How to you prioritize your spending? Do you spend your money on what you want to like moments and experiences, fulfillment, enjoyment, and social connection? OR what you have to like the big mortgage, keeping up the fancy house, the shiny car, and keeping up with the Jones? That’s an important question to understand and consider. Why? Because it makes a big difference in how you live your life and what feeds your soul. Let’s dive in and take a look.

This question first surfaced for me about 15 years ago. You see back then we, the family, lived in a big house in a gated community in the middle of safe suburban neighborhood. Perhaps it was just being a young family and thinking this was the “ideal” way to live a life. You know…go with the flow. This is just what people are supposed to do….a  Norman Rockwell painting of a life. Happy, happy, smiles all around. It did feel pretty good! Like I made it.

Why Isn’t the Hamster Wheel Going Anywhere?

Well…right below the surface of the happy times was the “work”, “time”, and “stress” to maintain that lifestyle and image, the wondering when I can find enough time to enjoy this, and the chasing of the moving target for what’s next. In fact, I spun my wheels a few years trying to figure out the next boxes to add to the list. Check, check, check for car, kids, house, neighborhood, big job. Hmmm…how about big vacations, a vacation house? How else can I spend money and look right?

Those questions around more, more more fueled the”work”, “time” and “stress”. If this is the way things are going to be, well I “have to” have a big job with big income to handle the big lifestyle. The big job comes with consequences – longer hours, business travel, job stress, and the subtle but constant pressure to keep the income rolling. That’s just to generate the income!

What's your "Want to" to "Have to" Ratio?Then comes the spend side of the equation and the “have to” spend to maintain the lifestyle. The mortgage, the watering bill, the keeping up with the look of the neighborhood for cars, home furnishings, and lifestyle. I touch on the house issues in this post here.

When you put it all together you have job stress, high cost lifestyle living, time scarcity, and the spinning hamster wheel going nowhere faster and faster. Important relationships might suffer in that environment – spouse, kids, extended family, and friends.  In addition, pouring a little salt in the open wound, after you’re done “looking right”, you may not be making as much progress as desired toward your financial goals.

What If There Was a Different Way to Prioritize Your Spending?

Instead of endlessly chasing the carrot of society’s definition of happiness all the time, what if we changed the game? What if we looked at the why behind what we are doing and align our spending with our values and goals. How about right sizing our living? What about living for our authentic selves instead of chasing “the right look” for everybody else? What about being grateful for what we already have instead of taking things for granted? One way to start down that path of shifting the mindset is to look at things through a different lenses.

What made good sense to me is a mindful concept I call : the “want to” to “have to” ratio.

Want to – Money spent on what I want to do that brings fulfillment, enjoyment, gratitude, connection, experiences.

Have to – Things I must spend money on whether I like it or not. That make you a little mad paying this silly bill. When you say I can’t believe I bought that. That leave you feeling unsatisfied…or a little worse afterwards.

The goal is to have a positive ratio because you’ve prioritized your spending to what you define as the good stuff! Even better a super positive ratio. Two neat things about this mindful ratio:

  • The size of the top or bottom numbers doesn’t matter. $40,000/$40,000 or $100,000/$100,000 both equal one. So it flexes nicely with different income levels. Everybody at their current income level has the same opportunity to shift their ratio!
  • You don’t actually have to put your expenses into each category unless you are really scientific. It’s more of a state of mind and a rough swag.

Shifting the “Want to” to “Have to” Ratio to the Positive

What's your "Want to" to "Have to" Ratio?

In the family home I think we did pretty good for the most part to prioritize our spending for a positive ratio. That was up until the large publicly traded company I worked at took a major tailspin and laid off over 50% of the employees in a few year period. Two years into the company downsizing process I got the tap on the shoulder. All of the sudden those “want to” bills that I happily paid became “have to”. My ratio took a big dive!

Here are some ways to shift the ratio back to your favor:

  • Shrink the “have to” – This would look like cutting those expense items that don’t bring the joy and fulfillment that you want. It might be cutting cable, stopping subscription to no longer wanted items, downsizing the house, trading in the car for something more basic. Simplifying expenses like that also brings more time in your life for “want to” endeavors.
  • Change your mindset on the “have to” – Some of the “have to” items might just need a new attitude to push them into a “want to”. Taking a step back and re-looking at the item/experience from a new perspective. Perhaps there is space to appreciate and be grateful for what you already have instead of pushing it aside for the “bigger and better”, what’s next, and I need to upgrade.
  • Grow the “want to” – What brings you joy, fulfillment, and happiness within your reach? What are your value and goals? What feels like positive spending for your authentic self? What’s a step in a little better direction than before?  As you grow your income put your spending there instead of increasing the “have to”.

Give Yourself Space

In summary, along the road today it’s important to give yourself space for change and evolution. The space to try new things and see how it fits or doesn’t fit on your path to a positive “want to” to “have to” ratio. Will things always go perfect? Absolutely not! Can you observe the moment and note to self how to adjust for next time? Possibly so. It’s all about the journey, the daily steps, and getting back in alignment to what brings the smiles, the laughs, the joy, the fulfillment, the contentment, and the relaxation into appreciation and gratitude.

Community Conversation Questions:

Please share some of your thoughts, stories, and perspectives around how you prioritize your spending for the necessities versus the pleasures and fulfilling items.

  • How have you shifted your spending experiences to bring more enjoyment and moments?
  • What’s the “price” for you of keeping up with the Jones in your lifestyle?
  • Where do you find opportunities to step off the hamster wheel?
  • What’s the right “ratio” for you of the want to versus have to expenses? Why is that?

I help people like you who are living real lives with real financial challenges to breakthrough to new possibilities for their financial health.

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Doug Drenckpohl