I recently gave a talk and much to the attendees’ surprise, money was the peripheral, not primary, topic. That was not necessarily my intention when I started out, but as the poet Antonio Machado points outs in his poem “Traveller, There is No Path”:
Traveller, your footprints
Are the path and nothing more;
Traveller, there is no path,
The path is made by walking.
This is a critical point when it comes to our money and why I worked it into my talk. We think that if we do everything right, whatever right is, things should turn out as we expect. But then life happens and we realize that our path is made by walking — the playbook gets discarded and we have to figure things out anew.
Four choices of money
The tighter we hold onto our plans, the more likely they fall apart. This doesn’t mean preparation is not useful, it just means that we have to prepare differently.
You are going to do one of four things with your money — save it, spend it, pay taxes with it or give it to someone. That’s it. The challenge is to figure out what combination of those four inevitables can bring you the most happiness. You can only influence these four choices; you cannot completely control them.
Choices always lead to two things — outcomes and conflicts.
If you want to increase your chance for outcomes that are more consistent with your values, planning helps. But planning needs to be comprehensive.
For example, one of our clients is trying to determine how much money they want to give their kids. The first choice is to choose representative language — give the kids rather than help the kids. The path is made by walking, not necessarily clearing the path. And is it really a gift? If you create conditions for it, then it is a contract.
How much, how often
The second choice is how much. If you are providing assistance for something that makes you more comfortable — making sure that they have health insurance, for example — then that may determine the amount.
If you want to give enough to make their life easier, then be careful what you wish for. If your child is coupled, how does their partner feel about the money coming in?
The third choice is how often. Many of our clients don’t want to commit to an annual gift because they don’t want their kids to count on it. If the kids can’t count on it, then it is likely to be treated as a bonus.
Most people have a different mind-set around bonus money rather than salary — your kids are probably no different.
The fourth choice is if you commit to an annual gift, how do you give it? If you give it monthly, the children are likely to include it in their cash flow. If you give it annually, they are likely to spend some of it on indulgences.
Role of fear
There are many more choices in what is a seemingly simple act, but the single most important thing to answer for yourself is why are you wanting to do this. If you can define the why, the hows tend to be straightforward.
Our conflicts around our choices tend to be fear-related. We save because we worry we won’t have enough tomorrow. We may spend because we feel we have an image to uphold or we think it will bring happiness. We are reluctant to give because we don’t believe we will be safe.
All of these choices are about our relationship with money. If we want to make better choices, then we should work on how our relationship with money serves us and how it harms us.
Another poem from my talk, this one from Rumi:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Most of our financial decisions involve far more questions than answers. None of us will ever know everything, so our financial planning becomes about getting comfortable with the unknowable.
It doesn’t mean throw up your hands. It means there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground. Don’t get trapped by thinking you have to get things right.
If you get things more right than wrong, the path you make by walking will be toward happiness.
Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina.