When I graduated from college and got my first “real” job, I realized I needed a vehicle of some kind to get back and forth to work. Prior to that, I had been a poor college student – I didn’t own a car and used the bus system to get to my classes and to my part-time job.
I started shopping around for a vehicle. I didn’t have any savings, but that didn’t stop me from test-driving brand new vehicles. In fact, I almost bought one until my father directly told me I was being an idiot.
Instead, I ended up buying a bright red pickup that I thought was beautiful. It was a late model used vehicle and got atrocious gas mileage, but I was more focused on my personal joy – the feelings I got from looking at that truck and sitting in it.
I was rewarded with a $10,000 car loan. That was my price for tying my happiness to a vehicle I had decided was “beautiful.”
That love of physical objects continued to lead me astray. I loved holding a fresh new book in my hands, so I bought book after book after book. I loved popping open the case of a new DVD and admiring my shelf full of DVDs, so I bought a bunch of DVDs as well.
All of these items brought me a strong sense of happiness. I’d get a good feeling when I’d look at my DVD collection or at my book collection or at my shiny red truck. Seeing those items, touching them, and exploring them – it brought me pretty powerful feelings.
A large part of my personal happiness was tied into these physical items.
Over time, though, the bills just became overwhelming, as did the worry that accompanied those bills. The stress of constantly falling behind financially really began to build up and eventually overwhelmed and “poisoned” the joy I got from my collections. I would feel happy when I’d browse my books or check out my vintage baseball card collection, but later, I’d think about our financial situation and just feel awful.
I had lots of stuff, but I was making zero progress toward any of my big goals in life. If anything, I was actually heading backwards – away from those goals.
The problem was that I had tied so much of my personal happiness to those physical objects. Buying a new book or acquiring a new DVD brought me a spike of pleasure, something that was incredibly addictive. I felt the same way about my collections – I felt good when I browsed that stuff.
It took years to break that association, but breaking that association was probably the single biggest step I took toward personal finance success. Step by step, here’s how I did it.
First, I tried to understand why I started buying those things in the first place. I bought books because I loved to read. I bought DVDs because I enjoyed watching films. I bought vintage baseball cards because I have a deep fascination with 1920s and 1930s Americana. I bought that truck because, honestly, I liked the color and the feeling I got from sitting in the cab.
Almost everything I bought (beyond household necessities) was tied directly to some interest of mine. Buying items was an expression of that interest.
On top of that, I understood that I am a “collector” at heart. I enjoy collecting things and building complete sets of things. The process of collecting brings me a lot of joy.
When I broke this association down into pieces, it became clear how to solve it.
I started to collect both natural things and experiences instead of things I had to buy in the store. Rather than buying 100 books a year, I made it my goal to read 100 books in a year. I started keeping careful track of the movies I watched, the books I read, and the games I played. I take pride in these lists – I really enjoy looking back over the hundreds of books I’ve read and the many, many games I’ve played over the last several years.
At the same time, I started collecting natural things. I enjoy hunting for rocks, for example, and I like finding mushrooms, too – I take pictures of them. I enjoy finding new rocks to add to my collection and I like looking through my pictures of outdoor life and figuring out what exactly I discovered.
Neither one of these things requires me to buy anything (aside from a camera). These things still feed my desire to collect and they’re still based upon my personal passions, but they don’t involve accumulating physical objects that I had to pay money for.
What about things like buying a car? I spent a lot of time thinking about what I liked about automobiles and I realized that it really came down to preferring vehicles that I felt comfortable sitting in and that transported my family safely. While I appreciate a car with beautiful lines, I’d really rather see an automobile in my driveway that can transport my family safely at a reasonable cost. In other words, I began to appreciate practical concerns more than anything else when looking at things I actually needed use regularly. That’s also why I take a “buy it for life” approach around my house – I’d rather have a well-made item that works well and lasts forever.
With that shift – and, admittedly, it took years to make – I alleviated that sense of guilt from my poor buying decisions holding back our financial future. I figured out that my happiness comes from certain experiences in life – the process of collecting, the joy of reading a book, the pleasure of watching a well-crafted film and that I can obtain those pleasures without spending (much) money.
Everyone who reads this article is going to have their own set of things that bring them happiness. Perhaps that thing for you is quilts or shotguns.
Whatever those items are, they’re usually tied to some experience in your life and those items just represent that experience. They might also represent multiple experiences that you enjoy, like my enjoyment of collecting along with my enjoyment of reading coming together in excessive book collecting.
A big key to financial success is to figure out how to keep that happiness without spending money, and that can happen if you figure out how to separate the experience from the physical object. Whenever buying a physical object brings you happiness, you’re showing off a financial weak point, one that’s holding you back from having the future you want. Figure out how to move that pleasure from obtaining that object into enjoying an experience instead and you’ll find that your happiness remains while the costs disappear.