Before I quit my fancy corporate job in 2015, I read a New York Times article about a Wall Street trader’s battle with “wealth addiction.”
In the story, 30-something Sam Polk describes how he was stuck in an endless loop of earning and spending, earning and spending. Despite amassing a fortune, he was always worried about money. This pervasive stress made him work harder, spend more, and do life-threatening amounts of drugs.
Sam, now a philanthropist, is trying to teach us that no matter how much money we make, we’ll never stop worrying about money.
That is, until we learn financial mindfulness.
Financial mindfulness isn’t the practice of ignoring your finances and frolicking naked in a field until you go broke. Rather, it’s the practice of learning to control your money-related stress so it serves you.
Financial mindfulness is converting worry into strategy, impulse into reflection. It’s a critical skill to learn at all income levels because it will help you save money and reduce stress.
So what exactly is “financial mindfulness”? Does it involve meditation? How can you practice financial mindfulness in everyday life to feel more satisfied and save more?
Let’s explore financial mindfulness.
What is financial mindfulness?
To best define financial mindfulness, I need to start with a vanilla definition of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
Perform a Google Image search for “mindfulness” and you’ll be greeted with meditating silhouettes and attractive white people in yoga poses. Such a limited visual tapestry would lead you to believe that mindfulness is some new-age nonsense stemming from an episode of The Goop Lab.
In reality, the practice of mindfulness is both thousands of years old and proven by modern science. It started when the first Buddha, Siddhartha, tried every spiritual practice he could think of to gain a better understanding of suffering. He tried shedding his wealth, walking hundreds of miles, self-flagellation, even starvation.
After trying everything, Siddhartha tried…nothing. He just sat below a tree in India and closed his eyes. After a while, everything suddenly became clear.
In rudimentary terms, Siddhartha stumbled upon the practice of meditation, or simply giving your brain a break. During this break, your brain can recap memories, process a backlog of thoughts, and even move gray matter around (my brain scans show that my hippocampus has taken gray matter from my amygdala, so meditation has given me permanently better memory and less stress).
The end result of meditation is a happier, healthier brain, resulting in focus, clarity, and joy for you.
Plus, meditation makes you more aware of everything. At a surface level, it enhances your five senses, but on a deeper level, it improves a sense of compassion and emotional intelligence. You’re more aware of your own feelings and the feelings of others, and this leads to kinder actions towards yourself and those around you.
This increased awareness, and better decision-making, is called mindfulness. Biologically speaking, mindfulness is more easily achieved and sustained when you practice meditation, since the practice tunes and sharpens the brain.
Having meditated pretty consistently since 2017, here are some ways I’ve begun practicing more mindfulness:
- I recycle as much as possible, and recycle the right things (can’t recycle plastic bags or food containers in Georgia).
- I call my parents and grandparents more.
- I always remember to use my restaurant servers’ names to make them feel appreciated.
So to recap, meditating increases awareness, which leads to more mindful living. Mindfulness, therefore, is executing on your increased awareness to reduce stress, show love to others, and make better decisions.
What, then, is financial mindfulness?
What is “financial mindfulness”?
Financial mindfulness is the practice of applying meditation, knowledge, and tools to make better decisions with your money. The end result is lower stress and a better financial outlook.
When I quit my job in 2015, I suffered from confusion, aimlessness, and “paycheck withdrawal,” collectively leading to dopamine-seeking behaviors. For about two years, I was decidedly not financially mindful. Lacking self-awareness, I engaged in the following not-so-mindful behaviors:
- I had no savings, earnings, or retirement goals.
- I had no monthly budget.
- Anytime I felt bad I bought something, and vice versa.
- I almost never checked my balance.
- I barely donated any money.
That list makes it sound like I didn’t care about money, but in reality, the opposite was true. I worried about money constantly, both on a conscious and subconscious level. But rather than do anything productive with that worry, I just spent more to feel good temporarily and drown out the voices of guilt.
It wasn’t until late 2016 that I started on my financial mindfulness journey by learning some good ol’ vanilla mindfulness. Seeing my constant state of mental entropy, my estranged, bohemian step-cousin encouraged me to learn meditation. He recommended that I book a long stay with the monks of Magnolia Grove, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monastery tucked away in the woods near Batesville, Mississippi.
After just eight days of ohms, ahms, and life-changing vegan food, I’d cleared the black mold and cobwebs from my brain enough to take a serious second look at my finances.
So in addition to regular meditation, I finally began practicing some financially mindful behaviors:
- Opening a Roth IRA and setting up auto contributions.
- Curbing impulse spending.
- Being grateful for what I have, and not always wanting more.
- Spending more on others.
And more. Although at the time I was earning less than 20% that I had been previously, I was more financially mindful and thus happier. I had a plan, goals, and peace. And I want that for you, too.
But before we talk nitty-gritty, what other benefits can you expect from learning a little financial mindfulness?
What are the key benefits of financial mindfulness?
Even living just a little more financially mindful, like I was after just a few days of meditation, can provide a huge boost to your quality of life. The smallest amount of financial mindfulness can help you spend better, lower your stress, and even improve your relationships.
Financial mindfulness will help you save more, sure, but it’s more accurate to say it’ll help you spend better. Specifically, it helps you spend the right amounts on the right things, guilt-free.
Before I achieved financial mindfulness I was never comfortable spending money because I never knew whether my budget allowed it. Heck, I had no budget.
But when you achieve financial mindfulness through budgeting, you’ll know exactly how much you can spend on meals, donations, and fun nonessentials each month so you never have to feel guilty for spending again.
Even though I’m still making less than I was at my fancy corporate job, I’m much less stressed out about money. As Austin Powers’ father Nigel once said in Goldmember, “it’s not the size of your bank account, son, it’s how you use it” (I’m pretty sure he was talking about bank accounts).
Anyway, I’m much happier in my new financial situation because I know that just the right amounts are going into savings, retirement, and fun. In my old life, I used to wake up in cold sweats panicked about money. Now, I make less and sleep better.
Even if you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, putting even the smallest amounts away can greatly reduce your daily stress.
Your relationship with money affects all of your other relationships. Financial mindfulness helps you feel comfortable spending time and money with friends, but more pertinently, it’ll make you a better life partner.
According to data compiled by Fidelity, money is the most common source of arguments between partners (especially young partners with student loans). So not only will someone who’s “good with money” be more attractive while dating, they’ll be easier to live with.
When you approach a money argument with a degree of financial mindfulness, you’ll be more inclined to understand your partner’s point of view, provide constructive alternatives, or best of all, never have to argue in the first place.
Alright, I’ve probably sold you enough on the nerdy superpower of financial mindfulness. How can you achieve it?
How can you achieve financial mindfulness in everyday life?
Financial mindfulness isn’t a one-time thing; rather, it’s a state of being, like fitness. Similar to how you have to hit the gym to stay fit, you have to practice a few “exercises” to stay financially mindful throughout your income-earning years.
Here’s my five-step financial mindfulness “workout.”
Yep, you saw this one coming. According to Harvard Med, meditation literally rewires the brain for increased compassion, focus, productivity, EQ, and more.
You don’t have to live with monks in Mississippi to learn meditation. To learn the practice and build a healthy, sustainable habit, I recommend downloading either Calm or Headspace.
Curb impulse spending
It occurred to me that impulse spending is basically as old as the internet. Back in the 90s when you really wanted to buy something on a whim you had to get in your car and drive to the mall, which gave you plenty of time to calm down and reconsider your purchase.
Nowadays, you can buy a $1,000 iPhone 12 on Amazon in less than 10 seconds (don’t do it!).
I used to impulse buy junk at work all the time because I felt bad, and buying stuff made me feel better. It eventually got so bad that stuff would arrive at my apartment that I completely forgot I had purchased.
Mindfulness inserts a critical step in between feel bad > buy something. It asks you to reflect; why do I feel bad? Do I really need this thing? Will I want this thing tomorrow?
These extra questions that a mindful brain will ask helped me curb 80% of my impulse spending. To help, you can also block your favorite shopping websites with the Chrome extension BlockSite, which will also shame you for trying!
Set a budget and financial goals
Once you’ve begun meditating and curbed impulsive spending, the next step to achieving financial mindfulness is setting some money goals.
As before, I recommend letting technology do most of the work for you. There are two goal-setting/budgeting apps I can personally endorse.
Pocketsmith is free (with a premium option) and helps you consolidate your finances and set some measurable goals. Not only will the app send you updates and reminders to keep you on track, but it’ll also help you forecast how a big financial decision will affect your goals.
For example, if you’re considering whether you can afford the Lexus over the Toyota, PocketSmith will warn you that the more expensive car will set you back an extra four months from your goal of purchasing a home.
MoneyPatrol is a little more serious, requiring payment after a 15-day trial but offering more features in return. In addition to basic account and budget monitoring tools, MoneyPatrol automatically assimilates all of your accounts into one financial “snapshot” with inspiring (or scary) visuals.
If you’re a visual learner and are more likely to respond to a graph of your spending, consider Money Patrol as your budgeting app of choice.
Open retirement accounts and set up auto contributions
The easiest way to achieve some financial mindfulness is to open a retirement account and set up automatic contributions. You can accomplish this in under 30 minutes and your retired self will thank you a thousand times over.
If you’re a full-time W-2 employee you might have access to 401(k) benefits. Talk to your employer and ensure that you’re maximizing the amount that they’ll match (usually between 6% and 15%).
If you’re a contract worker like me, you’ll want to open an individual retirement account, or IRA.
The last “workout exercise” for achieving and sustaining financial mindfulness is to give back. Donating obviously benefits the recipient, but biologically speaking, it’s also good for your health according to the Cleveland Clinic.
I encourage you to donate both your time and your money. Giving both away helps others, but also helps to remind you how much they’re truly worth.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how much you should donate, aside from whatever you’re comfortable with. But giving away at least some of your wealth each month is key for mental health and financial mindfulness.
Financial mindfulness is the practice of applying increased awareness to make better decisions with your money. The benefits of living more financially mindful include more strategic spending, lower stress, and improved relationships.
Financial mindfulness is achievable at every income level and is essential for living the true American Dream: joy, compassion, and just the right amount of money stress.