Over the past few years, I’ve developed an insatiable appetite for financial literature.
What you notice after finishing your 20th or 30th personal finance book is that things get to be a bit repetitive. This is especially true of the books that are aimed at a general audience. You can read only so many chapters titled “What’s Going on In Your 401(k)?” before the texts become visual Ambien.
And yet, I continue to devour personal finance books, because there’s always at least one worthwhile thing in every volume. There will be one nugget of wisdom, one innovative strategy, or one way of looking at the world I’d never considered before.
After finishing “The Financial Planning Puzzle” by Jason Silverberg, I knew that it fell into the latter camp. It doesn’t offer many new ideas, but it had one chapter that really sparked my interest and made me rethink an aspect of my financial life.
Finding Your Financial Flow
The notion that stood out to me is the author’s insistence that learning about money, and putting a financial plan into action, can be genuinely fun.
For the first 24 years of my life, I thought anything personal finance-related was a drag. Maybe it was seeing the dull looks on my parents’ faces as they went through the bills at the dining room table, or the tedium I felt learning how to write a check, or the fact that the banks I visited were so quiet, sterile, and ominous.
But, if I had to pick one thing that colored my view of money, it’d probably be the commercials in the ’90s for Pacific Life Insurance. I have early memories of my favorite sporting events being interrupted by commercials full of soft music, jargon I couldn’t understand, and a huge blue whale. I wasn’t sure what a mutual fund was, but I could sense it had to do with money. I was so bored by the end of the commercials that they sometimes made me turn off the TV altogether. For a 10-year-old, that’s saying something.
I later went on to take a class in high school that covered basic economic principles, and it was as dry as you would imagine. It extinguished any flicker of interest I had in the topic. I wandered out of the classroom each day with glazed-over eyes and a faint hope that everything would just sort of work itself out once I became a real adult.
That class would have done well to take a page out of Silverberg’s book. He makes the case that figuring out a financial plan at a young age can be empowering, engaging, and challenging.
He unabashedly refutes the notion that financial planning should be boring, dry work. He doesn’t even consider it as a possibility. Buoyed by a relentless enthusiasm, he implores the reader to see how empowering it can be to put a financial plan into action.
He does so by deftly tying together two different components he believes are necessary to develop a good plan: Visions and values.
Your visions are your dreams. If you don’t know what you want, there is no way you can achieve it. It sounds obvious, but so often we drift through life, unwilling to take the time to figure out what it actually is we want. This is not to say that your wants won’t change, but if you don’t start somewhere, you can’t even keep track of when they change!
Your values are the core beliefs that drive all aspects of your life. Again, we all know deep down what our values are, but if we completely divorce them from our financial planning, the process can seem distant and abstract. On the other hand, if we keep our values in mind, using them as guideposts and motivators, we will be more driven to save, invest, and increase our financial knowledge in service of our values. If, for instance, you’re a parent of young children, you might put a heavy emphasis on saving for their college education.
According to Silverberg, defining our vision and values will naturally lead us to take action. This can be a small step, like cutting out cable in order to save on your monthly bills, or a big one, like starting a search for an entirely new living situation in order to slice your rent in half.
What I like about this section is that Silverberg is not dogmatic, saying you must complete one task before taking on another. He emphasizes that any action, however small, is still positive. He also encourages a zen approach to the entire financial planning exercise, saying, “Focus on the actions, not the outcomes. In the end, you control the actions, not the results. The more consistent you are with the actions, the greater the probability of achieving the desired outcomes.”
To the author, there can be nothing more rewarding than putting a plan in place that will help you achieve financial freedom. Even if your plan is as simple as “I need to get out of debt,” you can still think through the possible strategies, research all the actions you can take, and lay out a path forward to make your vision a reality.
The average person puts more effort into finding the best slice of pizza in town than they do in thinking about how to make their money grow, and it clearly lights a fire under Silverberg. His passion pours out of the page, and anyone who reads this part will likely entertain the idea of figuring out a personalized, sustainable financial plan.
He insists that brainstorming, developing, and implementing a financial plan that will help you achieve your life’s purpose can bring about a flow state. He defines flow as: “A mental state in which we are fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, total involvement, and sheer enjoyment in the process of an activity. It’s when our purpose, values and actions are all in alignment.”
That’s an elegant way of describing the concept of flow, and I totally agree with his assessment. I’ve gotten to that state playing sports or creating art, but I’d never stopped to think about whether I’d been there while thinking through my financial future. After finishing this chapter, I realize that I definitely have, and that others can, too.
This is an empowering thought. Paying the bills doesn’t have to be the low point of your week if you’re keeping the big picture in mind and working toward a goal that means something to you. When I’m having financial discussions with my wife, and we passionately discuss what’s important to us while coming up with creative ways to achieve our goals, I feel like I’m in a flow state.
After reading this chapter, it hit me that there are few more engaging activities than creating, assessing, and following through on a financial plan. It has inspired me to be even more clear about what I want, and more energized to put my plans into action.
Because really, what could be boring about figuring out how to grow and protect your life savings so that you can achieve your dreams? Always putting off those discussions would be like buying a grocery cart full of perishable goods, bringing them back to your apartment, and then saying, “Meh, I don’t want to put any of these groceries in the refrigerator. Too boring. I’ll just leave everything out and see what happens.”
He wraps up this intriguing chapter with an illustration:
The “feedback loop” portion of the drawing refers to the idea that when you achieve a flow state, “you end up creating a feedback loop of happiness,” and you’re more inclined to have continued discussions about the state of your financial plan.
Silverberg feels that it’s only through our societal conditioning that financial planning takes on a foreboding and onerous quality. All it takes a subtle shift in mindset, a slight reframing of your priorities, and a defining of your purpose in life to turn a daunting task into an exciting one.
While not revolutionary by any means, “The Financial Planning Puzzle” has an interesting spunk to it. The author is clearly genuine in his desire to help people learn about money, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
If nothing else, it’s worth checking out the chapter on flow. It provides great insight into how we as a society can take back the joy that should inherently be found in dealing with a topic that’s essential to achieving our dreams, yet many of us consider to be intimidating or boring.
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