I spend a lot of time brainstorming articles for The Simple Dollar. Quite often, I don’t even have an article in mind when I’m trying to come up with an idea. Instead, I just try to look for patterns in my own life – or in things I read. If I see a pattern, I try to dig into that pattern to see why it happens, and I’ll usually come up with something interesting.
Yesterday, in my personal journal, I made a list of the ten happiest times of my life. The moments were a mix of the obvious – the birth of my two children, my wedding day and honeymoon – and surprising – a short three day vacation in Wisconsin with my parents when I was a very self-conscious teenager who really needed to reconnect with mom and dad.
What did all of these moments have in common? The elements of those moments that really made them special were, actually, a lack of obligation within that moment. When my children were born, all I had to worry about was holding a beautiful baby in my arms – the exact moment that stuck out with each of their births was holding the baby while their mother rested and no one else was around. The best moments of the time around my wedding revolved around just being with my wife – my best memories of the honeymoon are stunningly simple ones, like eating lunch at a restaurant next door to our hotel. My childhood memory that I mentioned was one where I was able to feel like a kid again – no real responsibilities other than to spend time with mom and dad – for a few days even as I was beginning to grow up.
Looking back, though, I see that each of those great memories were essentially bubbles created by a lot of hard work around the periphery. My childhood’s memories were created by a lot of hard work by my parents, when they would work their tails off to create some very nice moments for me. In adulthood, those great moments were always led by a lot of hard work earning money – and, quite often, a lot of additional work afterwards.
These were the thoughts dancing in my head as I drifted off to sleep last night, and when I woke up this morning, I realized a few things.
For me, money is merely a tool for me to live the life I want to lead. Right now, in most ways, I have the elements of my life that I want: a wonderful, loving wife who both supports and challenges me, two children who are as unique as snowflakes and teach me at least as much as I teach them, a pile of good books, a nice home, a selection of close friends that really matter to me. Those are the things that really matter in my life – but they all cost resources to support. I have to pay for the house. I have to feed the family. Money enables me to acquire these things, and I earn that money in exchange for my work.
At the same time, I work hard to earn the money to enable that life. By work, I don’t just mean my active employment – I also mean my frugal choices as well. I write, even if I don’t feel like it. I manage our money carefully. I choose activities in my downtime that don’t cost a lot of money. With every little choice I make, I effectively earn more money.
The money I earn makes my life more secure. Over the last few years, I’ve slowly been able to eliminate debt and build up something of a safety net for my life. For the first time in many years, I don’t feel like I’m walking a tightrope, and now I’m working towards other things – securing a great childhood for my kids, planning for a great retirement with my wife, and enabling me to follow whatever dreams may come in the future.
People often claim that being frugal, working hard, and saving money means I have no life. I argue just the opposite – my ability to save these resources ensures that I do have a life. I’m building a life that contains exactly what I want the most, and it’s a life that doesn’t require me to walk a constant career tightrope in fear of losing my job and thus losing everything.
This is my path – my journey. I’m building up and securing the things I want out of life. Money is my tool – hard work and frugality are how I acquire it and sensible spending and good money management are how I keep it. In the end, I’m building the life I want. Perhaps frugality is not part of the life you want – but when you choose to throw a useful tool out the window, you also choose to limit the possibilities life has in store for you.
Spend some time this week thinking about the elements of your life that are most important to you – that bring you the most happiness. What are you doing in your life that makes these elements less secure? What can you do to make them more secure? If you want a powerful personal to-do list, that’s one sure way to make it.