Project versus program

Deciding how to spend your time and treasure.

Our daughters have ‘come of age’ and are settling on where and how they want to live.  A wise friend of mine shared the following advice with me and I have passed it on to them.

When a person or a family is making decisions, which require scarce resources – usually money and time – a good way to evaluate the choices is to sort them into projects and programs.

Financial Projects.

A project has a beginning and an end.  It is finite.  It is defined by a single deliverable. These are your variable expenses; you can simply choose not to commit to the next project.  The following are examples of projects:

A gift to a non-profit or a person.

The acquisition of a piece of art, jewelry or other luxury.

A vacation.

A dinner out.

Financial Programs.

In contrast to projects, programs are open ended.  They typically commit you to ongoing projects.  These are your fixed expenses.  You may end a program, but they tend to have momentum and go on year after year.  Some are difficult and expensive to end.  Here are some examples:

The purchase of a home or vacation home – with recurring costs like taxes, maintenance, utilities, housekeeping and periodic painting.

Enrollment in private schools – until the student leaves the school, there will be tuitions.

Club memberships – the dues keep coming.

Pledges of recurring gifts to non-profits.

Projects are less risky than programs.  No one is likely to go broke because of the projects they choose.  You can either afford the vacation or not.  It is simple to decide whether to make a large, one-time gift or buy a piece of art.  Can you afford it right now?

Be extremely careful about the ‘programs’ you add to your life.  It is the accumulation of monthly, quarterly and annual expenses which can weigh heavily and cause financial hardship when a job is lost, a car needs to be replaced, or a family member suffers from a serious illness or accident.  Did anyone ever caution you about ‘living beyond your means’?  Too much program is what they meant.

The same project versus program advice applies to decisions about how to spend your time.  Projects  requiring time have a beginning and an end.  The following are projects which require time:

Commit to coaching a kids’ team for a season.

Take an art class.

Join a board for a term.

Build a tree house.

Programs which require your time are the most important and life changing commitments you will make.  Choose them wisely.  They include marriage, parenthood, partnerships, friendships, career, military service and all of the passions which define your life from sports and hobbies to religion and culture.  Long term commitments of time and energy almost always take energy away from other pursuits.  Consider what you are giving up when you decide to take on a new program.


Header credit: Antonio Guillem