When Priorities Collide: How to Keep Your Head


My guess is that many of you Wisebread readers know your financial priorities and have some idea of how you want to achieve these, though you may not have all the details ironed out (if you did, why would you read us?). However, what happens when those come into conflict, when your priorities collide and you don't know what to do next? Consider the following situations:

1. A woman and her partner decide that she should return to work full-time after she gives birth to their baby and exhausts her maternity leave. This will allow them to pay off their educational debt in two years, at which point she will be free to stay home with the child, which is ultimately important to both of them. Three weeks after the birth, the child is diagnosed with a serious illness which makes daycare much more expensive, if it is available at all. What do they do?

2. A husband and wife have worked hard to provide college funds for each of their children. While they can't pay for everything, they have enough to help each child in a significant way. A year before any of the children is set to leave home, the wife sufferes a crippling accident. While she will recover eventually, the cost of her care devastates the family financially. They find that, even though they planned wisely, they must choose between spending their childrens' college money on her care or taking on a level of debt they may not live long enough to repay.

3. A person who loves video games finds the best deal ever on Halo 3. On his way to buy it, his car develops a problem that ends up being minor but must be fixed. He fixes it, but then dosn't have the money for his game. He can put the game on his credit card, which is aginst his financial principles, or he can wait until he has saved the money again. He's not sure he'll be able to pay off the credit card bill at the end of the month as it is, and this would only add to that.

4. A woman has a great idea for an entrepreneurial endeavor, but does not have the time to start it up because she is working full-time, partially supporting her husband who is finishing up a graduate degree as fast as he can. She knows that the marked for her idea is now, and may not still exist later, and that pursuing her idea could lead to more money for her famiy in the long run. However, if she quits her job to pursue it, her husband will have to quit school until her idea is successful, which lowers his earning potential. How do they decide what to do?

Whether you can empahtize with all these stories or not, they do illustrate the fact that collisions between priorities are like collisions between cars--they can happen out of the blue. One minute you think you know where you're headed and what it looks like to get there, and the next minute the world is a very different place. You're not sure what to do or how to make the decisions that need to be made.

When this happens, it's easy to start making decsions without thinking seriously about the facts or the long-term situation. It's easy to decide simply because a decision must be made, instead of deciding based on what is right or more important to you in the circumstances. Instead of doing those, try the following process the next time this happens to you.

1. Stay calm.

2. Step away from the situation, whether it's for a few minutes or a few days.

3. Separately from any others whose opinions matter in this, decide which priority is more important to you. If others are involved, have them do the same.

4. List reasons why that priority is most important.

5. Make your decision based on what you have decided.

if your decision involves more opinions than just your own, replace step 5 above with the following:

5. Come back together and share your important priorities and the reasons behind them

6. Civilly discuss any areas of disagreement. Be open to hearing something you didn't expect.

7. Step away from the situation again. Try to do something else during this time, but be open to any new ideas that might pop into your head.

8. Come back together and make a decision. Entertain offers of and ideas for compromise.

9. Live out your decision.

May your decisions be well thought out and well-executed!


PS I'd love to know what you would do in the situations above. Leave a comment if you have any ideas.


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Guest's picture

For scenario #2, college students typically have a number of financial aid options, including loans, and a long lifetime in which to repay said loans--whereas parents of college students are generally nearing retirement.

I would advise using the "college savings" towards mom's medical expenses and having the kids pursue financial aid. If the family finances are really shaken up by mom's situation, any reasonable college or university's financial aid officers would probably be sympathetic and secure some need-based financial aid money (grants, scholarships) for the children.

If the parents take on debt they're unable to repay, the children will likely be responsible for it in the end, anyway--and at terms far less favorable than those attached to student loans.

Guest's picture
Jeff B

I wish this article offered more ideas. My wife and I are struggling with her going back to work. We are a family of 5 and have two children that would need some sort of daycare while she works. We have one 3 year old and we are seeing care would run $500 - $700 a month for her to be in full-time. Our son is 10 and would require a few hours of care after school as it is against the law for him to be home alone.

My wife does not have any special training that would allow her to make good money. She would make between $8 and $10 an hour.

Here is our struggle we figure she would bring in roughly $500 to $800 a month to the household. She has a home based business that is bringing in on average $500 a month. One says well heck there is no problem here. The problem is she has 2-3 low paying months that throw things off. Her pay is never consistant on a given day of the month.

I stuggle with the idea that someone else would raise our children for her to bring in what she is already bringing in.

I look foward to hearing what others have to say.

Jeff B

Guest's picture

With all due respect, I have always had some trouble with this kind of statement. I just don't see how full time daycare for a child equates to the daycare "raising" that child--as if the family or parents no longer do the raising, if that child is being looked after during a scheduled work day.

I attended full time family daycare from the time I was six weeks old. I only have glowing things to say about the daycares I attended. And while these experiences supplemented my upbringing and learning about the world--they in no way replaced the raising that my parents did!

Make no mistake: though a daycare supervised me during daylight/working hours, it was my parents who raised me---from loving things they showed me, to mistakes they made as well. THEY raised me. Daycare did not.

Guest's picture

Here's what I would decide in all the above situations (based on my own priorities and without too much explanation - oh, and this is not what I recommend everyone else to do... just what I would do):

1. Find a way to work at home with flex hours, but not put the child in daycare. This way I could fully concentrate on taking care of and spending time with my child (especially if this is a life threatening disease)... and then when baby is asleep or dad is home... I could do some work. It would take longer to pay off debts... but there would be no possible feeling regret for not spending the time with the child (especially if the possibility is of losing the child to the disease).

2. I would spend the kids college funds. Sorry kids. It was a nice plan to provide for their college educations but compared to a necessary medical procedure/bill, college all-paid is a luxury. There are others ways to get through school.

3. Goodbye great deal. Instead I'd probably lament to every other video game loving friend how I had to spend my money and then mooch off them for play time as much as possible. Again, it'd be the whole "necessary versus luxury" situation.

4. (This is very similar to my current situation, but not exactly the same.)I would probably weigh the idea with how fast it can get up and running and provide the necessary funds... if it is quicker than the average "upstart" (2 years I think), then I'd put some serious "overtime" at home to get it up and running. If not, I'd say "oh well". Mainly because graduate degrees tend to not last too long and after getting a degree, there is often a move involved which could really hurt a business that finally made it into the "black". I'd also wouldn't want a "good idea" to possibly derail my husband's dream and something that was previously sat-down-and-considered-to-be a priority. Rather, I'd want to find a creative way to make them both come true sometime, if possible. And if it isn't... it's sad, but maybe a new idea will come later down the road.

Julie Rains's picture

Here are some questions to sort through your dilemma: do you need your wife's income to pay the bills? does it matter that the income is not consistent (other than being frustrating during the months that are low paying)? does she have long term goals that either running the business or working will help her meet? are there employers in your area that offer 1) flexible work schedules 2) on-site daycare 3) incredible healthcare or retirement benefts and 4) tuition reimbursement?

Guest's picture

Great advice Sarah

The questions are easy yet the answers are very hard and may inevitable lead to resentment in such scenarios!

Certainly you should step away from the situation for a while then when you come back, agree you understand a decision needs to be reached which may not completely satisfy all parties! Agree that you understand resentment may eat away at the fabric of your relationship and needs to be discharged before you start so that decisions are reached from a level playing field without your emotions muddying the water!

It may help to enrol a third party, or a piece of paper to write all factors, two columns "FOR" and "AGAINST!" Never throw this sheet away and it may help to write at the outset your short, medium and long term GOALS perhaps for the next ten years!

If you reach a point where two options exist and yet you still cannot decide without one party seeming the loser, sleep on it, and if absolutely necessary let any blame or resentment fall as if on the toss of a coin rather than the fabric of your relationship!

You may even use a coin!

I don't wish to spam this blog or I would offer more!