Mindfulness is a big buzzword these days. With roots in Buddhist practices and meditation, the concept of mindfulness has spread to the American workplace and become a therapeutic technique. Fans of mindfulness see its applications in all aspects of life, including financial planning.
What is mindfulness exactly? It’s awareness of the present moment—paying conscious attention to your environment and your internal state. When it comes to your budget, mindfulness can help with everything from curbing impulse buys to saving for long-term goals.
Most importantly, mindfulness lets you think of money management as an ongoing practice. Spending money wisely shouldn’t be an exercise in frustration, but a series of deliberate choices that reflect how you want to live your life.
Read on to learn more about some of the specific applications of mindfulness and how mindfulness can help you save money.
Being mindful with your money starts with awareness. Pay attention not just to how much you’re spending and where, but to the motivations behind your purchases.
Maybe you’re already tracking your expenses with a budget. Every now and then, revisit that budget and see if it matches your priorities. Do you want to put a little more into a savings account? Are you automatically withdrawing funds for a service (such as a television streaming service) you don’t use that often?
Try this: For a week (or, if you’re up to it, a month), freeze all your non-essential spending. Don’t shop, go out to eat, or spend money on entertainment. Check in with yourself at the end of the week. How much money did you save? Where could you use the funds you saved instead? Was there anything you gave up that you didn’t miss? This exercise can be challenging, but it’s great for taking stock of which events and activities are really worth your investment.
Balance—everything in moderation—is at the core of mindfulness. Most of us know the term “work-life balance,” the practice of staying sane, happy, and healthy while earning a living. We’ve also heard the term “balanced budget,” where revenue exceeds expenses. But a balanced budget may seem tough to reach in your twenties and thirties, especially if you’re rent-burdened (spending more than 30 percent of your income on rent) or working long hours.
How can we apply balance to spending decisions when money is tight? There’s a concept I learned in therapy called “wise mind” that’s helped me more with saving money than I expected.
Wise mind refers to making decisions with a balance between reason and emotion. Financially, we’re balancing what we want with what we need.
Say I’m thinking about getting a pet. My rational mind knows pets are expensive and impractical. Food, vet bills…the costs add up. My emotions may be affected by how warm and charming the cat or dog at the shelter is. I can’t ignore emotions—they’re real—but I have to make a reasonable decision, too.
Thinking with wise mind allows desire and practicality to meet in the middle. I consider both whether the purchase will make me happy and whether I can afford it, and be responsible for the pet’s upkeep, in the long term. For a big purchase, especially one like a pet which requires commitment, I might make a pros and cons list before deciding.
This type of thinking can be useful not just for reconsidering unplanned, impulse purchases, but for making decisions which will really pay off. For instance, you may have heard that spending money on experiences, like a vacation or a night out with friends, tends to make people happier than spending money on objects. Even if your discretionary funds are limited, you’ll benefit from choosing to invest in what you enjoy the most.
Our spending demonstrates our values and priorities. Mindfulness can help you make purposeful choices, rather than default or convenience-based choices, with money.
Intention could mean shopping at grocery stores or banking with financial institutions where the corporate culture reflects your personal values. It could mean buying pricier items which are longer-lasting than their inexpensive counterparts, or which are sold by stores you want to support—but buying fewer of them. Or it could mean spending time to research options before making a purchase.
Whatever intentional spending looks like for you, it helps provide a good return on your investment and, more often than not, saves money in the long run.
Many mindful exercises require a focus on the present: noticing your internal state at the moment, not dwelling on the past or contemplating the future.
Of course when it comes to money, thinking about the future is a necessity. But you still have to meet the needs of the present. Focus can keep you from becoming overwhelmed when you’re facing budgets, debts, and spending choices.
Start by identifying your top three short-term financial priorities, in order. Then identify three long-term financial priorities, in order. These long-term goals can include big purchases (buying a home, paying down a student loan, traveling) or cost-cutting measures you’d like to take eventually (such as giving up a pricey habit or relying less on a vehicle). Make a list. Keep these goals in mind.
Then you can start planning. When do you want or need to meet these goals by? How much money can you put towards each one, and how often?
Even if some of your goals seem more like pipe dreams right now, keep them on the list. Your priorities may change as your life changes. But focus will help you identify which goals are essential and which are more flexible.
One goal of mindfulness is observation without judgment. This doesn’t mean exercising poor judgment on purpose or never making any changes. Instead, acceptance allows for critical reflection—realizing there are reasons behind our choices.
Money-wise, acceptance can mean not judging yourself if you feel like you’re financially “behind” your peers or not in the right job for your college degree. Understand everyone’s financial situation is different because everyone’s life is different. If you aren’t comparing yourself to others, you can focus your energy on making the best choices for your own bank account.
Being smart with money means being constantly mindful. Stay aware and focused, and your budget will more closely reflect the life you want to have.