The Priorities of Personal Finance: Are You Scrooge McDuck?

My long-term financial goals don’t have a single dollar sign in them: I want to have enough money that I can travel any time I choose, that I can afford to cut back on the number of hours I work every week, that I can take care of my family no matter what. There’s no way to put a price tag on any of those goals…I may not know when I reach some of them. Despite the open-ended nature of my goals, however, I think that putting a face value on personal finance goals can be dangerous.

Money for the Sake of Money

On the broadest level, money is absolutely worthless. What are you going to do with a piece of paper that someone’s already printed on? With coins, at least, you can get a little use — need a paper weight? The only value a dollar or a pound or a peso actually has is what we can trade it for. Money is, at best, a place holder.

That fact has amazed me for most of my life. When I was four, it sunk in that I could give someone a simple piece of paper and they’d give me something I actually wanted. It took a little trial and error to figure out that it had to be a specific type of paper, but the realization was still pretty earth-shattering. You don’t even want to know what happened when I figured out checks and credit cards.

But all of this means that just trying to amass a big pile of dollars isn’t exactly practical unless you’re Scrooge McDuck. Since most of us don’t use our money vaults as auxiliary swimming pools, making your personal finance priorities based on what your money can actually do for you just seems like a practical option. You may just avoid some of Scrooge’s problems along the way.

When is Enough Enough?

Scrooge McDuck has to keep earning money, but not so that he can reach a goal — instead, the problem is that Scrooge can never be content with what he already has, despite being the richest duck in the world. Scrooge has even been known to get sick (in the comic books) when he’s not out making money. Even worse, his obsession has turned him into the ultimate tightwad and given him a nasty temper. All of this makes for a good comic book or cartoon show, but in real life, only caring about watching the numbers tick ever higher doesn’t make for a happy life.

Recognizing when we have enough isn’t that much easier for us than it is for Scrooge, but setting our own priorities can help with the process. Sure, on any given day, I’d like to go out and earn more money. But my priorities are not that simple. I value time spent with my friends and family higher than just making more money for money’s sake. I value doing the things I enjoy, from traveling to cooking to reading. I even value my sleep pretty highly. Sure, many of my goals involve having money — spending time with the family sucks if you don’t have food or electricity or anything else you need. But it also mitigates that need to make money to the exclusion of everything else.

Stepping Back from Scrooge McDuck

If we want to separate ourselves from the Scrooge McDuck mindset, the secret seems to be to focus on the benefits of money, rather than the money itself. For many personal finance gurus, finding motivation to save money is a matter of reminding yourself of financial plans that are more important (like saving for a child’s college education). It’s a matter of finding the balance between earning enough to make sure your priorities are doable and still spending time on those things that make your life good.

Image by Flickr user Loren Javier

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