The Who, What, When, Where and Why of financial goals
Have you ever dreamed of winning the lottery and what you would do with the money? What you could buy, what you could give to others, how free you would be; if only you won the $60 million. It’s fun to daydream about what your life could be if you ever got lucky and your numbers came up, but it’s not a great retirement plan.
Most of us start our financial awareness journey with “how”. We feel like there must be an answer out there that someone knows that could clear up our confusion and fear around money. If you could just find the right tool, or book, or expert or podcast you could finally figure out “how” to be successful at finances.
“How” is the mechanics of money. “How” do I save enough for retirement? “How” can I pay off my debt? “How” can I buy that new car? “How” do I build an emergency fund?
“How” is not messy, or emotional or fuzzy. ‘How” is all about black and white. With "how' questions you imply that there is only one right road to your destination. “How” is about the doing, and like most challenging things, money is less about the “How” than the “Who, What, Why, Where and When”.
The “Who, What, Why, Where and When” questions have real factual answers but they can’t be answered with simple black-and-white, one-size-fits-all answers. They require you to think about the answer and sometimes even about the question.
So this is not so much of a How to Set Financial Goals post as a…
“Who” is this serving...
“What” does it mean to me…
“Why” does it matter…
“Where” did that goal come from…
“When” will I know I’ve achieved it… type of post.
Say you read online that you need to build an emergency fund with 6 months” worth of expenses in it as a top priority goal. The article seemed to be pretty well written and the author was 100% sure that this is the most important goal you can have at X stage of your life. And it scared you… You have no emergency savings and the article made it seem like you were happily and obliviously sailing around on the Titanic without one. So you must need one, the only question you have is ‘how' am I going to find the extra 1k a month to set up an emergency fund when I can’t make ends meet now?’
In this case it’s worthwhile to know the answer to a few more questions before you jump to “How” so that you are sure you know what you are dealing with. Sample questions could be:
“What”is an emergency fund, what is it not?
“What”is a true emergency, what is not?
Do I really need X number of months of expenses in there, if so “Why”?
“Where” do I put my emergency money?
“When” do I need it to be fully funded by?
“What” is more important right now, a fully funded emergency fund or a girl’s night out?
“What” is the worst that can happen to me if I don’t have an emergency fund?
“What” could I do if that came to pass?
“What”do my friends, family and colleagues know about emergency funds that could help me?
The thing about all of those questions is that you are the only one who knows the right answer. There is no personal finance guru out there that knows exactly what your circumstances are, the only one who can answer the questions correctly is you.
Take as an example 27 year old Morag versus 37 year old Morag.
27 year old Morag rented an apartment, had no car, didn’t have a television and hence no cable, only had a telephone bill and utilities to pay on a monthly basis. She worked at a pretty well-paying job that theoretically should have resulted in lots of free cash. She had no dependents other than a cat. It was the middle of the tech bubble so she had no worries about being out of work if she got laid off.
Her need for an emergency fund was pretty minimal. If she had lost her job and could not find a new one quickly a small emergency fund and her severance pay would still give her the few months of breathing room necessary to find a new job.
37 year old Morag was in a much different spot. She had a mortgage, had car payments and insurance premiums, she had property tax bills and house repairs to factor in. She had to worry about car repairs and the washing machine quitting on her. She still had a good job, but not good enough to tide her over in the event that she or her husband lost their jobs.
Older Morag had a much greater need for an emergency fund because her circumstances changed. It made sense for her to have 6 months of expenses set aside.
In each case the answers to the questions changed and in turn changed the goal.
So who’s ready to ask some questions?