Editor's note: Peter Bregman is chief executive of Bregman Partners Inc., a global management consulting firm, and the author of "Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change". He writes a weekly column, How We Work, for HarvardBusiness.org.
Peter Bregman says doing your taxes is a chance to look at your spending and saving habits.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In the Academy Award-winning short film "The Accountant," the O'Dell brothers call an accountant to save them from losing their family farm.
As he's being introduced to one of the brothers, he interrupts, saying "I'll know all about him soon enough." Which he does by going through a stack of his receipts.
"Just facts and figures." That's all he's interested in, because people can make themselves look good by how they dress or where they live or the car they drive.
But facts and figures tell it like it is.
It's that time of year again: April 15, the day of reckoning. The day our lives are represented by facts and figures, by the receipts that tell us how we've spent our past year.
However frustrating and stress inducing it might be to prepare your taxes, it would be a mistake to quickly get them done and move on, like taking a test just to pass. The real value is in learning the material.
And the material of your tax forms is your life. Most people look at their taxes as a picture of their past. But even more interesting than your past is your future. And your tax return speaks volumes about your future.
"Tell me," writes Mary Oliver in her poem, The Summer Day, "what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" That's the real question of April 15.
Money is not about living in a bigger house. The average American house has already more than doubled, to 2,414 square feet, since the 1950s. It's not about bigger TV's, nicer restaurants or more stuff.
Money is about freedom: The freedom to do challenging work you enjoy. The freedom to spend time with the people you love and who love you. And the freedom from worry about how you're going to feed your family. The most unproductive thing you can do with your money is spend it on things that don't help you achieve those goals.
That freedom can be found on line 8 in your Form 1040 tax return (or line 2 on Form 1040 EZ). Line 8 is our ticket to, if not life, then at least liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It represents your income from interest on your savings. And when it exceeds your living expenses, you'll be financially independent. Completely and securely free.
In all likelihood, line 8 will show a pretty small number. In recent years in the United States, as we spent more than we earned, our savings rate dipped below zero. The last time that happened was the Great Depression.
But isn't this the wrong time to write a column about saving? If we save instead of spend, won't that hurt our economy further? And anyway, many of us don't have the money for basic necessities; how can we save when we need our money to put food on the table?
Saving might make the downturn worse. But what choice do we have? An economy based on spending more and more, even incurring debt to keep spending, is unsustainable. That's what got us here in the first place. Eventually it would all have to collapse. Eventually is now. Our economy had to get smaller.
And even in the midst of financial hardship, people are finding all sorts of ways to save. Everything from commuting by bike to selling belongings and moving into a smaller home to renting an extra room to boarders.
The good news is that we've already begun to change. This economic downturn has given us a reality check. We no longer expect the rising value of our homes and investments to fund our lifestyles.
Now we're reducing debt, spending less and saving more. The third quarter of 2008 was the first time U.S. household debt declined since the Federal Reserve began tracking it in 1952. For the first time in 17 years, U.S. consumer spending growth declined. And by the fourth quarter of 2008, our savings rate was more than 3 percent and as of February 2009 it was up to 6 percent.
You might be living in a beautiful mansion, but if you have a million-dollar mortgage and only $1,000 of interest income, you're at risk. Even if you have good income from your job. Because if you lose your job, you'll lose your lifestyle. And there are a lot of people living with that fear right now.
But if you have a smaller house, fewer expenses, and the interest income to pay for those expenses, your lifestyle is secure. And that gives you something more valuable than any possession ever could -- peace of mind.
If you had started doing this 10 years ago, wouldn't you be better off today? Interest rates will only go up from here and if you keep investing, a little bit with each paycheck, reinvesting the interest until you need it, your interest income will grow fast. If you're able to save even a little now, given the power of compounding and assuming you're under 50, you can accumulate a lot by the time you retire.
There's one more gift April 15 might bring. A tax refund. Many of us will receive one. Whatever you do, don't spend it. Instead, either pay down debt or invest it in an interest-bearing account. Start to pave your path to a free life.
The facts and figures of April 15 could serve as your own private stimulus package, stimulating you to create financial independence by growing the number in line 8 of your 1040. So you are free to answer Mary Oliver's question without constraint.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bregman.
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