The Blind Spot in Values-Based Spending
Everyone has those things they’re willing to spend money. For some people it’s clothing, for others it’s restaurants or concerts or “toys.” We’ve always recognized that for us it’s travel.
Some people call this “values-based spending” and or “intentional budgeting.” Others refer to such spending as “budget failure justification.” I believe values-based spending is a great idea, though I doubt we’ve all thought through our values as much as we might give ourselves credit for. There’s also a common pitfall of saying you value just about everything, as a way to rationalize spending.
That said, it’s 100% legitimate to choose areas of non-essential spending and decide, “I value my health, so I’m going to buy healthy food, even if it costs more.” Or “I value learning so I’m willing to spend on books, or private school.” Whatever your areas are, that’s up to you. I wouldn’t recommend going into debt for most areas, but beyond that it really is a matter of personal preference.
At the same time, values-based spending has a dangerous blind spot: your values.
The Slippery Slope From Values to Invaluable
Once we pick a category and say, “this is valuable to me,” it’s a slippery slope to viewing that thing as invaluable. Meaning you’d spend (just about) any amount on that area that is so important to you.
The danger isn’t that you value a category, it’s that you have a blind spot toward your spending in that area. Let me give you an example from my life: dating my husband. This is non-negotiable to us. We make do with evenings at home together (that’s not most nights for us), but with two little ones and busy schedules, sometimes we just need to get out and have fun together before 9 pm.
So after our second child was old enough to leave with a babysitter, we went out about once a month and spent at least $50 every time. We’d budgeted $50 since we cherished that time together and wanted to have a meal and maybe do something afterwards. When Neil suggested we didn’t have to spend that much every time, I got defensive, made fun of our pre-parenthood Taco Bell or home dates, and basically shut down that suggestion real quick.
Then I realized I had a blind spot. We could choose to spend $50, and that was fine. Nothing wrong with it. We still do sometimes. But we could also enjoy ourselves just as much with cheaper meals or diversions, while upholding our values of date night and our marriage.
My emotional blind spot for this important area leeched my creativity in seeking good alternatives. While this expense wasn’t breaking the bank, the same phenomenon can take hold in many, sometimes more expensive areas.
Another area we value is our involvement in church ministry. We are volunteer leaders in our church and this means we spend money on retreats and social/ministry outings regularly. We are happy to do so, but have found some cheaper solutions. For example, sometimes we “pre-game” a restaurant outing and just order something small, or carpool or ride bikes to events when possible. We also choose to pay a babysitter so we can have less distractions during our home church meetings. So there are ways we’ve found to spend less while maintaining involvement, and there are also facets that we can’t really cut back on, or at least aren’t willing to.
How to Squint Out Your Blind Spots
First try to identify your value areas. And remember–you don’t get to pick everything! Common value areas include family, safety, health, education, faith, travel, adventure, gifts, technology, media, the arts, sports, friends, or experiences.
Now have a little brainstorming session, identifying possible alternatives to your current spending in your high-value areas. Be sure to ask your significant other or friends for ideas because it’s hard to think outside the box sometimes.
Please hear me: you might get creative, do some research, and find there are no better solutions or alternatives to your value areas. Maybe you recognize there are cheaper solutions, but you don’t have the time, inclination, or skills to adopt them. Then you would carry on as before, knowing that thing is really worth the price to you. That’s fine!
But a healthy dose of skepticism about our own values-based budgeting is helpful, because we’re almost inherently emotional about the things we value. And emotional money decisions aren’t always the wisest. It’s unrealistic to think any of us is going to do money perfectly every time, but I’d like the idea of reassessing and become more financially self-aware and solution-seeking over time.
What areas of your budget do you value most? Have you ever identified a blind spot in your values-based spending?