“I Just Want to Have Fun, Live My Life, and Worry About All That Stupid Personal Finance Stuff When I’m Older”

It’s the refrain of countless Americans of all ages – and it was my refrain, too.

It’s easy to see why, too. At first glance, personal finance looks like a bunch of boring and un-fun stuff. Paperwork. Sacrifice. Living in an un-fun way.

On the other hand, living a big spending lifestyle seems quite fun, as you don’t have to think about the stuff that you want. You just go and get it until the money (or, quite often, the credit) runs out.

I’ve been there. I spent myself into five figures of credit card debt.

What I found when I got there is that I didn’t really have the stuff I wanted most in life. Yes, I had an iPod and a huge DVD collection and a nice vehicle in the driveway. What I wanted, though, was a writing career and the flexibility to do what I wanted during the day and a lack of fear of checking the mail.

At the same time, though, I didn’t want to give up my lifestyle. I pretty much thought that buckling down and living frugally would mean that my life would begin to be incredibly boring. I’d have to give up all of the stuff I loved, right?

Here’s the truth: I didn’t give up a single thing that I loved. Yet I managed to get out of debt in just a few years and find the career of my dreams.

What’s the catch?

There is none.

All you have to do is one simple thing. Step back for a moment, look at your life, and ask yourself what elements of it actually matter to you. What brings you genuine, lasting happiness in your life? What do you do that you’ll remember in five years?

Figure that out. Make a list, if you want.

If you simply look at your life through that filter, it’s easy to see that a lot of the day to day stuff really isn’t all that important. Sure, there are a few key things that are, but those key important things vary for all of us. For me, it happens to be the time I spend with my family and the time I get to spend reading and writing. Those things bring me genuine, lasting joy.

Everything else? It doesn’t really matter in the big scheme of things.

All of those things that don’t matter are the things that I cut my spending on to the absolute minimum. I don’t get a life-affirming rise out of eating at Applebees, so I’ll save $20 and eat at home. I don’t really need the ultra-premium toilet paper since the quality of my life isn’t judged by my bathroom experiences, so I’ll buy low-end toilet paper and I’ll buy it in bulk.

If you value going out with your friends, it becomes a lot easier to do that when you’re not dumping money into your household budget on unnecessary premium products. If your art is the center of your life, it becomes a lot easier to make the leap into an art career if you aren’t tossing cash towards an oversized apartment and the finest decorations from Pier One. If you love to travel, it’s a lot easier to take amazing trips (and actually afford them) if you aren’t pouring money down the rathole of your energy bill because you’re using energy inefficient lighting and don’t have a programmable thermostat.

Once I figured that out, the rest was easy. I took all of that money I shaved from the stuff that doesn’t matter to me and I threw it directly into my debts. Once they were under control, I put it towards doing the things that I loved – reading, writing, and spending time with my family. Eventually, those three things became my lifestyle without any real financial worries to boot.

So much of our day to day lives really doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things. So why spend money on it? Put that money towards things that do matter – peace of mind, your passions – and you’ll find a much better life without giving up even the littlest bit of what you really care about.

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  1. Henry says:

    I’ve got about eight rolls of “Clarissa” toilet paper we got at a church pantry when we first moved here and had no funds coming in. Very rarely, we run out of Charmin and I find myself dreading going to the bathroom if it that Clarissa is all there is. I spend hours wondering if I will have to before I make it to the store. Should I go down to the corner and spend 35% more on the Charmin, or can I make it to Wal-Mart? The dread I feel is akin to using a public stall with no door (I stay away from public toilets, but I thought some of you may understand how bad it gets). Charmin is very important to me.
    We don’t go to church pantries anymore, since about 50% of the stuff is horrible quality (thanks to the canned pumpkin and Aldi’s crap) or expired by years. I got a can of ten-year-old oyster stew once. You can get some good stuff from the pantries, but it’s not worth the hassle if you don’t have to. Some of them make you sign waivers that you have no right to sue if you get ill (a very real possiblity) or show I.D. and then you can’t use a fake name. A lot of them have two or more days a week you can go, with different staff, but you’re only supposed to go once a month or week. With the I.D. deal you can’t just sign a different name. There was 11 here when we were doing it, so in the end we could get quite a bit, but had an incredible amount of expired/low quality stuff to relocate once we got home.
    A note for those of you that clean out the pantries of the deceased or relocated: check the dates. The pantries won’t, and someone may eat that out of desperation and get very ill, and the last thing they need is a medical bill the pantry caused but will not be responsible for.

  2. Nicole says:

    I think it takes a while for a lot of people to figure this out. A person has to be at peace with him or herself and not see exterior possessions as a measure of self-worth. That can be difficult.

  3. Amy P says:

    Canned pumpkin makes very nice muffins, if you have the time. My husband makes pumpkin muffins with some whole wheat flour (50/50 whole wheat/all purpose) and some cinnamon sugar topping and we freeze them and use them for snacks throughout the week.

    I definitely wouldn’t economize on toilet paper. I like to buy store brand stuff as much as possible, but there is a difference, just as there is with paper towels.

  4. Molly says:

    I constantly have to step back and look at the whole picture. When I get caught up in the day to day details I get into the evil loop of ‘what I don’t have’.
    I think Nicole is right. It takes most of us experiences to figure out what we want out of life. I’ve had money and I’ve had no money. Those experiences gave me the ‘stuff’ to make choices about where and how I want to move forward in my life.

  5. LMoot says:

    Whew, I consider myself lucky. I never really wanted the same things many of my peers and friends did, at least not on the save level of “needing” it. Cell phones, purses, renewing cars, expensive clothes, latest electronics, dvds and mounds of music–don’t have a desire to spend excessive money in these areas..doesn’t mean I don’t like those things. If I won them, or had the surplus to justify spending much more on them than I do now, I might. But I certainly don’t feel like I’m missing out, and unfortunately many of my friends feel like they are missing out if they don’t have this stuff, and that only causes them in most cases to miss out the REALLY cool stuff, like grown-up traveling (to Africa, Jamaica, Thailand, Europe), not monthly trips to Vegas and Miami. BUT it’s about preference. Many people would rather live life spread out thin. I’m just beginning to get to a spot of being able to enjoy the assets/wealth I’ve worked hard to accumulate in my early early years. I’m only 25 so I wouldn’t trade my yearly international vacays, my house, my ride or die car (which will hopefully last for 10 more years before dying)for all the iphones in the world.

  6. Kerry D says:

    For sure, earlier is better, to make careful choices about spending. My husband and I just wish that we’d figured out earlier that we “can’t spend more than we earn.” Regardless of what a good idea it seemed like. A lot (ok, all) of the financial problems we are dealing with now are because we overspent. Not at all on a lavish lifestyle. The most effective thing we’ve done is simply track spending and creating “accounts” for everything, so we can make informed choices. If we’d done this 10 years ago, we’d be WAY better off.

  7. LMoot says:

    Another thought. I’m learning that the earlier you become financially secure how much easier and faster it is to accumulate wealth. It’s almost effortless (if you have reasonable expectations). People see me as a motivated, hardworking person because I worked very hard, (60+ hours/week) and lived at home for two years after school, to save up money enough for 20% down on a house that would have total monthly costs less than the current rent. What they didn’t know was that I was doing all this now, not to build momentum, but so that I could slow the heck down in the future. I don’t want to wait until retirement to live the easy life (notice I didn’t say the “good” life, but the easy life; which, to me, is a GREAT life). I wanted to buy a house when I could afford it at my lowest payscale (which for most people is that 1st post-grad or full-time job, so that when I make more money that frees up more money. Since I bought my house 6 months ago my pay has already gone up by 2-3 hundred dollars/ per month, and my taxes dropped by $60/month (though I’m not celebrating the taxes because I know that number can, and will go up in the future). Also what some people didn’t understand is how much easier and more fulfilling it is to work for something you want because you want to, versus working for something you have because you have to. When you are working towards something that thing becomes a goal, a trophy, the metaphorical star in the sky. When you are working to keep something you have it becomes a burden. I think it is a personality thing though. For some people being able to spread large amounts of trinkets and constant experiences over their entire life, and working equally hard their entire life is a good balance for them. I like to do things big and sporadically, and like the slow, but steady-moving bull (Taurus) that I am, I like to work minimally towards that grand achievement, saving my bait for the big Kahunas; minnows aren’t that appetizing to me anyway.

  8. aylaxus says:

    great post :)

  9. LMoot says:

    Wanted to add that I quit the part-time job as soon as I bought the house. Work less…check! See it’s already paying off! :)

  10. Evan says:

    I think that the deferment of responsibility and growing up is a real problem for my age group. I am 28, 28 a generation ago meant 3 kids…now there is an entire population still putting off “real life” for partying

  11. Eve says:

    My husband is thinking of retiring next year. I had always told him that we need to save more, but nooo he did not listen. Finally, he wrote down what money was coming in and what money was going out, and when he finally realized how much he had left he was very depressed. Luckily, I plan to continue working since I am younger than him and I carry the medical benefits. My husband has had a great life, but now he is FINALLY realizing that his way of living IS GOING to change one he retires, and he is not very happy about this. Key word is like what the boy scouts preach, BE PREPARED***

  12. stella says:

    Personally, I wish people like Trent and the kind of information that is available today were around when I was in my twenties and thirties. I needed it and would have welcomed it.

    Our family provided no education (or rather a negative one) or modeling in terms of finances, etc. Unsurprisingly, my brother and I have both struggled with financial issues (which really, at heart, are NOT about the money at all or even the stuff you buy with it)over the years. (Yes, I do believe a lot of this stuff should be taught in schools, starting in grade school with more advanced stuff in high school.)

    You can’t “do better” till you know better and today’s twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings have huge opportunities that did not exist when we were their ages in terms of annual income, etc. (despite the current economic scene).

    It just amazes me that people in their 20s making tons of money (and I mean a lot) don’t care about conserving it or even spending mindfully. They don’t even want to be bothered?

    Good luck on that.

    Cause you will end up paying dearly at some point, sooner or later.

    It will catch up with you because jobs don’t last, industries close, jobs are outsourced and you can find yourself with nothing. It’s happened to people who DO pay attention, so it will certainly happen to others.

    Most of us were woefully uneducated about how to make financial choices and the reprecussions.

    To have so much “help” and resources available today and to not take advantage of them? Makes NO SENSE. IMHO.

  13. bobsmith says:

    That’s the right attitude, don’t bother with personal finance since our government is pretty much ruining our currency anyways. Our government spends trillions more than it makes. Why not emulate them?

  14. Carey says:

    Hehe, I agree that you have to take a step back and only spend money on the things that truly bring you happiness, but for me, I gotta have Charmin :)

    But that’s the point, everyone is going to have a different set of preferences. Just gotta do what’s right for you.

  15. Forest says:

    Awesome, awesome post and very true.

    I enjoy living frugally and I enjoy cooking for myself from cheap ingredients… infact almost everything about living cheap makes me happy and makes me feel free from the pressures of living the dream and all that crap.

    Thanks again.

  16. Chaos says:

    I have a question: if you don’t have a house of your own, and you love to travel, what will you do, saving money for buying a house, or travelling abroad?

  17. Sarah says:

    I think a lot of those feelings can come from fear – or just plain ignorance. When I finally learned about personal finance and all the things I could do for myself, I felt so EMPOWERED. It’s not always fun, and it’s certainly not easy, but when I am able to exert control over myself for an end financial goal and then I’m able to achieve that goal, that feeling of accomplishment is completely exhilarating! Far more valuable than stuff/junk that sits around collecting dust.

  18. Shaun says:

    I’m all for saving money. Who needs premium toliet paper after all?

    But I still have big dreams and want to have big toys. So, while saving is great, I like the idea of increasing my income as well, not just settling for less.

  19. jgonzales says:

    @ Shaun

    It’s not settling for less, it’s deciding what’s important to you. If it’s not a big deal to you if you retire at 50 vs. 65, then you may not push saving for retirement so much. If it is a big deal to own a bigger house vs. a smaller house, then start finding ways to save for the down payment on a bigger house.

    One thing I’ve learned from financial places like this is that even as you increase your income, it only helps marginally compared to using what you do have wisely. I would happily give us premium toilet paper if it meant I could save that money to move into a bigger place or we could start a business. If my husband suddenly got a raise, I’d still use the cheaper toilet paper and save the new money to help meet my goals.

    Making more is great, but only if you use what you make wisely.

  20. Cade says:

    Excellent post, Trent. Becoming more mature in our outlook certainly levels the playing field, doesn’t it? I sure wish I didn’t have to go through all of those “learning by fire” experiences to get some decent insight, though.

  21. I think two words sum this up perfectly–opportunity cost. What are we spending money on today that could be spent on things we love more?

    If you understand that concept, everything clicks together.

  22. Dizz says:

    I realize men don’t care about TP since they don’t use it 10 times per day but I’ll give up eating for a few days to afford my Cottonelle :)

  23. Kirsten says:

    I am so on board with what you’re talking about. I have been working on this for years and am still working on it. Have you looked at You Need A Budget? I picked it up recently and I seriously seriously love it. There are 4 rules that govern how you budget, and they echo what you’re talking about here – putting every dollar to work thoughtfully and for the things in your life that you truly want. Then your spending reflects your values. I’m not affiliated with the company in any way, this is a personal endorsement from someone who looked for this sort of help budgeting money for years before I found it. I’d recommend anyone take a look at the basic descriptions of the four rules and consider going through the YNAB university if they’re interested (just a series of free online articles). They have a trial demo too. Thanks for the great article and congratulations on successfully reducing your debt. :)

  24. KittyBoarder says:

    This is a great post. There is no one size fits all. Sometime that is important to me might be something very insignificant for others.

    You know I’ve never really thought about it this way. Knowing what is important to me and my family, spend some resources on those things matter and let go the others. it’s almost a bit of like soul searching… But it’s such a great exercise.

    For me, I get great joy when I
    – spend time with my husband, mom and dad and close friends
    – Grow my money and assets. It’s almost like a hobby now.
    – Outdoor activties such as rock climbing, snowboarding, hiking, camping, etc.
    – Food, food, food , food
    – Video gaming

    I feel my life is very fulfilled if I get to do all these things.. the rest don’t matter that much… So maybe I need to start cutting my expenses on ….say nail salons..lol

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