Finances – The Right Question

It’s the age old question asked by financial advisors, “Can you really afford it?” Unfortunately, most Americans, working as trained professionals in reputable industries, and filled with an innate sense of entitlement, will answer that question “Yes. Of course I can afford it.”

And why not? Certainly after a 40-50 hour exhausting work week you should be able to afford a decent wardrobe, your kid’s tuition for summer camp, and a nice family vacation. So why, when we work so much and so hard, are Americans in debt? Why do our salaries always fall short of what we need to survive?

The answer lies in the question. I don’t mean to sound ambiguous. The fact is, if we base each purchase we make on the question “Can I really afford this?” we set ourselves up for budget-breakers. Fortunately, there is a better question we can ask ourselves that effectively cleans up our spending habits, and leave our dignity in tact.

In their 1992 National Bestseller, Your Money of Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin lay out nine steps that will transform your relationship with money and achieve financial independence. In my experience, step two is enough to break most bad spending habits. This exercise changes our mind-set by asking a question we may not have thought before.

The exercise involves the concept of Life Energy. Life Energy is your time in hours traded for money. Some of us make an hourly wage. This is not quite the same as Life Energy, because it only includes the time you punch in to the time you punch out. It doesn’t include the hidden hours we give to our employers: the time required for grooming ourselves, commuting, cooling down after a hard day, (not to mention the vacations and entertainment we must have to maintain our sense of balance.) Nor does our hourly wage reflect the money we must spend just to have the opportunity to work for our employer. I’m talking about the expenses connected with costuming, transportation, meals, and other job-related costs. To know what your real hourly wage is, add all the extra job-related hours to your normal work week, and subtract the job-related expenses from your pay. Now you know how much you really make at work. A simple division problem shows you how much money you earn per hour. This is the amount of money you trade for your time-your Life Energy. Keep this number in your head.

Whether or not you find this number satisfactory (that is considered in another step of the program) you are now equipped to ask the right question. The next time you are at the check out counter don’t ask if you can afford that new “gazingus pin.” Instead, think of your new hourly wage and ask if this purchase is worth that amount of your Life Energy. For instance, let’s say your adjusted hourly wage is $11 per hour. If your new gazingus pin is $67, that’s equivalent to over six hours of your life! Is it worth it? This question can be very sobering for those used to saying “Sure I can afford it!” All of the sudden, the question becomes, “Do I really want to sacrifice that much of my life for this?”

Add to this question the subject of debt and buying on credit. If you are making your purchase on a credit card you are automatically paying a premium for time. And if you are struggling to pay off debts, you must realize that you won’t even have the opportunity to work the six hours to pay for your gazingus pin for several days, weeks or even years. By then it may be up to ten, fifteen or even thirty hours of Life Energy. All for this gazingus pin. Is it worth it? Do you love this gazingus pin so much that five years from now, when you’ve paid your credit card down enough to reconcile this purchase, you won’t mind throwing thirty hours in at work for it? Is your job so enjoyable?

Kind of puts paid employment into perspective, doesn’t it? It also transforms our all-American sense of entitlement. If we look at time as money, maybe we’ll be a little less cavalier and a little more cautious about where we throw it.