Your Spending Choices Often Reflect Your Values

I have a crazy idea I want to run by you. Imagine that a cultural anthropologist finds one of your credit card statements in 100 years. What would your spending suggest you value the most? Based on your spending, what assumptions might someone make about how you live your life?

Our credit card statements (really, any financial statement) reveal a lot about what we care about. They are unintentional personal manifestoes. In stark detail, these statements lay out how we spend our money and our time. As a result, we end up with a clear picture of what we value versus what we say we value.

For instance, my top priorities are spending time with my family and serving in my community. In theory, every decision I make, every action I take, should be about meeting those priorities. But sometimes, my statements show I have made other things a priority. I get distracted.

Recently, I spent a lot of time on the road. It meant less time spent with family and less time available for my community. So when I reviewed my statement, I told myself a story. Those airline tickets and hotel rooms were for the greater good. But here’s the part I skipped.

Could better planning on my part have meant fewer back-to-back trips? Could I have spent my time and my money more wisely?

This exercise helped me see that my actions and values were out of alignment. The best part? The experience wasn’t a negative one, simply a timely reminder that took all of five minutes. Pull out one of your statements. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results, but don’t be shocked if the statement reveals some surprises.

Look, I know that life happens and things can change quickly. Sometimes our time and money won’t be spent perfectly. But there is a reason I often refer to the old saying, “The checkbook and the calendar never lie.” How we spend our lives, be it money or time, says something about us. It says something about our values.

Time after time, I have seen the consequences of what happens when our spending connects us to unexpected values. First, we try to shrug it off. That’s a one-time blip. If it happens again, we’ll try to pretend that was always our intention. But in the end, we’re left with the uncomfortable reality. The mental image we had of ourselves is disconnected from our real selves. That’s a hard truth to accept.

We do have another option. We can flip the equation. We can put our values first and make spending decisions that better align with our true selves. Spending doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and with a little knowledge and planning, we can end up with statements that reflect a personal manifesto that we’re proud to call our own.

This commentary originally appeared July 7 on NYTimes.com

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Carl Richards, CFP®

Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, "The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money."

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