You know that “Pick Three” thing, about the areas of our lives that compete for our time and attention? It goes like this:
Pick Three amusingly highlights the fact that many of us can’t devote as much time as we’d like to all five of these very important areas of our lives, and so at any given time, one (or probably two) areas are getting the short end of the stick. Either we’re sleep-deprived because we stayed out late with friends and had to get up early for work the next morning, or we don’t make it to the gym because we’re visiting with family instead, or whatever. These five areas of our lives are constantly competing against each other, and at any given time, some of them are inevitably losing.
As much as I like the classic Pick Three, I’d like to propose a somewhat different version of Pick Three that I’ve been pondering lately. Let’s call it “Pick One”.
Pick One involves the following three very general goals that I have for my life:
- I want to improve my financial situation, i.e. grow my net worth. This is important because, you know, security. And retirement. Also food.
- I want to live a fun and full life. This is important because I only get one life, and I don’t want to waste it. This is a big category. I’m thinking here of things like relationships, travel, health, hobbies, learning, art, entertainment, celebrations—all the things that we actually live for.
- I want to contribute something of value to my community and/or to society. This is important to me for many reasons, and I should probably devote an entire post to it at some point. For now, I’ll just say that I believe we all have a responsibility to try to contribute something positive to the world—though what this looks like might vary a great deal from person to person. (Additionally, I want to be mindful of the fact that as a white upper middle class American, I have surely benefited from a great deal of unfair privilege during my lifetime. To me, this only emphasizes the importance of trying to make a positive impact. To simply take my privilege and run feels like a not-okay option.)
Now, clearly this is not truly a “Pick One” situation because these three goals are not mutually exclusive. Of course it’s possible to live a full life while also contributing to society and taking care of your finances. But I find that I personally tend to shift my focus frequently between these three goals, changing my mind again and again about which one deserves to be at the top of my priority list. One week I’m really into figuring out ways to grow my net worth as quickly as possible, the next week I’m thinking more about trying to maximize my quality of life, and the next week I’m pondering how I can make a positive impact.
In other words, I feel these three goals pulling me in three somewhat different directions.
Below you’ll find a schema illustrating Pick One, because I was trained as a researcher, and constructing theoretical schemas is one of the things that researchers do best! (Or at least, that’s what we like to tell ourselves.)
I realize there’s an argument to be made that it’s best to prioritize Growing my Net Worth as number one because someday, after I’ve amassed a large sum of money, I could use that money to live a full and fun life, or to contribute to society, or both. But I want to emphasize that Pick One isn’t reeeeeally about the future. It’s about how I want to structure my priorities right now. Do I want my primary focus right now to be on making money, on living a full and fun life, or on contributing something of value to society? Which of these things deserves the greatest amount of my time and headspace from day to day?
I guess the easy solution here is to say “It’s all about balance! Figure out how to balance these three priorities and you’re golden!” That’s the type of thing I say a LOT, and I do think there’s some wisdom in it. But I also think that answering every question about priorities and choices by shouting “Balance!” is a bit of a cop-out. I’d like to think through this question a little more deeply before resorting to “Balance!”
So to make all of this a little more personal and a little more specific, let’s think about a financial goal that I mentioned in my end-of-September update last weekend. Specifically, I’ve been thinking lately that I’d like to set a goal to have a net worth of $100K by the time I turn 40.
Now, I am not at a place where I am willing to share either my net worth or my current salary on this blog. But please believe me when I tell you that setting a definite goal to reach $100K by 40, given my current situation, would be extremely ambitious, bordering on crazy. But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that I decide to make this financial goal my absolute number one priority for the next five years. What would I need to do in order to make this happen?
One way to reach (or at least approach) this goal of Growing my Net Worth would be to eliminate ALL non-essential spending. This means the only foods I could eat for the next five years would be oatmeal and rice and beans. There would be a total and complete ban on travel, as well as a total and complete ban on purchasing any items other than basic toiletries. Going out with friends would be strictly prohibited, both because it would cost money and because I would need to spend every available moment taking on extra work to make more money to reach my goal. So in other words, Living a Fun and Full Life would probably fall by the wayside. I could still Contribute to Society to some extent through my job, but I would probably end up viewing work as just a way to get a paycheck rather than a way to really make a difference. And there would definitely be no gift-giving or volunteering or donating money to good causes allowed, because my time and money would be better spent working towards my goal.
Alternatively, I could decide that my number one priority was to find a way to Contribute to Society. If this were my primary goal I would likely try to achieve it through my career somehow. My strategy might involve switching jobs, or putting in a ton of extra effort at my current job, or hatching some sort of totally new career plan. I would spend most of my free time brainstorming and researching these possibilities, as well as pursuing possible leads for jobs and projects. I’d probably also start doing a lot of volunteering in my spare time (something I’m not currently doing at all). And because of all this, I’d end up with much less time and energy and thought left over for goals like Growing my Net Worth or Living a Fun and Full Life.
See where I’m going with this?
I know these examples are a little extreme. I’m taking them to the extreme on purpose though, to make a point that I think still applies in not-so-extreme situations. Simply put, the more time and energy and headspace I allocate to growing my net worth, the less time and energy and headspace I have left over to allocate to figuring out how to live a full/fun life, or to thinking about how I can have a positive impact on people other than myself. When one goal is at the top of the priority list, the other two goals will inevitably take a backseat.
So with all this in mind, how should I prioritize these three goals?
I can say with confidence that I placed them in the following order during my 20s and early 30s:
- Living a Full and Fun Life
- Contributing to Society
- Growing my Net Worth (a distant third, if it was even on the list at all)
Then when I started getting interested in personal finance a year and a half ago, the order shifted to:
- Growing my Net Worth
- Living a Full and Fun Life
- Contributing to Society
But I’ve had a series of internal crises recently about whether I really want my number one priority in my day-to-day life to consist of amassing more and more money. It might serve me well in the future, but is a laser-sharp focus on my own finances really the best thing for me or for my loved ones or for my community right now? I’m not sure, but somehow I doubt it. And so now I’m not sure which goal to put at the top. Or even how much control I have over what ends up there.
This is the point at which I’m tempted to shout “Balance!” and declare the case closed. And maybe balance is indeed the wisest answer here. But it’s also the easiest answer, and I think this issue deserves more consideration than that.
I usually like to end a blog post with some sort of take-away or conclusion, but I haven’t come to any conclusions on this topic. So instead, I’ll end this post with a question:
If I HAD to pick just one of these three to be at the very top of my priority list, which one would it be, and why? This is the question I’m thinking about these days, and I plan to keep on thinking about it.
Any thoughts or comments are welcome.