The Wasted Years

When I look back to the middle of the last decade – roughly 2002 to 2006 – I see a lot of great memories. I see my marriage to my wife. I see the birth of our first child. I see myself at a pair of jobs that I enjoyed quite a lot. I see the gradual diaspora of my college friends, and I see a lot of new friendships forming.

At the same time, I see a ton of mistakes. I see money being wasted by the basketful, buying expensive meals that were quickly forgotten, video games that were barely played, and DVDs that were never watched. I see a blatant disregard for the future and I see two people operating under the assumption that their future selves will fill in the big hole they were digging.

In other words, I see wasted years.

Whenever I look back at those days, I feel pretty intense regret. The financial situation we were in circa early 2006 was a frightening one. We were having difficulty paying our bills and keeping up our minimum payments. The only future savings we were doing was through our retirement savings. Beyond that, we were spending more than we earned – far more.

It took us almost as many years to undo the damage of those wasted years as it took to dig that hole, and those years involved living pretty lean and doing a ton of extra work to earn more money.

What kind of position would we be in today if we had lived those years differently? It’s hard to say, but I can say that if we had lived those years like we lived today, we would have been free of all debts (student loans and our first auto loans) by 2004, we could have paid cash for the home we live in now by early 2007, and we would be in stupendously good shape today.

Our financial position right now is worse than it could have been and it’s solely because of those wasted years. For the rest of our lives, that statement will be true. We will never achieve what we could have achieved because of those years of overspending.

The frustrating part? Virtually all of it revolved around overspending on unimportant things. Meals unremembered. Video games not completed. DVDs unwatched. Gadgets scarcely used. Evenings out with friends completely forgotten.

None of those things have any positive impact on my life right now. Even the evenings out with friends don’t matter because my social circle has changed significantly since then. The unused or scarcely used items were mostly sold at a loss to help deal with the debt disaster we found ourselves in. I can’t remember 99% of the little treats and meals out that I “rewarded” myself with.

They were wasted years, plain and simple.

One of the biggest motivators in my life is that I never, ever want to experience another “wasted year.” Ever. Looking back on those years is painful and fills me with intense regret, and I only need to taste that regret to remind myself what I would be building if I ever gave into the desire to regularly overspend again.

Another valuable lesson: no matter how much I wish for it, I can’t go back and change those wasted years. I really wish I could go back and do things differently.

Here’s the truth: you only have one shot at this year. You only have one shot at this week or this day. Why would you fill it with choices that you’re going to regret in the future?

I would far rather plant the seeds today for amazing things in the future than spend my money and time recklessly right now and deal with the consequences later. I’d far rather turn down a few small treats today – and pretty much every day – in exchange for having freedom and security down the road.

Those little treats are quickly forgotten. The time and money you wasted on completely forgettable “treats”? Those costs are never really forgotten. They stick around in the form of regret.

Don’t create a past that’s full of regret. Create one that’s full of hope instead. The choice is up to you every single day.

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