A few summers ago my son and I took a road trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. He was 16 and in need of practice hours for his drivers permit and it seemed like a great way to spend some quality time together and see some amazing scenery. We shared the driving and quickly settled into a routine of conversation, podcasts, reading and comfortable silences that seemed fitting given the sparseness of the Nevada landscape.
On our second day, at a gas station in Idaho there was a hitchhiker heading towards nearby Victor. He had that healthy weathered look of someone who’s spent most of his life outdoors or in the mountains. I told my son that I was going to offer him a ride. In my 20s I’d returned from backpacking trips in the Sierra and meandered around the South Island of New Zealand using just my thumb so I try to return the favor when I can. My son seemed a bit dubious – we don’t have too many hitchhikers in the Bay Area – but he didn’t protest much. We all talked as we drove the 30 minute stretch to Victor. Our passenger had cobbled together a life as a bodyworker and worked occasional construction jobs in Grand Teton National Park restoring historical buildings. He told us about previous full-time, high-pressure jobs he’d held, but it was clear that he now emphasized free time and quality of life over money. We drove him a bit out of our way so he didn’t have to walk the mile to his house which lies on the backside of the Teton range. He gave us a quick tour of his acre of land and house. He had chickens and sheep and a plot full of organic herbs and vegetables. He described how most of his house was built using discarded lumber and other recycled materials. He’d built it with his own hands, owned it free and clear, and had priceless views in every direction. He sent us on our way with a jar of homemade herbal salve and some fresh stalks of asparagus from his garden to munch on as we made our way over the pass into Wilson and Jackson. Before we left, he summed up his life and philosophy for my son this way: “You have to understand the difference between what you need and what you want.” Soren nodded seriously and we were on our way.
We had many amazing moments the following week: stunning views and hikes, a moose family ambling through our campsite, happy hour along the river, technicolor pots of boiling water and herds of bison. The unique conversation with our hitchhiking friend, though, seemed to really stand out as a memory.
When I talk with clients and friends about money, I start the conversation by trying to understand what’s important to them. Not just common goals like retiring at some point or paying for college, but the values they hold dear, whether it’s free time, being able to travel, supporting their favorite charities, being home for dinner every night with their family, time for bike rides, or something else.
I typically suggest that people track their expenses for a few months to really understand where their money goes. I often get some resistance – people can be reluctant to see how their money is actually spent. Maybe they’re worried about being judged or afraid that I’m going to tell them how much they can spend. But the point of the exercise is really about awareness. Awareness of spending habits, awareness of whether your spending is aligned with your values, and awareness of what you need versus what you want. You may decide that there isn’t anything at all you really want to change. You may realize that all the money you spend on take-out food gives you more time with your kids, which is a key value for you. Or you may realize that if you’re able to spend less on certain items monthly it will allow you to take more vacations or retire sooner.
Tracking your expenses takes some effort but the awareness it brings can be enlightening. Let me know what you discover.