How to Make a Great Money Decision: The 3 Pots Method

written by Bari Tessler October 1, 2015

Pssst … you’re in for a sneak peek treat! This article is adapted from my book, The Art of Money: A Life-Changing Guide to Financial Happiness. Enjoy!

Christopher sifted through the pile of magazines on the coffee table, looking for something to distract him from the pounding pain in his leg. Knee surgery and respiratory challenges had kept him nearly bedridden for close to two months at this point, and he had read everything in the house (including the cereal boxes).

As he lifted a glass of water to his lips, he saw his beautiful wife in the kitchen — and a poignant mixture of gratitude and guilt flooded through his body. Annie was tackling the mountain of dishes in the sink: her hair disheveled, her face betraying deep exhaustion. She turned off the water, leaned on the edge of the sink, and took a moment to catch her breath, her eyes welling with tears of overwhelm.

Christopher could tell that Annie was having one of her “low days,” when her autoimmune condition hit her a little harder. Annie suffered from chronic fatigue. On a good day, she could make it to her office job and still have energy for family dinner. Yet on a bad day (and there were many of them), she could barely get out of bed.

Christopher felt helpless and guilty as he looked at Annie from that couch. Because of his knee surgery recovery, Annie had done the lion’s share of the housework for the past several months, and it pained him to see what a toll it took on her. But housework had been a constant struggle in their relationship, from the very beginning. Christopher hated cleaning: not only did his respiratory problems make it physically challenging, it also triggered old, painful memories of being punished as a child. And while it was draining for Annie, as well, it was important for her to live in a clean home: mess and dirt only exacerbated her fatigue and stress.

The Great Cleaning Struggle felt like a classic, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t conundrum to Christopher and Annie.

And Christopher knew that something had to change, quickly. So that evening, at their weekly Money Date, he shared a possible solution he’d been mulling over for the past few weeks — along with a new way to think about their money/time/energy balancing act. And when Christopher explained this framework to me a few weeks later, I thought it was positively brilliant.

But let’s back up a half step: it’s important to understand where Christopher and Annie stood in the grand scheme of things, financially. As you might know, I encourage my community members to ditch the idea of a monthly “budget” and instead use a 3-Tier Money Map, plotting out the feelings and numbers for Basic Needs, Comfortable, and Ultimate lifestyle levels. (Read more and learn how to do your own Money Map here.)

Christopher and Annie were living at the low end of their “Comfortable” lifestyle tier: they weren’t struggling to meet their basic needs, but they also had to watch their spending very carefully. Yet, as two people with chronic health issues, energy was an even more precious resource than money, for them. Additionally, time was a factor in many of their spending decisions: because Annie worked a full-time job, even when she had the energy to run errands or clean, sometimes she simply didn’t have the time.

Money decisions are never just about the numbers.

As we learn to dance with our money through life’s inevitable twists, turns, and rhythms, making specific money decisions on a day-to-day basis can be tricky territory. How do we know when to invest, risk, and say, “yes,” — or when to tighten our belts and say, “nope” or “not now”? This is where all of the Money Healing, Money Practices, and Money Maps work comes together and comes alive in a real, tangible way. And when we have a process for making a money decision (even a simple one), we can feel clear and empowered with every money decision. The big ones and the little ones. Whether that answer is “yes” or “nope.”

If every spending decision were just about dollars and cents, money would be easy, right? But the truth is: money decisions simply don’t work that way. They are always tied to a myriad of other factors, both external and internal. We need to consider cashflow and comfort; future goals and here-and-now wellbeing; money and lifestyle. Making smart money decisions that also support the lifestyle we want can feel like a tricky tightrope act. That’s why we need to create our own, personal and holistic frameworks for such decisions. And while each of you will have your own criteria for these, I simply adore Christopher’s method.

As Christopher considered the resources they had, and how they could best leverage them, he came up with the perfect metaphor: three pots, filled to various levels. (I like to think of them as ancient, witchy-looking cauldrons.)

One pot represented the money he and Annie had at hand, the second, their energy, and the third their time.  The level of each of the pots fluctuated, somewhat independently of the other two. On any given day (or week or month), they might have very little money, but a little extra time and energy; sometimes, their “money pot” was fuller, but they were both exhausted; other times, all three pots might be dangerously low.

Some evenings, when they were both too exhausted to cook, they dipped into the “money pot” and treated themselves to dinner from their favorite Thai restaurant, delivered straight to their door. Other times, when they had a little extra energy, they kept their “money pot” from dipping any lower by putting forth the effort to go to the discounted grocery store and farmer’s market, both a rather inconvenient drive from their home.

Christopher realized: he and Annie had already been making decisions based on these three pots — but by bringing even more intention and awareness to this metaphor, they could make some truly sound money decisions that would respect the other demands on their time and energy, as well. So he decided to apply the “three pots” method to their house cleaning conundrum.

Even the simplest money decisions occur within a grand ecosystem of our cherished values, our money story, our hopes and dreams, and the entire landscape of our income, savings, debt, and cashflow.

At that particular moment in their marriage, Christopher and Annie’s “energy pot” was dangerously low — too low to do the house cleaning they needed. Yet their “money pot” was at a more comfortable level … and just might afford them a house cleaner. Christopher spent some time researching house cleaning companies and found one he knew Annie would love. They were locally owned, used eco-friendly products, and hired people who loved to clean — just the sort of people who would not only do a great job, he thought, but would bring a little emotional brightness into their home, too. He did some quick math and realized he and Annie could afford to hire the “house sparklers” once a week without stretching themselves too much, financially.

Annie loved the idea, and when she saw how affordable it truly was, she eagerly agreed. Even after the first visit from the “sparklers,” Christopher and Annie noticed a significant uptick in their energy (and decrease in their stress levels). They bickered less about the state of their home, and both had a little more energy and time for things that truly brought them joy and restored their energy, like a Saturday picnic in the park or a luxurious afternoon at a coffeeshop.

After about three months of having the “sparklers” visit their home every week, Christopher and Annie found their “money pot” getting a little low — but their energy levels had perked back up. So, they went down to “sparkling” visits twice a month, and both of them contributed to the chores a bit more in between. By monitoring the levels of their “three pots,” Christopher and Annie found a beautiful way to dance with their Money Map — and make smart spending decisions, on the fly. As he told me recently,

“Money, energy, and time are the three things we ‘save’ and ‘spend,’ in life, and honoring how they dance together has freed us up to make decisions that feel wise and reasonable to us. It has added a whole new dimension to the Three Tier Money Map, for us. While we do still think about expenses in terms of Basic, Comfortable, and Ultimate lifestyle, we also have the freedom, now, to honor that, sometimes, hiring that housecleaner or ordering that dinner out is really more of a Basic Needs priority — especially when your energy or time are incredibly low.”

I love how the “three pots” metaphor honors the rhythms and cycles, ups and downs of life: each of the three pots ebbs and flows, over time. It works with these shifting, evolving dimensions of life in a jazzy, syncopated way instead of forcing a rigid “balance” on things that are bound to shift. It also “un-shamed” Christopher and Annie around many of the choices they were making — expenses that they wouldn’t need to make if their health were better, for example. Finally, it actually provided them with oodles of opportunities for celebration: each time they found themselves low in one “pot,” they always found themselves more resourced in another, and took a moment to be thankful for the resource they did have.

How to Make a Money Decision: The Three Pots Method 

1. Check in with yourself … and your three pots. How resourced are you, right now, in terms of:

  • Money
  • Energy
  • Time

2. Will this money decision support one or more pots that are running low? Will it further deplete a pot that is already low?

3. Check in with your heart, your gut, and finally your mind. What truly feels right to you, here?

4. Trust the answers you get. Release any shame that arises (physically shake it off, it that works for you). Celebrate yourself for taking the time to make such a wise, well-informed decision. And enjoy the result, guilt-free.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the Three Pots method is that Christopher came up with it on his own. I truly don’t believe there is One Right Way to make a money decision: we all must create our own criteria, reflecting and honoring what matters most to us, at each point in our lives.

While I have a number of suggestions about what factors to consider when making a money decision (here’s another great framework I use), ultimately, it’s up to each one of us to find a way to make decisions that feel good, wise, and true.

Another couple might have three different “pots” to consider when making a money decision. And should Christopher and Annie suddenly find themselves at their Basic Needs or Ultimate lifestyle tier, they might need to come up with a whole new set of factors to consider, as well.

So … what does a great money decision feel like to you, dear reader? What factors are most important to you, at this moment in your precious life?

Here’s to following our own paths into clarity and peace…


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