track of your finances is a political act.

Does My Wallet Make Me Look Fat?

Your actions make statements.

When you give your money to an organization or person, you're implicitly saying, “I support you.” This is not necessarily a problem; after all, if they have what you want or work for your ideals, you're both better off.

However, it's easy to overlook the consequences of these actions, in that they become unintended statements. For example, you may like eating fast food. But just by going to the drive-thru, you are supporting the system that creates the fast food.

This means that you, perhaps unintentionally:

  1. Support paying workers less than a living wage.
  2. Back sourcing food from places with unsustainable environmental practices
  3. Contribute to an ongoing health crisis across the world
  4. Maintain our sprawling, automobile-dependent lifestyle.

Now, I like fries as much as the next person, but all that is hard to swallow.

Drive ThruWhat Will You Gain?

I write and speak frequently about the importance of keeping track of one's finances. That's because I see it as a task that can have far-reaching effects that ripple through every aspect of your life.

So, what happens when you keep track of your finances?

  • You become more in touch with your values. Joe Biden, the U.S. Vice President, once said, “Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” Where you spend your money matters, and, when you keep track, you learn this. And what you learn may shock you, but this gives you an opportunity to align your purchasing habits to match your values.
  • You find money. I once coached someone who felt like she had no money left at the end of the month. But after keeping track of her finances for a single month, she ended up with $300 extra. Your situation may vary, but you're likely to find money you didn't know you had.
  • You spend less. When you know you're going to have to write down (and add up) all those $5 lattes, you may eventually think twice about getting them in the first place

It's this last point where things get interesting.

Your Financial Immune System

We are bombarded from all sides by calls to spend money. From overt advertisements to covert cultural expectations, there doesn't seem to be a problem that can't be solved by throwing money at it.

[Tweet That]

Our insecurities can be easily manipulated to make us feel that something internal (a feeling) can be solved by something external (a purchase). Mindfulness helps, but distractions and busyness lurk everywhere, leaving holes in our decision-making.

By being distracted, we let these invocations to spend into our subconscious, much like how we get sick when our immune system is weakened.

All of a sudden, you can find yourself having bought a vacation on credit because it seemed like such a good deal … and left wondering how it happened.

No More. It's Time to Act.

When you keep track of your finances, you're, in effect, rejecting hyper-consumerism.

You're committing to spend less, to not fritter your money away, and to align your purchases with your values. You're putting your foot down. You're resisting.

You're also less likely, if not completely unwilling, to borrow money. And wow, is that a revolutionary act in our culture.

You're but one person. But what if everyone did this? What if we bought only what we could afford? What if we didn't succumb to messages that preyed on our insecurities? How would our society change because of it?

If your first thought is that our economy would collapse, I think that's much too cynical. Should we continue to prop up an economy by spending money we don't have buying things we don't need? Why not work less, make less, and give ourselves a shorter work week (like the Swedes are experimenting with right now)?

Our economy will eventually right-size to be based on real value, not on invented and borrowed money. And while this may hurt those who are in unsustainable businesses, I believe those who produce true value will still prosper.

What You Can Do (Starting Today)

Make no mistake: you are being preyed upon, hoping that you are distracted just enough to make a sale. And this sort of tactic, if not kept in check, will make you broke, lost, and unhappy.

Luckily there's a way out. You can change your habits. Here are some suggestions:

  • Create a zero-based budget every month. This means that everything coming in equals everything going out. When you figure this out in advance and stick with it, there is no room for unintended consequences.
  • Keep track of your expenses every day. Write down or otherwise document every time you buy something. While I recommend this deliberate practice, there are myriad online services that can help with this. It takes a few minutes a day, but it makes a world of difference. After all, you know how much your phone bill is each month, but how much is your Starbucks bill?
  • You can start paying with money. When you pay with a credit card, you haven't really paid for it, just shifted the purchase to a later date. This needlessly complicates things, and adds extra risk. When you pay with a debit card or cash, it's simple. And since you budgeted, you know you'll have the money to pay for it.

Just by remaining mindful, and by taking a little bit of time to do the tasks above, you can change your life. And if everyone did it, it just might change the world.

Do you connect the financial and the political in your life? I'd love to hear about it in the comments below.


Mike Pumphrey is the author and curator of Unlikely Radical, a community site about money, travel, living intentionally, and other ways to stick it to The Man. He helps people heal their relationship with money and to take control of their lives. When not traveling, he lives in Portland, OR.

Photo credit: Jim Rees and FullyFunctnlPhil