As a financial planner, I sometimes have a tendency to look at personal finance as a matter of checking off boxes.
Emergency fund? Check. Budget? Check. Saving for retirement? No? Well there's the hole. Let's start right there.
There's some value in that kind of thinking. After all, certain things are just good practice and running through that checklist is a good way to get a quick read on someone's financial situation.
But I also remind myself to not take that mentality too far. I try to remember that good financial planning is really about helping my clients build a life they enjoy, and that money is just a tool that can help make that life possible.
Which means that sometimes the "correct" decision from a financial standpoint is not actually the correct decision. Sometimes happiness needs to take precedence.
I worked with a young couple recently who were about to have their second child. Like I do with all clients, I asked them right at the start why they were coming to me. What was it they wanted to achieve?
They told me that they wanted to make sure they were saving enough for retirement. They wanted to save for a new house with a bigger yard. They wanted to make sure they had the right insurance in place.
But what they really wanted was to see if they could make their budget work so that the wife could stay home with the kids. She felt like she was missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and they thought they might be in a position to make it work. So they came to me.
As I reviewed their situation, one thing was immediately clear: From a purely financial standpoint, switching to a single income was going to be a step backwards. The wife had a stable job, made good money with good company benefits, and it was going to be more difficult for them to reach some of their long-term goals without her income.
We talked about all of those things at our next meeting. I wanted them to make an informed decision (as did they), so it was important for them to know what they would be giving up.
But I also showed them how they could make it work with just the one income. We talked about some changes to their budget that would make it easier, and we planted the seeds of a plan to get some of their other savings back on track over the next few years.
I also shared my personal story with them. My wife quit her job when we had our first child, and it was a financial hit. But it was the lifestyle we wanted, and over the years we've found ways to compensate.
In the end, they decided to give it a shot. They knew exactly what kind of financial sacrifices they were making, but they also knew what kind of lifestyle they wanted. And if they could make the finances work around that lifestyle, that was the route they wanted to take.
We all make decisions every day to put happiness ahead of money. We eat dinner with our family instead of in front of our laptop catching up on work. We take our spouses on dates, go out with friends, and go on vacations. These are the moments that make our lives meaningful. They are the reason we care about money in the first place.
As I work with clients now, I try to remember that my job isn't to help them check off all the right financial boxes. My job is to help them use their money to build a happy life.
Life, not money, is the real priority.
Matt Becker is a fee-only financial planner and the founder of Mom and Dad Money, where he helps new parents build a better financial future for their families. His free book, The New Family Financial Road Map, guides parents through the most important financial decisions that come with starting a family. Becker is a member of the XY Planning Network.