Whether you want to start a business, expand an existing one, retire early, or simply improve your lifestyle, an essential first step is to get your financial house in order. And there are plenty of tools to help you. A million and one retirement calculators, budget apps, and helpful how-to rules guide you to long-term security and success.
Many of them are excellent. But according to a recent interview with Ramit Sethi, finance guru and author of I will teach you how to be richyou still shouldn’t touch any of them until you’ve done an essential step first.
Your financial goals are probably terrible.
In the interview with Charlotte Cowes of The Cut, Sethi explains that many people shy away from financial planning because it seems so stark and dreary. There are very few people who enjoy being lectured about not buying lattes or entering the $1.57 they spent on gum into a spreadsheet. As a result, too many of us ignore money issues or alternate between charitable commitment and ostrich denial.
If this sounds like you, you don’t need more information or another tool. What you need, according to Sethi, is a vision of your personal version of financial success. “Most people have never been asked what a rich life looks like to them,” he claims, and when asked, they often give the same simplistic and unsatisfying answers.
A lot of people will say something like, “I want to do what I want,” Sethi reports. But when asked what exactly they want, they cannot answer. Another unlucky group just dreams of getting out of debt, which is understandable but deeply irrelevant.
Finally, many people have sales in mind. “I want to have a million dollars,” they’ll say to Sethi, but when he asks, “OK, where did that number come from? What does it let you do?” he gets “silence, because of course a million dollars in Brooklyn is different than a million dollars in Kansas City. It’s different if you’re 30 or 60. Most people don’t know what to make of it .”
What you should ask instead.
Goals like these are neither well-researched nor particularly achievable. If this is how you view personal finance, you are probably acting out of fear of poverty or a sense of obligation. It’s much more motivating, Sethi says, to allow your specific dreams to drive you toward wiser financial decisions. And that can only happen if you have richly imagined financial goals.
That’s why Sethi wants everyone, before getting into the nitty-gritty of financial planning, to ask themselves, “What does the rich life look like to me?”
“I want people to apply a creative vision to their lives. I want people to ask themselves questions like, ‘If I could have the perfect month, what would that look like?’ These answers are often quite simple, like “Oh, I’d like to eat out once a week” or “I’d really like to go out with my family on Sunday morning and go to the park. That’s great. Write it down. In what park? What would you do at the park?” he advises.
The more specific and sensory your responses are, the better. “I want to travel” is too generic. Instead, aim for something like, “I want to go to Bali or Bangkok or New Delhi. I want to fly in this seat on the plane. This is the dish I want to eat in this restaurant. I want to take these people with me. so that we can have this experience together,” Sethi says, adding “a rich life is lived in the details, and that level of specificity is what allows you to inspire yourself and then build a plan in that direction. “
Of course, envisioning your end goal is just the first step on a long journey (the long interview offers a lot more guidance for the rest of the process). But defining your vision is an essential first step. If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, how will you be able to muster the motivation and strategic planning to get there?