Editor's note: This article originally ran on on Five Cent Nickel. It has been reprinted here with permission.
In a sense, personal finance is a battle of conservation. People manage their resources in the hopes they won’t run out of the essentials — only what people find essential can differ. This centers around the fear of losing money or some other aspect of your financial life, and overcoming that fear should involve some element of minimizing the reality of it happening.
Offensive vs. defensive finance
Fundamentally, some people approach finance on the offensive, while others are on the defensive. People on the offensive are driven by acquiring more, or advancing their careers and social standing. People on the defensive care more about keeping what they already have than acquiring more. Both an offensive and a defensive mentality towards finance can come from a fear of loss — but what you fear losing determines whether your approach is offensive or defensive.
What do you fear losing?
These common fears of loss may determine how you approach your finances:
- Time. People who frequently say “life’s too short” are likely to be more defensive than offensive financially. Rather than being driven by career advancement or amassing wealth, these people’s priorities are to save time for themselves, and they won’t hesitate to spend money on a vacation or other experience that they feel will enhance their appreciation of life.
- Money. These are people who are concerned about career setbacks, financial losses, rising prices or anything else that might cause them to run out of money. Often, these are people who have had to claw their way up from a difficult financial situation and never want to have to do it again, making them very defensive financially.
- New things. It is easy to see this simply as greed, but if you look closely, acquisitive people are driven by a fear of loss in a way — they would miss the constant thrill of having new things, so they are always on the offensive financially, looking to make and spend more money.
- Prestige. Acquisition is sometimes not about the things themselves, but about social standing. Fear of losing that standing makes people aggressive financially, as they seek to get further ahead of their peers.
Conservation, not compulsion
For people whose fear is someday running out of money, the trick is to conserve your resources without becoming compulsive about it. Here are some approaches that might help:
- Shoot for conservative targets. This means low return assumptions, but a high longevity assumption. This will force your savings targets higher, but reduce your risk of unpleasant surprises later in your retirement savings.
- Give yourself an allowance. Being careful financially is great, but you should not compulsively save every possible dime. Give yourself a set allowance that you are allowed to spend. This will allow you to enjoy your money, but also the discipline of keeping discretionary spending within a known limit should also make you feel more secure.
- Keep your financial plan current. This is advisable anyway, because so much can change over the years, but in the context of overcoming the fear of running out of money, updating things regularly (such as once a year) will help you feel confident that things are on track.
- Have a what-if plan. Setbacks such as market corrections or a job loss are part of financial life. The problem is, when they occur the emotional distress involved makes it difficult to think rationally. Try building some what-ifs into your financial planning — some negative scenarios to make you think through how you would cope with them. This will help you think through the possibilities more calmly because, to some extent, the more you plan for setbacks, the less you have to worry about them.
- Give something away. This is definitely more philosophical than practical, but sometimes the philosophical side of things is a necessary part of getting comfortable with your financial situation. If you have a fear of running out of money, it can dominate your thinking to the extent that however much you earn and save is never enough. Most likely, though, you can give some money to people less fortunate than yourself without jeopardizing your financial future. This will demonstrate that letting go of some of your money is not the end of the world, but it will make that point without the guilt involved in splurging on yourself.
Richard Barrington is a personal finance expert for MoneyRates.com. He has earned the CFA designation and is a 20-year veteran of the financial industry.