big questions, career, giving, plans

Pick One

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!!!!!!

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:

  1. Living a Full and Fun Life
  2. Contributing to Society
  3. 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:

  1. Growing my Net Worth
  2. Living a Full and Fun Life
  3. 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.

32 Comments on “Pick One

  1. I’ve been working on a post on how to pick themes for each decade of your life that will help focus your actions. I don’t think you have to pick just one. BUT there are other areas where I am ruthless to create margin. During one full season in my life, I stopped wearing color. It took too much time and thought to coordinate an outfit everyday. So I basically wore, black, grey, white and sometime dark blue for 2 years. I ate the same lunch every day. I cut out everything that wasn’t the essential. I only spent time with my closest friends. Last year, I gave a talk about creating margin to a group of women, and a mom came up to me afterwards and said, “Now I get how women like you can accomplish so much, it’s in all the stuff you don’t do.” Yup. The list of things I don’t do is enormous! We can’t do it all. And by trying we just water down our best stuff.

    1. I love that you cut out colors. I was actually deciding to do that myself and then PiC went and bought me some colorful clothes. Which I now have to coordinate. I don’t think he was listening to me about going all dark colors 😉

      I do love and live thematic decades, it’s a nice time capsule to do something significant in a reasonable amount of time.

    2. Yeah, I think a lot about the difference between trying to do a lot of things and trying to do a few things *well*. It’s a nice feeling to decide that something doesn’t really matter to you (like wearing color) and to just cut it out completely. I think I’ve done that with cooking (or creative cooking at least). There are about three things I can make, and I just make them over and over again, and since I like them all and am happy to keep eating them, I’ve decided to just ignore any pressure I might feel that I “ought” to learn to cook better. I just don’t care enough to make time for it, and that’s that.

  2. I think this is where conscious consumption comes into play. Or, instead of balance, aim for overlap. You can do low cost and free activities with friends – and maybe even some that make a positive impact. You can also make a positive impact by consuming less, and therefore saving money, and therefore growing your net worth. I personally don’t believe in balance, because I’m an “immersionist” and I like to go all in on things when I’m interested in them. My favorite activity with friends is walking and talking – no cost. Plus, if you set the goal of 100k by 40, it doesn’t mean you have to know HOW it will happen. It does not immediately mean rice and beans. I know this from setting my student loan goal. There was absolutely no evidence in my past that showed I could do it. And, I didn’t have to go full rice and beans to do it. It did make me more conscious of my spending, though, and of how I spent my time with friends. I didn’t do as many brunches, but I added a lot of walks. And those relationships didn’t suffer. ANYWAY, I think you can do all three at once. That’s what I’m saying.

    1. Yeah, I agree that there can be areas of overlap, and I should look for more of those. I do find though that I can only be in one mindset at a time: I’m either in money-making/saving mode, or I’m in save-the-world mode, or I’m in have-fun mode. It’s hard to bear all three in mind at once. But maybe that’s what being conscious and intentional is all about — trying to think through your choices and priorities ahead of time, rather than just deciding in the moment what you feel like prioritizing. I’m definitely not at that point yet. 🙂

    2. I really like what you said about overlap. There are times when I feel like I only have so much time, and certain things end up being prioritized above others. But there are also times when we can accomplish several different goals through the same thing. For example, I recently volunteered with friends for a nonprofit that helps at-risk youth. This serves all three goals – making a difference, having fun, and growing net worth (by doing a free activity with friends instead of doing something expensive).

  3. This post really resonated with me as have all your recent posts. I agree it is easy to say ‘balance’ or ‘you can have all 3’ and certainly for some people that is true. However, it has not been that easy for me. I would say recently my list has been: 1. Contributing to Society (I volunteer at least 10 hours a month and work for a non-profit) 2. Growing my Net Worth 3. Living a Full and Fun Life. Numbers 1 and 2 are almost tied while number 3 has been left in the dust. My focus recently has been accomplishing some large financial goals I set for myself to meet by the end of the year. Since I do not make much money, I moved into a crappy basement apartment and cut back my (already small) monthly spending to save more. And guess what… I have been pretty unhappy and I won’t even be able to reach one of my goals despite all my sacrifices. So I decided to make a change. I am moving into a much nicer apartment where I can have guests over. I am prioritizing my interests and focusing on building community. I have come to realize how important having a supportive community is in finding that elusive balance. Since moving to a new city, I have been missing that piece and it is time to prioritize it. I certainly won’t be financially irresponsible, but I am going to save/invest 20% or more of my income and call it good. I am hopefully that my quality of life will increase significantly. Anyways all this to say I understand where you are coming from and wish you luck!

    1. Wow, Melissa, that is so relevant to what I’ve been thinking about — thanks for sharing it! You’ve actually done some real experimentation with this and discovered more about what you want your priorities to be, whereas I’m still at the point of thinking about this in a pretty theoretical way. I think that’s great that you’re moving into a nicer apartment where you’ll have a better quality of life! And saving/investing 20% sounds pretty good to me. 🙂

  4. I don’t have any good answers because I have come to hate picking the ONE (or 3) of however many goals. I want it all at the same time but we know that’s not realistic. Like Amanda, I tend to try and overlap the goals because I don’t want to pick. If I Venn diagram my need to grow our savings and net worth in pursuit of bigger spending or retirement goals with our need to enjoy the fleeting moments of our lives Right Now (the latter being something I utterly failed to even recognize as a need in my 20s), I try to live in the intersection.

    Instead of blowing $1000 on our anniversary which would be the “easy” thing to do, we remember that it’s been an expensive year and we find other ways to get alone time and celebrate that feel just as good. Smaller scale doesn’t mean giving up enjoyment for us and I’m so glad of that fact.

    It’s harder to find the overlap between growing wealth and giving back to the community because the latter is usually directly related to spending in some way, whether it’s giving time that you could spend making or saving money, or giving goods and money which have a cost. But it’s so important that those go hand in hand for me because as we become wealthier and more secure, there’s a strong tendency to forget where we came from or forget how to empathize with those who had fewer advantages and are battling economic difficulties. I consider it the cost of maintaining my humility and humanity, honestly.

    Another way I’ve dealt with it is alternating priorities from month to month or quarter to quarter, depending on what makes more sense, so that I’ve spent quality time on each area for some portion of the year.

    1. Yay for finding a meaningful and not-so-expensive way to celebrate your anniversary!

      Also, yes to all your thoughts on empathy and humanity. I think these are the sorts of things that are easily obscured by wealth and security. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My job right now happens to involve working with families who have financial and/or other challenges, which makes it extra weird to log on to Twitter in the middle of the day and see people tweeting articles with titles like, “I Made $30,000 Last Week through Passive Income — And You Can Too!!” It’s just such a strange juxtaposition. So I guess I’m trying to work through it.

  5. Yay! I love that you’ve been posting again lately 🙂 Your posts are always my favorite. I think that “Living a Fun and Full Life” has always been my #1 and always will be. The people in my life are #1 without a doubt and I would never change that. Also, one of the things I’m most looking forward to in the future is having kids, so I think this trend will continue as my family life becomes even more full 🙂 When I was paying off my loans I think that “Increase My Net Worth” started to creep up to #1 or at very least was tied and I was MISERABLE. Like genuinely miserable. I’m so incredibly glad it’s done but I definitely couldn’t sustain it for much longer than I did. The crazy thing though is that I’m still saving as much as I was when I was paying off my debt but it *feels* so different because it is no longer my focus. It feels like I’ve finally found a way to use money to service my goals instead of having it overtake my life. And I think it’s really helped to have different savings account for my goals because each month that I save, I know EXACTLY what I’m saving for and there are three main pots (grad school savings, wedding fund (!!) and extended travel fund) and all of those goals align with my “people above all else” philosophy so it feels GOOD. I know that’s a lot harder/almost impossible when you’re still in debt though so that’s probably not helpful to hear right now 🙁 but I also know that your loans will be a thing of the past in no time at all. (Like way sooner than you even think) I’m so impressed by how hard you’ve been working and I would love to hear more about your part-time job!! I’m thinking about getting one for the next year so I can pay for all of my grad school in cash, but I’m also scared that I’ll be exhausted and angry hahaha. So any insight you have would be appreciated. Sorry for the novel hah. But good luck with continuing to find your ~balance~ 🙂 I know you’ll get there.

    1. Hi Taylor! I’m so glad you know what I’m talking about. (Well, I’m not glad you were miserable during your money-focused years, but you know what I mean.) I feel like people so often try to argue that if you focus on money, this will make everything else possible, and I see where they’re coming from…but personally I find that focusing A LOT on money all day long makes me self-absorbed and obsessive and impatient. Which are all qualities I’d like to avoid! I’m sure there’s a middle ground, but I haven’t found it yet. (Hence this post, haha.) Thanks for your encouragement — it’s so good to hear a good report from someone who has successfully gotten rid of their debt!

  6. Thanks for calling B.S. on “Balance!” Yes, there is wisdom in attending to multiple areas of life at once, and we all have to do that. But I really never find perfect balance, and I’ve given up trying to. I go back and forth from week to week on what I’m trying to focus on–sometimes intentionally, sometimes quite randomly. I think the more you can integrate enjoying life and contributing to society, the better. For example, having friends and helping them, and then going with friends to help others, are ways I combine purposes.

    1. Ah, balance. 🙂 It’s so meaningful, and yet so meaningless. I think combining purposes when possible is a good way to go…I just need to find more ways to be creative!

  7. Choosing three seems so crazy! But then again, how could you possibly manage more than that while giving your all. I change my priorities week by week if I’m being completely honest. To me, your priorities seem very realistic and I know that you’ll be able to find the balance that you need.

  8. I think you can’t choose ONE. Growing your net worth isn’t a life goal. It’s a tool to provide you more ability to be able to contribute to society and live and full and fun life. Set a clear money goal, as Amanda suggests and then calculate what you’d need to hit that. Give yourself an end date on your debt and say, “by 2020, my debt will be GONE and I’ll have put $20,000 in retirement funds” or something like that. Then you calculate what those monthly payments will be. The rest you can decide what to do with. You should STOP contributing to society or having fun because your life is all about money. But without setting clear goals, you either never make progress or you get frustrated you’re not killing the whole debt NOW! If you set a clear goal, you know you’re progressing toward financial awesomeness and you don’t need to stress about it any more.

    1. Yeah, I definitely get that taking care of your money is supposed to be not a goal in and of itself, but rather a gateway to doing what you want to do with your life. But unfortunately it seems to be a little more complicated than that in practice — at least for me. Like Amanda, I find it difficult not to go all in: if I’m thinking about money goals, I quickly become OBSESSED with them, and they push everything else out of my thoughts on a daily basis. I don’t want to be thinking about money all day. It doesn’t feel healthy. So I’m just trying to figure out if there’s a way for me to think *a little* about money, without letting this thinking take over my life. It’s an ongoing challenge.

  9. I think it is worth mentioning that you are being of service by writing this blog. 🙂 So, that’s one area covered right there. Hopefully, you find it enjoyable and fun…so that’s two. You write about your financial goals and debt elimination. So it also probably helps to keep you on track financially; that’s three. You are hitting your three big life goals every time you post.

  10. My thoughts on the matter also depend on duration. Am I comfortable focusing only on growing my net worth for 30 years of my life? Probably not. But if I could focus on it for ten (referring to the “decades” comment above) and know it would massively alter my ability to do the other things I want later in life? Perhaps worth it to put the rest on semi-backburner for a decade or so.

    1. It does seem like a popular approach in the personal finance community to put other things on the semi-backburner while you focus on finances…but somehow I don’t think I’m at the point where I can do that. Ten years sounds like a pretty long time to me!

      1. I feel you girl. We’re paying off the loans and for me, it’s not “should I still make space for my other values?” But instead “how do I make space for my other values?” I like you, budgets are sexy, and Frugalwoods, because you all seem to be wrestling with similar questions.

        1. I’m finding the “other values” question to be more and more important to me as time goes on. I think at first I was like, “I’m paying off these loans asap and nothing else matters!”…but now that seems like a very problematic approach. I’m definitely still in the midst of trying to figure out how to pay off debt while also caring about and investing in other non-financial areas of my life.

  11. When you look back at the seasons of your life, what’s going to make you happy and proud?

    Money is important, no doubt, and having net worth helps make life easier. And I think from reading your stuff, you struggle a bit with your level of debt. So moving into positive territory will be something you can feel happy (less stress) and proud (accomplishment) about. I think, though, dwelling too much on the financial to the exclusion of everything else is not healthy except in short term, get out of emergency mode.

    Your relationships are also a form of health and wealth, and you need to invest (time at least) in them so that they can grow. You don’t want your social muscles to atrophy and everyone needs a good social support system and sense of community.

    1. Yes, I think that’s exactly it. Getting out of debt is something I’ll be happy about looking back, but I’d hate to get to the end of my life and realize that I hadn’t invested time or money in relationships because I’d been too busy squinting at spreadsheets and stockpiling cash. I think I need to keep that in mind more: what will make me happy and proud? Good question. Thanks for the thought. 🙂

  12. I’m constantly changing my priorities on which one gets the most attention. Since I’m 22, I’m guessing the ‘grow net worth’ would be a top priority to focus on given that compound interest is still my best friend (aw, haha). Although as most know, you don’t exactly make boatloads of cash whenever you’re young and starting out. Especially given the fact that I’m teaching overseas rather than working a traditional full-time job.

    I’ve started viewing it more like a game. I set aside money for my student loans, retirement, and try to figure out how exactly to have the most fun with the remaining money I have left. Still figuring it out.

  13. I think it is OK to go all in at first, til you figure out your natural set point–the point where your money choices and habits become background and semi-automatic. At least, that is what happened to me. I made goals of paying off my debt, saving my EF, etc., etc., etc. in 2005, and threw myself into learning everything I could about money management. Eventually, after a few years (? your mileage may vary) you realize there are only a few basic rules and which strategies work best with your personality and lifestyle. Tracking expenses also helps–you see that some months are really expensive, social months, and some are really frugal. But you don’t need to worry about either–it really does balance out.

    So I guess what I’m saying is, it is OK to go all in on the money stuff at first, because your priorities will eventually reset. I can almost promise you won’t be in crazy money mode 10 years from now, because you will have long grasped the basic rules and figured out what works for you by then. Until then, it is worth it to keep plugging away.

    Forgive me if you are already quite advanced and know this already; I haven’t read enough of your story to really know yet!! (Will head there next! :))

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