Personal finance sounds so simple, doesn’t it? I am an accountant by profession. I enjoy working with numbers, tracking progress, and working in spreadsheets. From that standpoint, personal finance is mostly made up of simple arithmetic. I know that I bring home a certain amount and that so much goes toward non-discretionary monthly bills (the must-have’s), so much goes toward discretionary monthly bills (the nice-to-have’s), so much goes toward groceries and other monthly spending, so much goes toward retirement savings, etc. I can do the math. I can see where the money is going. I can see the slow but steady progress of our finances improving. But there is a lot more to personal finance than math and numbers. There is a reason the first word in personal finance is “personal”.
Beyond The Numbers
When I make spending decisions, is it really about the math? To an extent, yes; but not really.
I know that when my mortgage payment is made that I need to subtract that payment from our checking account balance. I know that more than half of the mortgage payment is going to interest, taxes, and insurance, with a small portion going to pay down the principal. But what I think about most is that making that mortgage payment gives my family a place to live. It gives us someplace to call home.
I know that a portion of every paycheck I receive is deducted and put into my 401k. I know that by making these contributions consistently over my working years the balance will grow significantly by the time I reach retirement. My wife still laughs when I tell her that we’ll have a nest egg well above $1 million by then, based on maintaining my current contribution levels. I know the math behind it: how the sum of my contributions, the employer match, and compound interest over 40 years can really add up. But what I think about most is that making those contributions will give my wife and me a future where we aren’t relying on Social Security for our retirement years (if it even exists by then). I think about a future that is secure, where we can focus on things like spending time with our friends and family without worrying about running out of money.
Last night I went to the Dairy Queen drive-thru and bought my wife and I each a blizzard. From a purely financial (math) aspect, was this the best use of our money? No. Technically I could have put that money toward one of our loans or put it in savings. But we really enjoyed sitting at home eating our blizzards while our little boy was sleeping. It was one of those once-every-once-in-a-while treats that make life a bit more enjoyable.
It got me thinking. Focusing on the math is not the key to successful personal finance. It certainly is an important component of personal finance, don’t get me wrong. The numbers do matter, and you can’t ignore them. But if that’s all you think about, you’re leaving the “personal” out of personal finance.