The 1 Question You Should Always Ask Yourself Before Making Any Personal Finance Decisions – Inc.

Whether you’re aiming to start a business, expand an existing one, retire early, or just upgrade your lifestyle, an essential first step is getting your financial house in order. And there is no shortage of tools out there to help you. A million and one retirement calculators, budget apps, and helpful rules of thumb offer to guide you towards long-term security and success. 

Many of them are excellent. But according to a recent interview with finance guru and author of I Will Teach You to Be Rich, Ramit Sethi, you still shouldn’t touch any of them until you’ve done one essential step first.

Your financial goals are probably terrible. 

In the interview with The Cut’s Charlotte Cowes Sethi explains that lots of folks shy away from financial planning because it feels so dour and dreary. There are very few people who like to be lectured about not buying lattes or entering the $1.57 they spent on chewing gum into a spreadsheet. As a result too many of us ignore money issues or alternate between do-gooder commitment and ostrich-like denial. 

If that sounds like you then you don’t need more information or another tool. What you need, according to Sethi, is a vision of your personal version of financial success. “Most people have never been asked what a rich life looks like to them,” he claims, and when asked, they often give the same simplistic and unsatisfying answers. 

Many people will say something like, “I want to do whatever I want,” Sethi reports. But when pressed about what exactly it is they want, they can’t answer. Another unlucky bunch just dream about getting out of debt, which is understandable but deeply uninspiring. 

Finally, many people have a dollar in mind. “I want to have a million bucks,” they’ll tell Sethi, but when he asks “Okay, where did that number come from? What does that let you do?” he gets “silence, because of course a million dollars in Brooklyn is different from a million dollars in Kansas City. It’s different if you’re 30 or 60. Most people don’t know what to make of that.”

What you should ask instead. 

Goals like these are neither well examined nor particularly actionable. If this is how you conceive of personal finance, you’re probably acting out of fear of poverty or a sense of obligation. It’s far more motivating, Sethi claims, to allow you specific dreams to pull you towards wiser financial decisions. And that can only happen if you have richly imagined financial goals. 

Which is why Sethi wants everyone, before digging into the nitty gritty of financial planning, to ask themselves: “What does the rich life look like to me?” 

“I want people to apply a creative vision to their life. I want people to ask themselves questions like, ‘If I could have the perfect month, what would that look like?’ These answers are often quite simple, like, ‘Oh, I’d like to eat out once a week,’ or, ‘I would really like to go out as a family on Sunday mornings and go to the park.’ That’s great. Write it down. Which park? What would you do at the park?” he advises. 

The more specific and sensory your responses, the better. “I want to travel” is too generic. Instead aim for something like, “I want to go to Bali or Bangkok or New Delhi. I want to fly on this seat on the airplane. This is the dish I want to eat at this restaurant. I want to take these people with me so we can have this experience together,” Sethi says, adding “a rich life is lived in the details, and that level of specificity is what allows you to inspire yourself and then to build a plan towards it.”

Of course, envisioning your end goal is only the first step in a long journey (the lengthy interview offers a lot more tips for the rest of the process). But setting your vision is an essential first step. If you don’t know where you’re trying to go, how will you ever be able to muster the motivation and strategic planning to get there?