(This is a series on budgeting. You can start from wherever, but just know that this post will pick up where I left off.)

I made a boo-boo. When I started writing this post, I didn’t realize how passionate I would get about goals. I’ve apparently got some very strong opinions on the matter and had taken the post well beyond its actual purpose of showing you how we keep our end goal in focus. In response to this, I have rewritten this to be much shorter (believe it or not) and have moved the larger writeup to somewhere that’s more appropriate… the garbage. Perhaps at a later time I’ll resurrect my rant when I want to really sound like a know-it-all / d-bag. This is not that day.

I am a big budgeter… or at least I pretend to be. That does not exactly mean that I stick to it. My biggest problem is a little something called forgetfulness. It’s an illness, you see, and it plagues me every day; the sad part is I don’t even know it. That is, until I log into mint.com and see for myself the damage my forgetfulness has done to my credit card bill. Turns out every time I forget that we don’t have any real money, I like to go spend-happy on burgers and fries (my vice of choice).

It’s not as easy as asking myself, “Scott, do you actually have money to pay for this?” Maybe for some people (the sane ones) this philosophy works, but I tend to forget the future and worry about the moment when it comes to things that I really want. Like food. Whenever I do catch myself in a drive-thru window and ask myself that question, the result usually is me with a burger in my hand saying something to the effect of “It’s just $5, that’s nothing. I can make that up in no time at all.”

My credit card bills say otherwise. Over the course of several months, without really even trying, we’ve easily blown a couple thousand, and I can all but guarantee you that 90% of the purchases ended in the phrase, “I can make that up in no time at all.” This is not budgeting. This is called stupidity.

The Biggest Problem

My problem was not that I was spending money left and right. Well, it kind of was, but that was really more the symptom of a larger problem: I had lost focus. I’m the kind of person that gets distracted when metaphorical shiny objects pass before my eyes. When someone says “pizza sounds really good right now,” even if I had just eaten, it also sounds good to me too. And it’s not just food that gets me all bedazzled, despite the fact that that’s all I’ve been referring to. What I am really being distracted from is my “end goal”. For some people, their end goal is to afford a down payment on a house, have the wedding of their dreams, or buy a sweet car. Our end goal, of course, is living in 12 countries in 12 months.

What’s an End Goal

Here’s where it’s going to get a little confusing, so hold onto your butts. “End goal” is a filler phrase, a ruse. It’s not about goals at all, really. Goals are a tool to get at what you really want to do: fulfill the things you value the most. You see, goals have an end, always. When you set a real goal, you’re saying something like, “I want to lose weight by next summer so I can have my hot beach bod.” But why do you need to have a hot beach bod? How much does that really matter to you? If for whatever reason you didn’t get the six pack or the rockin’ gluts you always dreamed of, is your summer a big, fat waste? Probably not. This is because you don’t value the shape of your body. What you really value is probably physical health, relationships, or personal appearance, all things which can be satisfied in various ways besides the way you’ve set. If being healthy is what I really value, and I don’t quite get to having a washboard for a stomach but can run 5 miles straight without passing out, though I didn’t achieve the goal I set, I still satisfied my value and I am happy. It’s probably more likely that I picked the wrong goal in the first place.

We humans get hung up all the time at this point. We disconnect our goals from our values, and we decide to focus on the goal alone. This is problematic for three reasons: first, the goal may not have been evaluated the right way and may not truly be a good fit for satisfying what we truly value; second, by focusing on the goal, we’ve completely taken our eye off the target and we become fixated on a task instead of the purpose… and you can guarantee it’s easier to toss a task aside when you don’t remember why it’s there in the first place. The third reason is the most damaging, and a lot of people don’t ever realize it when they’ve encountered it. When you fixate on a goal instead of the value behind it and you fail at that goal, whether it was within your power to accomplish it or not, you burden yourself with that failure. Many people allow this to define who they are, and after multiple failed goals/attempts, they begin to see themselves as the failure itself. Talk about depressing. I could list off a hundred people who define themselves in part by what they set out to accomplish in life and never got around to doing. It’s sad, and it’s completely unnecessary.

The real failure occurs when we forget why we have goals in the first place, when we forget that the task is not the important part in all this. Our values are at our core, and we are driven to them. They have no end point, there is never an “I’m done” moment with a value. If I value health, even when I’m healthy, I will not stop valuing it. But I will set goals to maintain that value. And that is exactly what a goal is for: maintaining (or obtaining) that which we value.

What it’s All For

This may all seem like a very far out tangent from the current point of this post, but here is where it all ties together. Why I suck at not spending money is exactly the fact that I have disconnected the goal with the value. If I truly value traveling, and I do, then I am going to understand that I need money to travel. We’ve set a goal to budget money to allow us to do so. The plan is successful, and it will allow us to have the money we need to travel by the time we need to leave; but when I think only of the goal and not why the goal is there, I will never stick to it. I will always wonder why I care about budgeting every little dollar, and I will ultimately spend before I think. Not all of you are like me, but the principle is still the same: remember the value behind the goal, not just the goal itself.

Everything you do will require you to set goals. Even those goals will have smaller goals you need to do to make progress, like waypoints or milestones. But with all these goals and tasks and milestones and whatever the crap you want to call it, it’s easy to forget why you’ve set them in the first place. Here’s the best solution I’ve heard, and have began to implement this more heavily into what I do. When you set goals, tie them as closely as you can back to your value. If my goal is to save money to travel in the near future, perhaps I need to measure that in terms that relate to the value directly. Instead of saying, “this week I need to save $700,” which is really easy to not care about, I now say, “If I spend $50 this week eating out instead of eating the food I’ve already purchased, that’s an entire day’s worth of travel I don’t get to do.” Both phrases are goals, but only one in phrased in a way that I actually can care about when I say it.

No matter what you’re aiming for budget-wise, it’s bound to be at least somewhat difficult. It wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. But next time you set a goal about saving, spending, or budgeting, remember why you’re doing it. Remember that your money is worthless unless it’s got somewhere to go, and whether you choose its destiny to be in a retirement fund or in a hamburger, make sure that it lines up with what you truly value.