Minimalist Filmmaker Matt D'Avella Follows A Less-Is-More Guide To Personal Finance


Matt D’Avella applies minimalism to more than just his filmmaker career.Credit: Matt D’Avella

We tend to retreat from the things that feel most overwhelming. In life, nothing proves this more precisely than our relationship with money. Since we see finance as endlessly complex, we avoid rather than address our own money problems. In fact, just 31% of Millennials have any sort of financial plan, according to the Charles Schwab 2018 Modern Wealth Index. Of those without a plan, many said that simply not knowing where to start represented the biggest roadblock.

In the same survey, many defined wealth not as the ability to infinitely spend, but as the opportunity to live a more stress-free life, a heartening sign that many of us have a more minimalistic mindset that prioritizes real happiness above materialism. Yet millions of us still suffer stress from the same money mistakes because we can’t commit to solving what feels like an insolvable puzzle.

But what if the solution to our personal finances wasn’t nearly as complicated as we believe? What if recognizing just a few immutable truths of money meant we’re all capable of leading financially stable lives? And what if that more minimalistic approach for budgeting, saving and paying off debt meant we could not only start a plan and reduce stress, but redefine the meaning of wealth?

Matt D’Avella is a filmmaker known for his hit Netflix documentary, Minimalism: A Documentary About The Important Things. He now hosts a podcast and posts videos for his growing audience on YouTube, often discussing the psychology of money and how a minimalistic approach to personal finance can empower us to get started. I spoke with Matt to learn more about how he created and maintains his minimalist personal finance plan.

Zach Conway: What do you consider the most fundamental principles of a financial plan?

Matt D’Avella: My first step toward financial freedom was to understand my emotional relationship with money. As most of us live paycheck to paycheck, we turn a blind eye to our money problems because assessing our situation feels incredibly complicated and painful. But simply acknowledging our finances is really the most important part of a plan. We also need to recognize that personal finance is almost entirely about behavioral change and not complicated math. We create financial freedom by creating better habits like learning how to recognize and avoid “lifestyle creep.” Whenever we make more money, we inevitably want to reward ourselves. So we rent a bigger apartment, buy a nicer car or take a vacation. We all feel pressure from advertising, social media and our peers to chase after ephemeral pleasures instead of long-term comfort. If you truly want to become financially free, you need to focus on the long term.

Conway: A lot of us can’t seem to get started when it comes to tackling our money problems. Beyond that fear of complexity, why else do you think we tend to avoid our financial issues?

D’Avella: I think a lot of us dig ourselves into holes so deep that we feel like nothing could possibly help. So we sort of double down on our decisions. That’s how I felt when I graduated college with $97,000 in debt and instead of paying it down I decided to buy a brand-new car. We feel trapped. I couldn’t imagine what I could do to turn that situation around. Even when I finally committed to paying off my debt, the beginning felt so difficult because you can’t see much progress when you’re paying a small amount a month. But if you commit to a process and better habits, you’ll make a huge impact over the long term.

Conway: Since most of us struggle to talk about money, what’s your approach to addressing issues when you’re in a relationship?

D’Avella: Most problems in our relationships come from a lack of communication. In my experience, we should try to have the most difficult conversations as soon as possible. Get comfortable facing the uncomfortable. You may stumble, but not talking just means you’re building resentment. I also remind myself that even though minimalism is about ensuring we find value in the things we own, that doesn’t look the same for everyone. Once you start talking, I think defined goals become a rallying point. It’s easier to talk about money when you can work around a mutual commitment to something like when you want to retire. That’s when you can work as a team to build a budget and decide how much to save each year to reach that goal.

Conway: How did you systematize parts of your plan like paying down debt? Did you gamify the process in any way?

D’Avella: Having graduated with a crazy amount of student loan debt, I decided I had to move into my parents’ basement. Since I desperately wanted to move out and get on with my life, I knew my decision would help me block distraction and motivate me to pay off my debt as quickly as possible. That was the first step to committing to the process. Then, I sorted all my loans in a spreadsheet. I ranked each loan based on the amount I was required to pay each month. From there, I paid down the more expensive loans first. I started by knocking off the one that cost $200 a month, then the one that cost $150 a month, and so on. This wasn’t even the most financially smart decision because I wasn’t first tackling loans with the highest interest rate. But my method helped me totally focus on my behavior. I needed that dopamine hit of getting rid of the loan that cost me the most in dollar terms each month. It worked.

Conway: Sometimes we can start a plan but fail down the line. How does minimalism help you stay on track?

D’Avella: Minimalism forces me to continuously ask myself about what will truly make me happy. Before, did I really need all that material stuff or could I have been happier with much less? Once I could identify my real values, I could stop chasing after the meaningless. I stopped wanting things all the time. When before I might see a catalog and need to run out and buy that new thing, advertising suddenly didn’t have the same effect. Fundamentally altering how you value things in life has lasting effects on your behavior. You’re no longer trained to make bad decisions with your money.

Conway: Beyond these basic personal finance principles, do you have a minimalistic approach to investing?

D’Avella: I didn’t focus on investing until I had paid off debt and felt that I had room in my monthly budget. When I finally got there, investing was all about keeping it simple. I focused on low-cost mutual funds that mostly include stocks and have a proven track record. Though stocks can be risky, I knew that I could put money into the market and go along for the ride for the next 30 or more years. I knew that meant I didn’t necessarily need to worry about what was happening in the market every day or every month because as long as I didn’t sell my investment, I’d likely see my money grow over the long term. Going forward, I add a certain amount into my account each month.

Conway: So it seems like minimalism helped you to not only reduce personal finances into simple steps, but to altogether rethink the meaning of wealth. How do you define wealth now?

D’Avella: Wealth means having enough. It means financial stability and the freedom to take the kind of risks in life that lead toward real happiness. When you’re trapped in debt, it’s hard to improve your circumstances and therefore impossible to pay attention to what matters most. Now I can actually focus on my life. Now I know that my net worth doesn’t equal my worth. We just can’t let our financial anxieties stop us from taking the first step.

Conway: What’s next for you?

D’Avella: I’m excited to keep making short films for my YouTube channel and to sit down to have meaningful conversations on my podcast, The Ground Up Show.



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