Intentional spending is really important. It was a big part of my financial comeback story.
It plays a huge role in your happiness and fulfillment. And the reason why is simple. It turns the focus on your money spent back on yourself. Instead of where it usually is, which is on the goods or services that you spent the money on.
If that seems clear as mud, stick with me. I’m going to lay this all out very simply in the way that the concept unfolded and started to make sense for me.
What is intentional spending?
Intentional spending is the concept that one is intentional with the money that she or he spends. Meaning that any purchase is well thought out and carries an intended purpose.
To round out this definition, we do need to define the opposite of intentional spending – unintentional spending.
Unintentional spending is what most of us (present company included) do most of the time. It’s a bit of a reflex. We spend out money without really focusing and even thinking about if what we spend it on is making us happy.
And research has shown that humans are incredibly bad at predicting what will make us happy – especially with our purchases.
Overcoming Consumerism in a Culture Obsessed with It
Ad a quick example, can you think of a time where you bought something that you thought would bring a lot of entertainment, joy, fulfillment, use?
How long did the excitement of that purchase last? How long did its usefulness last? And how long did it fulfill you?
If you are like me (and most of humanity), the purchase caused a brief dopamine hit after which the excitement faded as dis the utility of the purchase.
It’s a frustrating experience that many of us live over and over again.
The solution to this is intentional spending
The key with intentional spending is that the absolute dollar value of the purchase is completely irrelevant in your decision-making.
You should go through the same mental calculus whether a purchase is $1 or $10,000.
And the more that you can practice this, the more it will become second nature and feel like an automated thought process.
I still practice often and will catch myself making unintentional purchases…and that’s ok. The point is to improve. There is no perfection, like everything else.
And before getting into the actual formula, let’s examine something.
Why are doctors so bad at intentional spending to begin with?
To be fair, all people are bad at intentional spending. We spend un-intentionally. We buy something, get a short dopamine hit, then it wears off and we forget about that good or service.
But doctors are particularly bad at intentional spending.
Because we have years of delayed gratification. We make little money and go deep into debt during our prime years. During this time, we watch non-doctor friends spend money on things like cars, homes, and toys (although they are likely doing so unintentionally as well…).
In the meantime, our time is severely constrained by training.
Buy the time we finish training, we are really to spend like there’s no tomorrow. It’s hard to blame anyone in this position.
And I am not saying not to spend by any means. But I am saying that you need to spend intentionally or else you can get in a really bad place financially. You can become the high income doctor who is living paycheck to paycheck and working beyond when she or he ac tally wants to.
And you don’t want that.
So, how can you practice intentional spending?
The simple formula to practice intentional spending
Here it is…
If a purchase meets both of these criteria:
- The purchase fits into your financial plan and
- The joy derived from the purchase is >/= the dollar value of the purchase
If the purchase meets either of these criteria:
- The purchase does not fit into your financial plan and
- The joy derived from the purchase is < the dollar value of the purchase
It is that easy!
Let’s break it down
Let’s pretend you are considering a purchase. Forget what it is and forget how much but actually costs.
If you can make that purchase while still following your financial plan (which is leading you to your financial goals), that’s a great thing.
If you consider the purchase thoughtfully and deliberately to determine that the joy from that purchase is greater than it’s purchase price, even better.
In the above case, why would you not make that purchase?! It doesn’t make sense.
On the flip side…
If you cannot stick to your financial plan while also making that purchase, you by definition cannot afford that purchase.
And, if you consider the purchase thoughtfully and deliberately and determine that the joy from that purchase is not greater than it’s purchase price, well that seals it.
In the above case, why would you make that purchase?! It doesn’t make sense.
Like I said, the logic is really simple
But it’s a thought process we almost always glaze over or ignore completely.
And here’s why:
Most people don’t have a written financial plan or budget to know if they are following the plan with their spending habits.
- Sit down and write your financial goals and priorities (Here are mine)
- Create a budget to determine your savings rate (Download my budget template here)
- Increase your savings rate until it is at least 20% (This is how to calculate your savings rate)
- Write an investment plan (this is my plan) that uses that 20% savings rate to reach your financial goals
Like I said earlier, we are really bad at determining what purchases will make us happy.
When you want to make a purchase, just wait. Wait at least 2 weeks. If you still want it and believe it will bring you joy > the purchase price, go for it.
If you don’t still want it, chances are you never did.
Study after study has shown that the longer we wait before a purchase, the more we enjoy it. I can confirm this from personal experience.
Let’s wrap up with a couple examples
At the risk of losing you all, I am going to make an admission.
I am not a car person.
I just really don’t care much about cars. Really, I just want something functional and reliable.
Debunking the Myth of the Doctor Car!
But, when I was about to become an attending, I had about $1,000/month ear marked for a luxury car lease.
As I thought about it more, this didn’t make any sense. It compromised my financial plan, taking away money that I wanted to use to pay off debt. And the joy from the lease would bring me decidedly less than the cost.
So, I made a change. I cancelled the lease and bought a used Toyota Avalon.
But let me make one thing very clear, if that lease/car did bring me more joy than the price and worked within my financial plan, I would have done it.
So, I’m not judging people who like cars. Just make sure you purchase one intentionally.
For months, Selenid and I have been talking about buying a couch set to furnish a room in our house that up until this point served as a toy repository for our kids.
We looked up couches and thought of color schemes etc. But we didn’t buy anything for 3 months.
Instead, we considered the best use of the space and how much we would be happy to spend.
Then, we carefully considered our budget for those 3 months and created extra savings for the couch so it fit seamlessly in our financial plan.
Then we bought the couch set we wanted for $5,000. This was more than I initially was comfortable spending.
But knowing that it fit our plan and taking the time to intentionally consider it eventually made the decision easy.
And I can confirm that the joy it has brought us these far is much greater than the price tag.
And finally the house…
Whenever I first introduce this concept, people think that I am a spending prude, advocating to save everything and buy nothing.
But that’s not the case. I just want you to spend intentionally. In fact, when I graduated, I bought a doctor house. This is not the typical recommendation. Heck, it’s not even my recommendation for you.
But we found a house that met our criteria, fit in our financial plan, and continues to bring us greater joy that the price tag.
Since it checked those boxes, we bought it!
The moral of the story with intentional spending
Contrary to what many in the FIRE community imply, spending money is not bad.
Money is simply a tool. A tool that I believe should be used for the betterment of yourself, your loved ones, and your world community.
In that definition, not spending money would actually be bad.
But at the same time, to spend that money unintentionally in a way that does not accomplish those goals would be wasteful.
So, the key is to spend money intentionally!
This is one of the simple habits that will help you reach financial freedom. Some more of these simple habits are here and here. I also help teach these habits more in depth here.
What do you think? What does intentional spending mean to you? Have you practiced intentional spending? What are some intentional and unintentional purchases that you have made? Let me know in the comments below!