Things that matter most

February 10, 2023

The turbulence of modern life makes it easy to lose sight of things that matter most. Our attention is naturally drawn to the urgent, to the fire that is burning hottest at any particular moment. This tendency is certainly what Dr. Stephen Covey had in mind when he said, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” This principle has a direct corollary in the world of personal finance: Most of us spend too much money on what is immediate and not enough on what is lasting.

In 2021, the Pew Research Center published a study with the provocative title, “What Makes Life Meaningful? Views from 17 Advanced Economies.” Pew researchers surveyed nearly 19,000 adults across 17 countries. Respondents were asked the following open-ended question: “What about your life do you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying?” The free form responses were then studied for common themes and grouped into 20 categories.

Family was the most common source of meaning in 14 of the 17 countries. In fact, family was mentioned in nearly 50 percent or more of responses in Australia, New Zealand, Greece and the United States. Other top responses included careers and occupations, financial well-being, and health. In the U.S., the top five responses ranked by order of importance were: family, friends, material well-being, occupation, and faith. (I found it interesting that the United States was the only one of the 17 countries in the survey to include faith in the top five.)

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics also published a survey in 2021, this one called the American Time Use Survey, or ATUS. As the title implies, the purpose of the ATUS was to try to understand how Americans use their time. The survey was based on information collected from nearly 228,000 interviews conducted from 2003 to 2021.

On average, the ATUS found that middle-class Americans with pre-teen children at home spend their waking hours approximately as follows: 51% at work, 26% on leisure activities (including 17% watching TV), 8% doing various household activities (cleaning, cooking, home maintenance, etc.), 7% eating, 6% caring for kids, and 2% on service and religious activities. Of course, these are just averages. Not everyone does everything and not every activity is done every day. I’m not even sure how representative these numbers are of any one individual, but it gives an idea of how average Americans might divide up their day.

I share these studies as a rather long lead-in to my real question: Have you considered the source of meaning in your life and are your actions consistent with that understanding? Are you spending your time and your money on the things that matter most to you? If not, maybe now is a good time to reconsider.

Martin Luther famously said that a dairymaid can milk cows to the glory of God. If that is the case, and I firmly believe it is, then you and I can also find meaning in the daily requirements our lives—even those things that on the surface seem mundane. For example, consider how your perspective might change if you kept your focus on your family as your greatest source of joy. Would you see your job differently? Would you find added discipline to save more so you could secure a brighter future for your spouse and children? Would you spend more time at home? Would you reduce the emotional and physical clutter that gets in the way of your family life?

Several years ago, I spent a Saturday morning quietly thinking about questions like these. As thoughts came to my mind, I wrote them down, thought about them some more, and refined them further. I continued to wrestle with them in the weeks that followed. Finally, I found my thoughts clarifying until they distilled down to three key values that have governed my life ever since.

If you are ready for a greater sense of purpose and alignment in your life, I encourage you try a similar path. Ponder on what you currently find meaningful, fulfilling or satisfying in your life. Then consider how you spend your days. Write down the thoughts that come to you. Reflect on them and refine them further until you gain the clarity you desire.

Please see important disclosure information here.

Steven C. Merrell  MBA, CFP®, AIF® is a Partner at Monterey Private Wealth, Inc., an independent wealth management firm in Monterey.   He welcomes questions you may have concerning investments, taxes, retirement, or estate planning.  Send your questions to: Steve Merrell, 2340 Garden Road Suite 202, Monterey, CA  93940 or email them to