Too many of us are thinking about money all wrong, and it's keeping us from building wealth

Relaxing raft floating summerSean Gallup / Staff / Getty ImagesA cushion isn’t the point.

It’s nice to have a cushion.

Even when you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck, there’s comfort in knowing you could cover a surprise $1,000 bill (many people can’t) or buy a last-minute concert ticket when your favourite act comes to town.

You could … but hopefully you won’t have to. Instead, you’ll just bask in the warm glow of having that cash at your beck and call. You’ll have money. You’ll be rich.

And there’s where too many of us go wrong.

Kristin Wong of personal finance blog The Wild Wong has an interesting post about the gap in understanding between pursuing money and pursuing a goal. In the first, you’re amassing wealth for the sake of wealth. In the second, you’re amassing wealth to serve a larger goal: a trip or a house or tuition or a family. You’re using money as a tool.

Remembering a time in life when she was struggling to make ends meet and her goal was simply to afford her apartment, Wong writes:

Most of us treat money itself as the goal. We work to get out of debt or save for retirement because that just seems like the responsible, grown-up thing to do. And it is, but here’s what happens when you make money the goal:

  • You ditch the goal, because it doesn’t support what truly matters to you.
  • You give up on money entirely, because you don’t see the point. Your finances are a wreck.
  • You stick to the goal, but you’re cheap. You make life more difficult just to keep your money.
  • You start hoarding money instead of using it.
  • You stay at a job you hate because it pays well.

From my own experience, when you make money the goal, you allow it to continue controlling your life.

She traces this realisation in part back to financial planner Carl Richards, who asked in the New York Times in February 2015, “What if we start treating money like a tool? Tools are meant to be used. They’re not meant to sit on a shelf and collect dust.”

It’s a similar perspective to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Charles Duhigg, who has said that money is a resource. Having money doesn’t simply mean having a collection of dollars — it means having the resources to accomplish something.

In other words, a tool.

When you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Financial planners regularly recommend setting financial goals, complete with price tags, to get the most out of the money we have. But in our daily lives, many of us aren’t following this reasoning. When we drip money behind us down the street, buying sunglasses and coffees and cocktails and ATM fees we don’t really care about, we’re doing it at the expense of the things we want most. If money is a tool, spending indiscriminately certainly isn’t using it right.

Bearing this in mind, the most effective question to ask yourself isn’t “How much money can I save?” It’s “What am I saving for?”

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