For most of us, our memories of the past function quite a lot like a good “oldies” radio station. We remember lots of good moments from our past, while much of the ordinary and mundane have been swept away over time.
When I think back to my own past, I tend to almost entirely remember the good moments. If I think for a while, I might recall some of the lesser times in my past, but at first glance, it’s mostly filled with good thoughts.
I remember the great coworkers and the intellectual joy of my previous work, not the bureaucracy and the frayed family life.
I remember the intellectual curiosity, friendships, and self-determination of my college years, not the challenging nights of studying and the long periods of self-doubt and uncertainty about my future.
I also tend to remember a lot of the peak experiences of my heavy spending years. I remember our overseas travel and my heavy indulgence into expensive hobbies (like golfing and video games). I don’t remember the periods of uncertainty, the fear of not having enough money to pay the bills, and the constant sense of not having any sort of real long-term direction or hope. I can recall them if I specifically think back to that period for a while, but it’s not part of what I initially think about when I think about my life then.
It’s because of that “nostalgia fade” that I often think fondly about those overspending days. I remember the joy I had playing golf and buying golf clubs and buying video games and so on. I think fondly about the hotel room Sarah and I shared that overlooked Hyde Park in London. I’ll remember those moments when I seemed to spend freely and without worry.
In those moments, I often find myself tempted to fall back into bad routines. Those are the moments when I can easily talk myself into a bad purchase or even into a sequence of them. Those are the moments when virtually every spending mistake I make occurs.
The truth is that day-to-day life is pretty mundane. The normal days of our lives are the ones that will fade away in the mists of time.
It’s often tempting to think that we need to “treat” ourselves in order to make a mundane day a little bit better or a little bit more memorable. We remember those “peaks” from our past and compare them to the mundane today and today seems lacking. Wouldn’t a small purchase remedy that?
No, it won’t.
I have no problem with spending money to make a truly great experience. If you’re going out for your tenth anniversary dinner with your spouse, splurge! If you’re going on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, splurge! Make those great experiences as memorable as possible!
On the flip side of that, you have today, which is likely a pretty ordinary day. It’s going to melt away with the passage of time, just like any other day. Spending money on a “special” treat isn’t going to make today memorable or special. Whether you spend money on that treat or not, it’s going to fade into the woodwork, just like any other average day will.
What will happen is that if you splurge a bit on most of those ordinary days is that you won’t be able to splurge for those peak experiences.
Buy a yummy coffee every morning and you’ve burnt up the cost of a trip. Buy a book or two each week instead of hitting the library and you’ve devoured a down payment on your dream home.
And what do you get for that? Those little experiences fade away pretty quickly, just like the forgettable songs fade away from regular radio play. The only problem is that you’ve spent your means to do the big, memorable things.
I’ve found two ways to make all of this easier.
First, I keep my eye on the big, memorable things I want in the future. Sure, sometimes I think about the past, but I try hard to keep my focus on what’s ahead rather than what’s behind me. I want a home in the country. I want to take my children to every continent. I want to walk away from work when I’m still young and reasonably healthy.
Second, I view a day as being a big success if I spend as little as possible. I try to save my spending for special occasions. An ordinary day doesn’t need me to buy a special perk to make it “special.” An ordinary day feels pretty good if I accomplish a few things and I keep my spending as low as possible, but it’s still an ordinary day, and it will still be an ordinary day if I splurge a little.
I derive part of the joy of an ordinary day from not spending money because I know it puts a piece in place for the big things I dream of down the road.
As for memories? I know that today won’t possibly match the big memories of my past. Instead, today is much like the thousands of days in my life that I’ve forgotten about. I just hope that I can use today to build another one of those big moments.