Treating money like a tool

Almost everything we’re taught about money is focused on spending it and saving it.handing money

Parents, teachers and even personal finance books discuss saving money as keeping it, increasing it and controlling it.

Saving money involves figuring out ways to get more of it, to build a bigger cushion.

We’re taught that’s the ultimate goal.

In contrast, spending money is described as budgeting or cutting back.

We’re even told that we should create habits that make spending painful, like cutting up credit cards and carrying only cash.

We shouldn’t feel good about spending money.

For as long as I can remember, that’s how I’ve defined these two concepts: saving good, spending bad.

Saving good, spending bad: a common belief, but one that overlooks an important detail.

Then, there was a subtle change in my thinking.

What if we start treating money like a tool?

Tools are meant to be used. 


They’re not meant to sit on a shelf and collect dust.

Instead of thinking in terms of saving and spending money, I started to think of using it.

For instance, let’s say we’ve decided that it’s time to go on a family trip.

We’ve saved the money, and the trip fits our plans perfectly.

When the time comes to use that money, there’s no need to feel guilty or bad.

Instead, we’re using a tool that helps us get something that we really value, time with our family.

This shift in thinking is definitely subtle, but it changes our feelings about saving and spending.

We no longer need to think in terms of good and bad, positive or negative.

We’re focused on the outcome of our actions.

When we treat money like a tool, we can focus on our actions, not the emotions.

Money is meant to be used, to be in motion.Saving & Using_2

It circulates from us to other people then back to us again.

Even when we save money, we’re simply storing it for use later.

When we use money today, we’re not spending it or blowing it. We’re using the best tool available to get the job done.

My experience suggests this small shift changes both how we feel and talk about spending.

With that change comes a different perspective about what it means to spend money.

Of course, the shift doesn’t give us permission to blow the budget or ignore our plans.

But it neatly detours around the negative emotions we’ve been taught to feel about spending money.

We don’t feel bad when we use a hammer to pound in a nail.

We don’t need to feel bad when we use money to pursue our plans and goals.



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Carl Richards is a Certified Financial Planner and a columnist for the New York Times, Morningstar magazine and Yahoo Finance. He is author of 2 books, The Behavior Gap & The One-Page Financial Plan. Carl lives with his family in Park City, Utah. You can find his work and sign up for his newsletter (which has an international audience) at

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