The 1 Question You Should Always Ask Before Making Any Personal Financial Decision

Whether you want to start a business, expand an existing one, retire early, or simply improve your lifestyle, getting your finances in order is an essential first step. And there is no shortage of tools to help you. A million helpful retirement calculators, budgeting apps, and rules of thumb to guide you to long-term security and success.

Many of them are excellent. But according to a recent interview with Ramit Sethi, finance guru and author of I will teach you to be richyou shouldn’t touch any of them yet until you’ve done an essential step first.

Your financial goals are probably dire.

In an interview with The Cut’s Charlotte Cowes, Sethi explains that many people avoid financial planning because it feels so dour and boring. There are very few people who like to be lectured about not buying lattes or entering the $1.57 they spent on gum into a spreadsheet. As a result, too many of us ignore money problems or alternate between commitment to do good and denial like the ostrich.

If that sounds like you, then you don’t need any 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,” she says, and when asked, they often give the same simplistic and unsatisfying answers.

A lot of people will say something like, “I want to do what I want,” reports Sethi. But when pressed on what exactly they want, they can’t answer. Another unlucky group only dreams of getting out of debt, which is understandable but deeply uninspiring.

Finally, many people have a dollar figure in mind. “I want to have a million dollars,” they will tell Sethi, but when he asks “OK, where did that number come from? What does it allow you to do?” he says “hush, 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 do with it.”

What you should ask instead.

Goals like these are neither well vetted nor particularly actionable. If this is how you view personal finances, you are probably acting out of a fear of poverty or a sense of obligation. It’s much more motivating, Sethi says, to let your specific dreams propel you into making wiser financial decisions. And that can only happen if he has richly imagined financial goals.

That’s why Sethi wants everyone, before delving into the nitty-gritty of financial planning, to ask themselves, “What does the rich life look like for me?”

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

The more specific and sensory your responses are, the better. “I want to travel” is too generic. Instead, aim for something like “I want to go to Bali, Bangkok, or New Delhi. I want to fly in this seat on the plane. 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,” says Sethi, adding that “a rich life is lived in the details, and that level of specificity is what allows you to be inspired and then build a plan to achieve it.”

Of course, visualizing your ultimate goal is only the first step in a long journey (the long interview offers much more advice for the rest of the process). But establishing your vision is an essential first step. If you don’t know where you’re trying to get to, how can you muster the motivation and strategic planning to get there?

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