The Real Meaning Of ‘Integrity’ In Financial Planning

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Some words get overused to the point that their true meaning is obscured. I’m pretty sure if we could scan all the company mission and values statements, most of which have gathered dust since their initial articulation, the word “integrity” would be among the Top 10 invoked—maybe the Top 5.

Of course, with the benefit of AI now, we don’t have to wonder. I asked ChatGPT, “What are the most common words used in corporate mission or values statements?” Guess what was numero uno?

Integrity. 😬

And what companies include the word in their missions? IBM
IBM
, 3M, Lockheed Martin
LMT
, Dupont, Pfizer
PFE
, Marriott, Procter & Gamble
PG
, and Walmart
WMT
, to name more than a few.

But what does “integrity” actually mean? If we conducted a late-night show street interview series and asked people what integrity means, what do you think they would say? What would you say?

I think the consensus would fall somewhere in the milquetoast range of “being a good person” to “doing the right thing.” But could those possibly be the defining characteristics of this word seemingly elevated to the pinnacle of human and corporate existence? Those definitions seem more like table stakes to me.

I believe the true essence of this word is captured in a definition that is no less simple, but much more challenging—especially in the Age of Image in which we live:

Integrity is doing what you say.

Harvard social scientist, Arthur Brooks, says in his “How To Build A Life” column for The Atlantic, “[Integrity] is about being consistent in your actions and your words, even when no one is watching.”

Simple, but not easy. And there are few areas of life where integrity is more applicable than in our personal financial planning. Show me your credit card statement and checking account register, and I’ll tell you what your priorities are.

How then might we apply the true meaning of integrity in our financial planning?

First, in order for our actions to be consistent with our words, we need to start with words. Whatever you want to call it—a mission statement, statement of values, or just a list of priorities—we need to have a guiding declaration of intention. You need to know what you want to be about in life to align your money. You are the CEO of You, inc., in charge of establishing the vision for your household. Your words become the plumbline, the measuring stick, for your actions—your spending.

Second, you need to track your spending. Like it or not, you are also your household’s Chief Financial Officer. Imagine you were called into a Board meeting as the CFO
CFO
and asked to report on the inflows and outflows. What would your response be? “Well, it comes in and it goes out…” You’d be fired on the spot. Even if you’ve outsourced the CFO duties to a financial advisor, you’re responsible for your spending, and as Deion Sanders says, “The only way through it is to go through it.” In other words, there’s no way to track your spending but to budget. (If you need a nudge, my personal favorite budgeting tool is YNAB—You Need A Budget.)

Lastly, there is a way to hack your budgeting and ensure your actions match your words in your spending—automation. If generosity is a family value, automate your gifts. If saving for college is important, open a 529 and automate your savings. If recreating your income when you may not be able to work is important, make automatic contributions to your 401(k)—and better yet, use the auto-escalation feature, which will increase your contribution by a set amount every year. If family experiences are important, automate your vacation savings. Want to accelerate your debt repayment? Automate. There’s likely a way to automate each of the values and priorities that you articulate. You make a single decision that will replicate itself every month, and once you’ve automated your most important goals, you can spend whatever’s left, guiltfree.

The biggest challenge we have in applying the principles of integrity in our financial planning is in not doing the work to understand and articulate our own values. There’s no shortcut here. You can’t borrow Dave Ramsey, Suze Orman, or even Ramit Sethi’s values. You can’t borrow your financial advisor’s values, either—in fact, some of the most important work of the best financial advisors is their skillful qualitative discovery that helps you articulate your priorities.

The reason borrowed priorities don’t work is that, unless they are an impulsion—inspired from within—they won’t have the necessary motivational force to help you stay the course. Yes, that means that the most important exercise in all of financial planning is to discern—and regularly revisit and update—what’s most important to you in life. Only then can you live and spend with integrity.

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