How to define your values

Center for Family Legacy

The first step to understanding your life’s purpose is knowing what values are most important to you. With a clear destination in mind for your life, you can create a financial plan to help you get there. Here are some tools and resources to help.

Having a clear understanding of your life’s purpose can guide many decisions—including financial ones. Not sure of your purpose? Identifying the values most important to you can help.

“Use your key values to inform your purpose—the ‘why’ of your life,” explains David Herritt, head of Truist’s Center for Family Legacy. “That informs all the decisions you’re going to make around your investing and around your planning.” You may find it more rewarding to make your financial assets support your purpose instead of only trying to meet financial goals such as beating the S&P 500. You may also more likely stay the course during times of uncertainty when you’re focused on your values.

How to identify your values and purpose

To discover your purpose, start by identifying your personal values—a task often easier said than done. “Sometimes it’s hard for clients to really articulate what their values are,” says Judy Ravenna, a senior managing director and financial advisor at Truist Wealth.

To make the process easier, tools and resources can help. A common tool is a deck of cards, each one with a value such as loyalty, health, friendship, productivity, and recreation. One exercise involves dividing the cards into two groups—important and not important. Then take the important pile and divide those cards into less important and more important. Finally, select the five most important values from the more important pile.

To explore your values further, you then can arrange the cards in a way that’s meaningful to you. For example, you might place related values next to each other, such as beliefs, ethics, and honesty.

The Center for Family Legacy has a deck of cards it developed using the research of psychologist Brian Hall and sociologist Benjamin Tonna. Their work involved 125 values common among cultures globally. The Center uses these cards as conversation starters for collaborative community events.

Some Center for Family Legacy client families take an online assessment based on Hall and Tonna’s research. “We really wanted our values assessment to be different,” Herritt says, “to be more based on research and be more scientific in the way that it worked.” As you progress, the assessment makes selecting the most important value statements increasingly difficult—forcing you to narrow your focus on what matters most.

Creating purpose-driven goals

No matter how you get there, identifying your values is just the beginning. Having conversations with your advisors about your choices helps them develop the best plans for you.

Herritt’s group uses the results of the online assessment to start having deep conversations to better understand who their clients are. Advisors ask why those values are important, where clients learned them, and how they’re living them out.

Ravenna’s approach to help her clients sort through their values is to ask them what they want their legacy to be. “When clients start thinking about that, they might be able to better articulate what they want to accomplish in life.” That helps her create a more tailored financial plan for each client.

For Tom Lasley, a senior vice president and wealth strategist at Truist Wealth, the key is to keep asking why. If his client’s goal is to make sure their grandchildren graduate from college, he’ll ask why education is so important. As the discussion progresses, people tend to open up and talk about their values.

Values exercises aren’t only individual exercises. You might work through them with your family, co-workers, or spouse. William Taylor, a Truist Wealth vice president and financial advisor, uses a values card deck to engage both spouses during a planning meeting. “We usually find that there’s one point person for couples,” he says. To get the other spouse involved, Taylor has both of them do the exercise separately.

“There’s almost always general alignment,” he says. For the top three values, two might be the same and one might be different, but similar. Couples sometimes are surprised that their values are so similar, but Taylor believes this is just a reflection of that domestic union.

An evolving process

Exploring your values doesn’t need to be a one-time thing—and probably shouldn’t be. These exercises might draw out a change in preferences over time, especially after major life events.

“People’s priorities change,” Taylor says. “I think we saw that during the pandemic. Everyone felt a little more mortal.” As a result of shifting priorities, for example, you might decide to change how and when your assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

Take a closer look at the importance of values to your financial plan by reading our Purple PaperSMThe impact of purpose.” You can also follow the conversation on how to live more intentionally by listening to our podcast “I’ve Been Meaning To Do That.”

Talk to a Truist Wealth advisor.