Money Doesn’t Exist Unless…

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Mountain BikeI visited relatives this week (hence the sudden disappearance), and was able to spend some quality time with family. As usual, I like to get into conversations about finances, because I love learning how people tick. Finances may be an off-topic conversation in some families, and I don’t think everyone should divulge every financial details to everyone they know, but finances can be a fun dinner conversation. Plus, this family had something that I don’t: Teenagers!

Money Is Not Real

I began the conversation very subtly, because I didn’t want to pry…

Me: “Hey Cuz, tell me, what do you think about money?”

Cousin: “Uhhh……I dunno. What about it?”

Me: “Well, do you have any?”

Cousin: “Nope. I don’t have any money. None.”

Aunt: “What? Yes you do. You have money in savings. You know, Christmas and Birthday money. We started it for you years ago. You have money.”

Cousin: “Yeah, but I can’t use that money.”

Me: “Ahhhhh, very interesting. So you’re saying that money doesn’t exist unless you can spend it?”

Cousin: “I dunno. I guess so.”

I haven’t ever really thought about this, since I began saving money as soon as I could get my hands on it. But kids these days (wow I feel old saying that) need tangible evidence that their money even exists. And I suspect that it isn’t just a generational thing, but that there are many others who feel the same way, and their spending patterns reflect that.

Connect The Dots

And the conversation continued:

Me: “Ok, so let me get this straight; You have money in savings, set aside for the future. But it doesn’t feel like real money to you because you can’t touch it. Is that correct?”

Cousin: “Yeah.”

Me: “Do you know what you are doing with that money?”

Cousin: “No, it’s just savings.”

Me: “Let me put it this way; do you have any big goals coming up? Anything you really, really want?”

Cousin: (without skipping a beat): “A Car!”

Me: “Ahhh, so your money is real. That money that you can’t touch is going toward something much more awesome that a new skateboard or mall food. You’ve got a big goal in mind.”

Cousin: “Yeah…”

Me: “What would you do if you had money now instead of later?”

Cousin: “Probably spend it.”

It took a little prying, but I was able to connect the dots and show him that money that you can’t touch can be EVEN MORE REAL than a little cash in his pocket now. And all it took was digging in a bit to see what motives him. And, for most 13 year old boys, the answer is invariably going to be some sort of transportation. And though this conversation seemed pretty simple, something magical happened. I got a teenage boy to imagine. I got him to visualize a goal that would motivate him to save money rather than spend it. And even if he forgot this conversation seconds after it was over, I don’t think he’ll be able to shake the image of owning his own car someday, and now that goal is forever connected with delaying spending now for a bigger reward later.

How To Motivate Someone To Save Money

We chatted a bit more, but he left to go whatever it is that teenage boys do these days (I found out later that it was watching YouTube videos of extreme BMX bikers). I chatted with my aunt a bit more on kids and money, and talked to my uncle as well. I was trying to get to the bottom of how to motivate your kids to save money. Setting goals is a big one, and asking them directly what their goals are is a great way to help them attach those goals to their own personal money management. But I wanted to come up with an absolute formula or surefire method of getting kids to manage their money well, value savings and build wealth.

And then I realized that’s what every single personal finance guru is working on. There is no “perfect” way of managing your finances, otherwise it wouldn’t be called “personal” finance. Dave Ramsey has his method, other bloggers have their own formula, and I’ve got my budgeting basics. My hope is to help as many people as possible, but I know I can’t help everyone. People want a formula (a2+b2 = rich), but I believe the best policy is to teach guiding principles, and let each person define what motivates them.

So, if you want to know how to motivate someone to save money, the answer is to simply ask them. And use those answers to help come up with some tangible goals that they can achieve. And then give those goals a timeline. Once there, most people will start to see that their dreams and goals are not just wishful thinking, but something they can actually do!

What Motivates You?

My cousin is a teenage boy who wants to have a car in the future. That is his main motivation for his money that “didn’t exist” before our little conversation. As he brings in money from odd jobs, or allowance, or whatever, that car will always be in the back of his mind, and hopefully is motivation enough to put that money away in his savings account. I don’t know about you, but as a kid, a car was a strong motivator!

So that’s my question for you. What motivates you? Why aren’t you saving more money? What is stopping you from setting some goals and making them happen?

Everyone has something that drives them. Everyone. Find out what that is, and start living like it.

Jacob Wade

Jacob Wade

Jacob Wade has been a nationally-recognized personal finance expert for the past decade. He has written professionally for The Balance, The Spruce, LendingTree, Investing Answers, and other widely-followed sites. 
He’s also been a featured expert on CBS News, MSN Money, Forbes, Nasdaq, Yahoo! Finance, Go Banking Rates, and AOL Finance.

In 2018, Jacob quit his job and his family decided to sell everything (including their home) to take off on an adventure. They traveled the country in an RV for nearly 3 years, visiting over 38 states, 20+ national parks and eventually settling in the sunshine state!

22 thoughts on “Money Doesn’t Exist Unless…”

  1. Interesting read! You’re right on: everyone is all over the map on what motivates them, so trying to build a one-size-fits-all model is a waste of time. However, if you can teach someone how the levers all work and the consequences of each….they’ll make better decisions.

    This kid is a lot like many of my clients back in the “day.” Once they could see the goal as clearly in their mind as they could the stuff they wanted right now, then they were more likely to actually save some money.

  2. Interesting conversation. And I believe that is the mindset of most people, independent of age.

    If you can’t spend the money, it doesn’t exist. This is proven by over-used phrases such as “what’s the point in having it if I’m not going to spend it”?

    The REAL problem is that the inverse is also true. People think that if they are able to spend the money, then the money exists. This is why, in my opinion, so many people get into credit card debt!

    As far as my motivation, I wish to have enough net wealth to have the “financial freedom” to make any choice in life which makes me happy. Its certainly a long-term goal, but its big enough to keep me focused.

  3. I have to laugh because I am in my 50’s but think the same way as your cousin.

    I just refinanced my house and the mortgage company asked for a list of all of my bank accounts which I sent them Of course when it came time to close they wanted another $2000. I got really upset because I didn’t have that kind of money lying around.

    Then they said it was because the property taxes were due. I was like cool I have that saved. The banker was shocked because when I sent my list of bank accounts I neglected to send the list of accounts that were saving for specific upcoming events like taxes.

  4. It really is a matter of habits and behavior.

    For me, saving money is motivated by its eventual ability to give me free time.

    Lots and lots and lots of free time. No “thing” can compare to that.

    Except Fast and Furious 6 on Blu-Ray.

  5. I think my idea has shifted so much over time. Actually it’s constantly shifting. When I was a teenage I had this abstract idea of the money my parents and grandparents saved for stuff like college. That was untouchable as well, but money I made waitressing was real, and I could use that for clothes, entertainment, etc. A year ago my main motivation for saving money was so that I could stop feeling stressed and worried and feeling like I was living paycheck to paycheck (even though I did have “abstract money” in my retirement account which also felt untouchable, I considered myself “broke.” My idea of broke is not having enough in my immediate checking and savings. Now that that is under control, I’m back to focusing more on the future, and more meaningful goals like traveling.

  6. It is really hard to motivate others to save money. I was fortunate enough to have parents that taught me a lot about money, and it is not a taboo topic for us. But if you were not raised that way, I can take a lot to change it! I try not to impose my beliefs on anyone, but instead talk about that success that I’ve had and hope it is motivating enough.

  7. Everybody’s motivation will be different. Is good that you could motivate your cousin for at least a little bit.

    I have a goal of saving 50% of my income this year that is keeping me motivated.

  8. Ah, I wish I had someone to talk to me about saving at that age. My dad was a great saver but never talked to me about money and my mom…um, wasn’t a great saver.

    Hmm, I don’t really know what my motivation is right now. I’d like to say it’s debt freedom but my heart really hasn’t been in it lately.

  9. Paying off our debt is what motivates us right now. It is a huge goal, but it is what drives us to spend less, revamp our budget over and over, and watch movies at home instead of at the theater. The right motivation can be super powerful!

  10. That’s not a bad way to look at things. It’s like the old tree falling in the woods thing.

    Money is there if there’s the possibility we can interact with it. In other words, *we* give money value, not the other way around.

  11. I could be interpreting wrong, but I think one reason he might not feel like he has money is that it doesn’t sound like he had much say in actually putting that money into savings. It sounds like that decision was made for him. I think it’s tough to feel like you have ownership over something if you weren’t really part of the decision.

  12. Awesome post. A lot of things motivate me: a comfortable retirement, paying down the mortgage before the amortization period is up. For me, it’s more the experiences, (such as travel) rather than things that motivate me.

    With my sister’s wedding over and done with, I can get back to saving aggressively. 🙂

  13. Hmmmm, I’ve never thought about it that way. I’ve always been a saver. My parents and my brother have always spent their money but I’ve always just put it aside for a bigger goal so I never thought about it. I know most people are not that way though. They do believe that money is only real if they have it right now in their pockets, or if they can spend it right now. Thanks for the info, I hope to be able to help someone have a better view on saving and budgeting.


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