The game of life is not a numbers game

How to examine your life through the medium of your money

Show me your calendar and your credit-card statement and I'll show you who you are

Expenditure examination is the most important part of financial advice because it movers the focus from the numbers to the human

‘All we have to decide,’ said Gandalf, offering sage counsel to a Frodo reeling from a realisation of responsibility and wishing for a different set of circumstances, ‘is what to do with the time that is given to us.’[i] The road to financial enlightenment, our journey of becoming wiser with money, so that we may more reliably, effectively, and effortlessly turn our resources into a Good Life, is an ongoing participatory process of interacting with money. This process is punctuated almost incessantly with little forks in the road – opportunities to decide what to do with the resources that make up who we are.

At each fork, we are pulled one way by our wants (what makes life better), and another by our addictions (what makes it worse). The path we choose is an expression of our current capacity for conscious choice, and a shaper of our future one. Are we choosing to become wiser, or dumber? Are our spending decisions defining merely what we consume, or what we create? Whatever our intentions, our beliefs, and our wishes, it is with receipts that our story is written. When our story chimes with our soul, the result is a Good Life.

This is why examining expenditure is the most important part of financial advice. When it comes to thinking about ourselves – the stories we our telling, with what they are aligned, and by what they are led astray – our expenditure is the most honest guide we have. Relevance is realised in application, not accumulation. It is an all-too-human belief that we are what we earn, yet your income tells me next to nothing about you; your expenditure tells me everything. Income may speak more loudly, but expenditure speaks more honestly. It’s an expression of choices, not circumstances. And its feedback loop is fast.

This is about balance. We are wired to signal who we are; it has empowered our evolution, and saved our lives. Yet we’re also wired to do it in a way that works against the quality of the life we’ve saved. Problems arise not because of the action in itself, but the balance of attention. And right now, income has a hugely inflated sense of its importance.

Fortunately, expenditure is not only more important, but also more malleable.[1] We can change how we spend our resources immediately, with minimal effort or risk of unwelcome consequences.

The Truman Show Test

To fear the consequences of examining your expenditure is a sure sign of a life not well lived. An examination is not a judgment. It’s a question. A check that what you’re doing is working. It should be an ego massage. No ego massage has ever felt like a chore. Think of it as a ‘Truman Show Test’. If you wouldn’t be happy for the record of your life choices to be broadcast to the nation, why not? What does this suggest you should change? And what is stopping you changing it right now? Where public pronouncements produce pain, it probably pinpoints a propensity for panic-driven purchases. Yet there are lessons here, and they won’t be learnt via denial. Show me what someone desperately buys and I’ll show you what makes them miserable. For gamblers, it’s money, for dieters, health.

Think also of what you do show off. Recall the conspicuous consumption con.[2] Are you showing off the resources you’ve wasted? Or what you’re building with them? Examinations are frightening only for those that haven’t done their homework well enough. And if ever there were a topic worthy of homework, it’s what you do with your life. Yet knowing you are wasting resources and failing the Truman Show Test is not enough to do something about it.

The self-deceived mindset that gets us into fearful positions also makes us flee from fear when it gets in our face. Dispelling fear requires changing not the circumstances, but the mindset, swapping self-deception for courage. This is what Part One of this book was about: changing not the matters we think about, but the mode with which we think about them.

This mindset shift is characterised by a recognition, realisation, and above all remembrance (because what we’ve always known in our souls, society can sometimes shroud) that the focus of our attention with money should be the human who controls the resource, not the number that quantifies it.

Behavioural Economist Dan Ariely wrote that ‘Maybe one day we will evolve as a society and base people’s salaries on their actual contribution to the common good.’[ii] While this would be far from terrible, it’s still playing the same silly game that welds salary to self-worth. The point is to play a different game: to stop equating salary with personal value in the first place. And to rethink financial freedom, from a focus on having so much money that you no longer have to think about how you can help others in return for some (not that this ever seems to work, on any level – moral or otherwise) to a focus on freedom from delegating life choices, and from the game of signalling our worth by wasting our resources.[3]

Ariely’s comment falls into the same trap as those that believe that focusing on their savings rate gets right what focusing on income alone gets wrong. Ask not how much you’re saving, but whether you’re allocating your money as you should be (part of which will be towards helping out your future self).

The broken-record message of this book is that when it comes to living a Good Life, it is not one’s money, but one’s relationship with it that is important. While one’s income is often a huge part of one’s identity – from the hedge-fund manager hinting at their holiday homes to the artist preaching about their poverty – it is one’s expenditure that is a more honest expression of what one is actually doing with one’s life, and therefore a greater guide to whether it’s any Good or not.

Having your income sorted is no guarantee of a Good Life. Having your expenditure sorted isn’t either, of course, but it’s a damn sight closer. More importantly, the process of philosophically grounded examination which it should inspire is the means by which you wire yourself for living in a flourishing, flowing, way. Expenditure is the easiest variable to plug into this process, because vagaries in the variables are vicious veils when you’re trying to defeat self-deception, and our interpretations of time and energy are more easily distorted. Money is easier to make than time, and thanks to the enigmatic nature of our energy, not all time is created equal. Hear Goethe echoing Gandalf: ‘Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are; if I know how you spend your time, then I know what might become of you.’[iii]


In the next section we’ll look at the tactics that turn this theory into practice. The rest of the chapter explores a further refinement of cultivating a wise money mindset beyond the accountancy ins and outs. We’ll look at what goes on between the purchases with our muddled perceptions of more and enough, and price and value. The following chapter looks at the main obstacles to our desired rewiring: the ‘arrival fallacy’; confusing needs, wants, and addictions; and denunciation-driven over-corrections.

You are not what you accumulate, you are how you apply it

Practical steps to get you started examining your expenditure in the name of living a better life

This, like all step-by-step instructions sections, is being held back for now.

page2.2.2: Enough is more important than more

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[1] Moreover, part of what makes our job choices so resistant to course correction is a failure of expenditure examination. Pay better attention to what you spend and there’s a high chance it won't matter what you earn. When you retake control over your narrative gravity, you can more comfortably take more control over your career in turn.

[2] Section 2.1.1.

[3] We’ll return to a better model of freedom in [a section I've not written yet].


[i] J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gandalf, Lord of the Rings, book 1

[ii] Dan Ariely Q&A column, 10th August 2019 http://danariely.com/2019/08/10/ask-ariely-on-overwhelming-options-frustrating-fees-and-valuable-vocations/

[iii] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Aphorisms

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