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How to Live a Rich Life Even When Money Is Tight

Author shares her philosophy of — and approach to — personal finance.

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photo illustration of pennies with doodles, money, savings
Matt Chase
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I love the comfort of my stretchy jeans. A good stretch in the morning sets me right for the day. Driving a good stretch of road is a dream. So, when money gets tight, there’s a certain satisfaction in making it stretch to fit the need.

Let’s be real. Even the most financially responsible among us need more stretch in our wallets these days. The rising prices of everything from eggs to housing are forcing us to face tough decisions we may resent, resist or rage about. Merely weeks ago, I was in a teary conversation with my sisters about the prospect of losing land we grew up on given an unexpected 30 percent property tax hike.

In such times, crying helps but doesn’t pay the bills. Money doesn’t care how hard you or I work. It doesn’t know whether we have enough to pay our bills or deal with an emergency. It has no opinion about being used for good or evil and simply complies with the policies, practices and priorities we set. This means that the only thing we have control over is how we relate to money and the actions we take in that relationship. As Winston Churchill once said, “No one ever finds life worth living — one has to make it worth living.”

Surely we all know the value of living a worthy life, but it does help to remember what makes life worth living. It also helps to have practical strategies for managing the ups and downs so we can live a rich life even when we don’t feel rich.

Have a set of guiding principles.

Money likes rules. For it to flow easily and productively, it helps to have a clear set of principles for making financial decisions, no matter what’s in your bank account.

I learned this the hard way. For too long, I felt lost in my relationship with money. I loved it and hated it. I loved it for all it allowed me to do and hated how complicated it could make life. It helped me bring three children into the world and have a home and the means to raise them. It even allowed me to leave a marriage, remarry and add twins to the picture. Yet it also made it difficult to navigate career and motherhood, to make decisions about what was most important, and it affected how I defined my self-worth.

The impact of these contradictions was a zigzagging around financial decisions. I paid bills yet struggled to create or stick to a budget. I schemed new businesses yet struggled to ask for money. I wanted to invest yet was intimidated.

Eventually, I realized I needed rules for managing my relationship with money just like I had with food and fitness. If I was a vegan (which I’m not) my diet would change. A regular workout is an unquestioned part of the day. The same holds for money. If you’re brought up to tithe, you do so without question. If you support yourself from an early age, you become a provider.

This is the reasoning behind the Positive Money Principles I created and share. They are a choice, a practice and a framework through which any financial decision can be made. A few of the principles are that money serve a higher good, be an act of giving and receiving and cause no harm. For example, if you can’t decide whether to use retirement funds to help pay for your child’s wedding, ask how the principle of serving a higher good might help you show love and support while also honoring your values. Brainstorming answers with the future bride or groom could very well result in a creative solution that meets everyone’s needs.

Whether you use these or create your own, I suggest connecting to core values that resonate, such as family security or financial health, and see how plans change.

Clarify and maintain money boundaries.

Once you have your guiding principles, aim to establish a process for clarifying and maintaining the boundaries needed to stay true to them. We can have both internal and external boundaries related to people, situations, places and things. Internal boundaries are emotional and spiritual while external ones fall into categories of mental, behavioral, material, physical and social.

That means if you decide you don’t want to cause harm through your financial decisions, an external boundary would be to avoid spending that puts you into debt. If your friend lovingly says, “Buy it, you deserve a special treat," you can lovingly respond, “I appreciate your thought and when I feel like treating myself, I’ll figure out a way that makes my bank account equally happy.”

If enforcing boundaries feels like you’re offending others or acting selfishly, try it out for a while and see how it pays off. People like to know where you stand even if they may disagree. Many of us have adult children living at home for financial reasons. If this is the case, it may be time to establish an updated set of rules around who pays for what to keep the peace and stay solvent.

Establish a healthy money practice.

The saying, “practice makes perfect,” reminds us that it takes time and consistency to see improvement in any endeavor. Money is no different. A healthy money practice is much easier to achieve if you have guiding principles and clear boundaries. In some cases, you may need to change your habits. Start small and build around current habits.

For example, if you eat out a lot with friends, suggest activities like a walk in the park, and that you pack lunch. If your habit is to give pricey gifts, a handmade card can be equally valued. Finally, if you want to build a habit of taking better care of your money, try adding it to your daily self-care routine.

Like the comfort that comes with stretchy jeans, that stretch in your wallet will also make you breathe easier.

What healthy money practice have you taken up? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Work-&-Money
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