When did you last find yourself at a restaurant debating, “Hmm, should I buy that appetizer?”
Author Ramit Sethi calls these “$3 questions.” They stand in stark contrast to “$30,000 questions.” Such questions include, “Should I agree to a mortgage payment that accounts for 38% of my gross income?”
Sethi believes that “people spend way too much time agonizing over small money decisions and not nearly enough time on big decisions.”
For those $30,000 questions, Dr. James Dahle uses the term “big rocks.”
Dahle is referencing a demonstration in Stephen R. Covey’s book First Things First. The demonstration essentially asks two questions. First, how much sand, gravel, and big rocks can you fit into one particular jar? And in what order should you fill the jar?
In your financial life, your big rocks may include your:
Cost of living
Job & industry
Private school tuition
Dahle believes that we should “pay attention to the big rocks first.” Big rocks weigh us down. They can feel like an albatross around our neck. And they can become a burden that limits our flexibility and opportunities.
So your morning lattes are mere grains of sand when bigger decisions loom. “Since we all only have a limited amount of willpower to tell ourselves ‘no,'” Dahle writes, “it is far better to use that limited willpower on the big rocks in our financial lives.”
Sethi and Dahle’s unique phrasing give us novel ways to think about (and reduce) our financial stress. When we spend more of our time on “$30,000 questions” or “big rocks,” we’re saving our energy for truly costly financial decisions. And in doing so, we’re more likely to boost our long-term financial stability and satisfaction with life.
Yet, author Oliver Burkeman, in his book 4,000 Weeks, takes this perspective even one step further.
Burkeman argues that Stephen Covey’s demonstration is misleading.
Covey teaches that first putting big rocks in the jar solves the dilemma of size and space. In his telling, you can accommodate all of the big rocks. And then even the gravel and sand will fit, too.
But in our financial lives, we can’t actually fit into the jar all of the big rocks, gravel, and sand that we want. Our (potential) big rocks exceed the jar’s capacity. And even when we get rid of some rocks, we still won’t have room for all of the gravel and sand we might desire.
“The real problem,” Burkeman writes, “…isn’t that we’re bad at prioritizing the big rocks. It’s that there are too many rocks – and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar. The critical question isn’t how to differentiate between activities that matter and those that don’t. But what to do when far too many things feel at least somewhat important, and therefore arguably qualify as big rocks.”
With Sethi and Dahle’s writings, we’re less likely to downplay or rush our most consequential financial decisions. Yet, we also must acknowledge that reorienting our focus won’t entirely solve the dilemma.
As part of asking $30,000 questions and prioritizing big rocks, we must also identify what matters most to us in life. What uses of our money will positively change our lives in the most significant ways?
Such interests and values may take the form of sand or gravel – they don’t always need to be found in the most costly parts of life. And when that happens, we should feel free to spend without guilt or regret.
But more often, those big rocks will have the most meaningful impact on us. Not just financially, but also in how our actual lives reflect what we believe in and aspire to.
Big rocks aren’t created equal, though. And we most likely can’t fit all of them. We may evaluate each of these big rocks differently than our friends and neighbors. We may be willing to make tradeoffs that others wouldn’t make. And that’s ok.
Hi, I’m Kevin. I’m a financial advisor in Washington, DC. I’m also the founder of Illumint, an independent financial planning company in the District that specializes in financial planning for Millennials like you. I empower our generation with the confidence to invest an inheritance, financial gift, or extra savings. If you’re new to Financially Well, welcome – you now have access to the leading finance podcast for Millennials. I encourage you to read, watch, or listen to the ideas I’ve shared about making your money work for you. And then when you’re ready, please send me your thoughts & questions!