The unexamined life is more expensive

The more you question everything you do and buy, the better financial decisions you'll make.

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    By thinking about why you make choices, like what to eat for breakfast, you can make better financial decisions.
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Find your reason.

Your reason for what? For pretty much everything you do in your life.

Let’s start with the immediate. Why are you reading this site right now (or, in the case of email recipients, this email)? Some of you are probably reading this because you desperately need some financial help. Others are reading it because they’re on a good financial path and reinforcement is a big help to them. Still others read the site for entertainment – many of my old friends seem to fall into this category.

The key thing is that you have a reason for reading. It might be a strong one or it might be a weak one, but there’s a reason that you’re choosing to read The Simple Dollar.

Now, start asking yourself the “reason” question for everything you do in life.

Why are you at work right now? Why do you have this current job?

Why did you do whatever you did this past weekend?

Why did you eat whatever you ate for breakfast this morning?

Think through some of the things going on in your life, big and little. Why? Why? Why?

Some of these answers will be fairly easy. For example, as I write this, I’m working for four very clear reasons. One, I love the art of writing. Two, writing about personal finance (and doing the needed research and self-evaluation) makes me focus on my own personal finance success. Three, it provides some level of income for my family. Finally, I simply enjoy helping people.

The nice thing about this is that it’s easy for me to see exactly why I work on The Simple Dollar. I have internal motivations (helping people, the sheer joy of writing) and external motivations (family financial success, assisting others). I don’t have to search for why I do it, thus it’s easy for me to get in the mindset needed to write all of this content. I have a reason.

Other answers will be fairly difficult. This morning, I had two bean-and-tofu-scramble burritos for breakfast, seasoned up like crazy with a bunch of hot sauce and garlic. It was reasonably healthy and fairly tasty (good reasons) but when I think about eating, say, a banana or an apple or a bowl of oatmeal in comparison, I start to have difficulty saying why I chose to eat the burritos.

A general rule of thumb is that the harder it is to come up with good reasons for what you’re doing, the more you should focus on finding a different path. If you can’t explain why you’re eating what you are beyond “it tastes good,” you may want to think heavily about your diet. If you can’t explain why you’re buying these items other than “I want them,” you may want to think heavily about your spending habits.

This is admittedly often hard to do on the spur of the moment. We often don’t have time to stop and ask ourselves these types of questions in the midst of a busy day – and, frankly, I wouldn’t even try to do so.

Instead, spend idle time reflecting on these kinds of things. Reflect on the choices you’re making in life – financially and otherwise – and see if you can figure out why you’re making those choices. Look around your environment for things to evaluate, such as the things you eat, the things you use to entertain yourself, and so on.

“It’s too small to worry about!” Some might find it to be a waste of time to reflect on tiny things, like the light bulbs in your home. What I often find is that reflection on the tiny things is a microcosm of reflecting on the bigger things in life. If I’m asking myself “why” with regards to my light bulbs, I’m really asking “why” with regards to my electricity bill each month, because my reasons involving energy use apply not only to light bulbs, but to lots of things. For example, if I know I bought this particular bulb because of the great lighting, I know that’s the reason for it and that it trumps low-cost lighting options. I’m spending more because I value the quality lighting here. But where is that reason true? Do you need different lighting in different areas? What about other energy use decisions in your home?

The more “whys” you ask, the more you transition to naturally thinking about the reasons for your choices and the consequences of them. The more naturally mindful you are, the more “bang for your buck” you’ll get for almost every financial choice you make, from what you buy to how you spend your time. Even better, you’ll quickly see that your life becomes more purposeful, more enjoyable, and even more exciting.

It’s a long journey – I can certainly say that I’m not there yet. But the rewards along the road as you grow are well worth the effort.

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