Tuesday, July 03, 2007

In Praise of "What If"

Our brains have a unique structure that allows us to mentally transform ourselves into future circumstances and then ask ourselves how it feels to be there. Rather than calculating utilities with mathematical precision, we simply step into tomorrow's shoes and see how well they fit. Our ability to project ourselves forward in time and experience events before they happen enables us to learn from mistakes without making them and to evaluate actions without taking them. If nature has given us a greater gift, no one has named it.
— Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness

It's weird how things like this happen: Not but a few weeks ago I was driving to work, and as is so often the case, my eyes were on the road but my mind was doing other things. Namely, it was here, in this blog, fleshing out a new post. My highway considerations that day focused on a theory that the four most powerful words out there are "I can" and "What if?"

Days later I was wandering through my local Sam's Club. Lo and behold, I happened to pick up the book quoted above. I didn't really know what it was about, but I knew the author's name, Daniel Gilbert (a Harvard psychologist), from my many readings on behavioral finance. He's a seriously bright and insightful guy who seems to be a pretty popular interview for financial gurus like Jean Chatzky, particularly when they decide to take up the notion of money-related psychology.

Turns out that Stumbling on Happiness is (conveniently) all about our singular ability as humans to "What if?" our way through life. Obviously, some folks make better use of this ability than do others. And there are scads of people out there — you probably work with a few of them — who apparently haven't used their frontal lobes (which is where medically-studied types suspect our ability to plan comes from) since Carter was in office.

That's too bad. Personally, I've derived some nice financial benefits from playing What If.

Look Forward, Think Forward, Move Forward

Let me show you what I mean:

What if, when it's time to pay for Christmas, or life or car insurance, or whatever, you already had the money waiting?
This is the concept behind Freedom Accounts. You put money aside on a monthly basis so that when your irregular, big-ticket bills show up — like Christmas, or insurance, or property taxes — you already have the money ready and waiting. It's quite pleasant, really. Like eating a warm apple fritter and drinking a good cup of coffee.

What if, the next time your car radiator springs a leak, or your refrigerator blows up, you had cash ready to cover the expense?
That's your Emergency Fund at work. Plan ahead, play your cards right, and you too can have one of those great moments: something yucky happens that's gonna cost you money, something completely unexpected, and you simply shrug. And write a check to cover the expense. No biggie.

What if you started a website simply to keep yourself on track ... and down the road it actually added to your bottom line every month?
You never know what can happen. Sometimes, saying "What if?" can have absolutely unintended (and fantastic) consequences. That was the case with this website and blog. Through it I've met more wonderful readers, authors, and other bloggers than I can count. I've had absolutely the time of my life writing for and creating IYM. And oh yeah — the extra money hasn't been bad, either.

All of which started by saying, What if?

Mighty strong words, those two.

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— Posted by Michael @ 10:06 AM


Hi Michael, thanks for this wonderful post :) I agree with you entirely.

Anonymous Anonymous
, at 10:14 AM, July 03, 2007  
** Comments Closed on this Post **

Thoughts on my personal finances, goals, experiences, motivations, and accomplishments (or lack thereof).

My financial life began turning around when I took responsibility for it.
— Dave Ramsey


Start (2005-12): ~$21,900
Currently: $0
[About Our Debt Paydown]


Savings Goal: $15,000
Currently: ~$15,115
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