Thoughts on Work, Personal Life, and Frugality

I strive quite hard to create a dividing line between my “work life” and my “personal life.” Generally, that means setting pretty strict hours for work and for personal time and striving as hard as possible to not let either side cross that line.

Let me give you an example of what I mean, drawn from a day last week. I woke up around 6:30, brushed my teeth, ran a comb through my hair, and woke up the kids. Obviously, I’m on personal time here. By 8:30, both of the kids are at daycare, so I settle down for several hours of work. I close the office door, turn off the ringer on the phone, and dig in, only stopping long enough to eat a quick lunch around noon.

By 4:30, I’m done. I step away from the office, go downstairs, and begin to work on supper. Personal time again. My wife and my kids arrive at home, we eat together, and then enjoy a few hours of fun in the yard and in the family room. I put the kids to bed, then my wife and I spend some time together (actually curled up side by side on the couch, reading) followed by bed.

It’s easy on one level to see how I separate the two parts of my life – a physical thing, right? Is the office door closed with me inside?

But it’s not that simple.

Take the reading, for example. I’m a writer – the simple act of reading is a subtle way to improve my own writing ability. Semi-consciously, I take notice of how various writers use language, and I incorporate that into what I’m writing. Quite often, that reading that is theoretically purely for fun inspires ideas for my writing.

So is that reading personal time or work time?

One could start applying similar litmus tests to meals, to time I spend with my family, and to shopping trips, all of which regularly tie into my work.

It’s not just my current job, either. At my previous job, I would often spend time on weekends doing work-related things – more than once, those work tasks on weekends interrupted family events. I’d also spend personal time reading things related to my work – scientific journal articles and so on.

Beyond that, I’ve never had a job that didn’t float into my mind many times a day when I wasn’t actually “working.” I’d think about the tasks I needed to do, the actual topic I was working on, my relationships with my coworkers, and so on.

What I’ve come to realize is that the real distinction between work and free time is in your head. Your thoughts.

When you’re at work, you’re being financially rewarded to focus your thoughts on a certain area. Sure, some jobs allow you to mentally wander, but your attention must consistently be on a certain range of topics in order to actually earn the money you’re being paid.

When you’re spending your free time, you’re not being financially rewarded to do anything. You can think about whatever you choose. Some people choose to avoid thinking about their jobs at all because, frankly, they don’t enjoy thinking about it – when their job crosses their mind, they try to block it out. Others spend that time thinking quite regularly about their work because they do enjoy it.

The truth for all of us is somewhere in the middle. We enjoy some aspects of our jobs and loathe others.

When we think about our jobs during our free time, we have two routes to follow. We either think about all of the aspects we enjoy – which lifts our moods and gets our juices flowing. Or, we can focus on the negative aspects – the coworkers we don’t like, the tasks we hate – and end up loathing our jobs.

Unhappiness and happiness at work bleeds throughout your life. Your job fills so many hours of your day that your mind can’t help but reflect on it quite regularly – and that reflection can either be positive or negative. The more positive the reflections, the more positive your overall thoughts are. The more negative the reflections, the more negative your overall thoughts are.

That positivity and negativity of thought affects everything in our lives. If we’re miserable in our jobs, that misery gradually flows through our life. If we love our jobs, that joy gradually flows through our life, too. That affects everything throughout your life – your health, your personal relationships, and eventually your job, too.

So what’s the conclusion here?

A job that you feel positively about has intangible benefits. You feel happy at the end of your day. When your job inevitably crosses your mind, you feel happy about it, and that happiness is reflected in your interactions with others and your personal health and attitude. You want to have many aspects of your job in your personal life.

A job that you loathe has intangible negatives. You feel drained and empty at the end of the day. Your personal relationships suffer and, often, your health suffers (especially if you begin eating worse and exercising less). You loathe even thinking about work, and you often find ways to completely distract yourself from it.

Many people take jobs they loathe in order to earn more money. People take jobs they hate for the money. Quite often, that extra money is spent in various ways to distract yourself from this work that you hate. You buy lots of entertainment items, eat plenty of expensive food, and sometimes indulge in other things, too.

Frugality makes income less of a requirement. A conscious focus on minimizing your spending cuts the amount of income you actually need. You can use the reduced spending to contribute heavily to debt repayment, dig yourself out of any hole you’re in, and further reduce your monthly bills, thus further reducing the actual amount of income you need to live.

Frugality thus enables you to choose a job or career you feel positively about. Over the long run, that same frugality enables you to walk away from a job you loathe, or take advantage of something you dream about.

Thus, frugality is one potential path to a more positive life. A job you enjoy more simply fills your life with more positive thoughts. You enjoy the hours you’re working more, and when the inevitable thoughts about work float in throughout the rest of your day, they tend to be much more positive than before.

If you hate your job, today’s the day to start going frugal. Don’t go home tonight and follow the same old routine. Your future doesn’t have to be like this. Here are 100 ways to get started. Most important: when you’re tempted to spend on something unnecessary, think twice about it. Make the choice not to spend until it becomes familiar and comfortable – then use that money you’re saving to get out of debt and build yourself a future you can be happy with.

Good luck!

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  1. John Frainee at PlainCents.com says:

    Your statement below is so true:

    “That positivity and negativity of thought affects everything in our lives. If we’re miserable in our jobs, that misery gradually flows through our life. If we love our jobs, that joy gradually flows through our life, too. That affects everything throughout your life – your health, your personal relationships, and eventually your job, too.”

    I’m lucky that I’ve learned early on in my life that I must be working at a job I enjoy. I highly enjoy writing and challenging people with financial concepts that they can use in their own lives. This is my dream. My conversation with you regarding PlainCents.com helped give me the push to keep going. Thanks for your thoughtful article today!

  2. I think its a real challenge to separate work from personal time, especially if work is something you love. I have noticed a lot of times that during personal time, my work ideas incubate and improve. So when I take time off and come back to work with a fresh mindset, I do better work. Its when I’m really trying to push it with working too much that my writing is dragged down.

    Thanks Trent! Great post.

  3. Amanda says:

    I never thought of it in quite that way before. I don’t loathe my current job, but I’m not sure I want to do it forever, either. Thanks for an interesting take on an oft-discussed subject.

  4. great post.

    I love my job and the path I’m on, but that does not mean I dont live frugally either. If you hate your job, the first thing you should ask yourself it WHY are you still there?

  5. friend says:

    Hi Trent,

    I don’t know why, yesterday I was looking back at some of your old posts about your schedule… I was horrified to think of you getting up at 4:15 or 4:30… Glad you have arranged your life to “sleep in” till 6:30 these days. That sounds like something a person could live with long-term, whereas the other sounded like… torture.

  6. Buffalo says:

    I have to disagree that during your free time you are not being rewarded financially for your thoughts. I’m in research and my best eureka moments are not when I’m at work but when I’m away from work, typically either in the shower or riding my bike. These ideas lead to better research which helps me to continue to be promoted and desired as an employee. Not every job is like this of course, but I’m happy to be in a job where I can get excited about things and be productive when I’m not “doing my job”.

  7. SaveBuyLive says:

    I have personally experienced having toxic jobs (yeah, somehow I was unlucky enough to have a string of them) that actually ruined years of my life. I also personally experienced the phenomenon of buying stuff to distract myself from a job I loathed.

    Your comments about frugality in this post are true, but I think you missed an important point. Before you decide to go frugal, you absolutely have to have a concrete plan to either cut back your time at work or change jobs. Otherwise you’ll be getting hit from two fronts at once: a lousy job and a life of self deprivation.

  8. stefanie says:

    I like the general ideas of this post, but I think there are some problems here, and to me they seem to be coming from a place of privilege. Many people already are frugal and can’t find a job that they love or feel positive about for many reasons: education, time, children, disabilities, low SES, etc. Also, many jobs aren’t always only positive or negative. They change on a daily basis. And finally, some jobs just require homework. Both I and my partner are graduate students, and yes this is a full time job for both of us. She doesn’t get paid for it, in fact she has many loans to pay for her education, and I luckily due to my field and degree objective am currently getting a stipend 10 months a year (well, until next month). She can’t find a part time or full time job in addition to school b/c of her limited hours and the limited availability of jobs right now; I have a second job that eats into both my personal time and my own school work time, but right now I fell like i’d rather being saving some money than having extra time for my schoolwork. There is no win-win situation for us unless we both got paid a decent wage to finish our graduate degrees. Meanwhile, we live on one salary of very little money (to some people, I’m sure its a lot to others. It’s the most I’ve ever made, even when I was in a non-grad school gig) for 2 of us and are pretty frugal and we manage. It’s not always fun, but we manage and fight for health insurance from our schools and take advantage of deals and we feel very lucky that we have the privilege of even being able to attend graduate school.

  9. Matthew says:

    “Unhappiness and happiness at work bleeds throughout your life.”

    Never have truer words been written. I once had a job that caused me to even hate my days off because I’d spend them unhappy, dreading the return to work. I took a pay cut to get away – leaving behind money, vacation, and a steady M-F 8-5 schedule, and two years later am still glad I did.

  10. Henry says:

    Too true. This really is a vicious cycle:

    1. You hate your job, but you need/want the money.
    2. You spend more money to compensate for that unhappiness.
    3. Back to Point 1.

  11. When you are self-employed, it’s so difficult to make that dividing line. You run downstairs to get a cup of coffee and you notice there are some dirty glasses from last night. Saturday morning you check your work email. You return from a client and notice the lawn really needs to be mowed. I still struggle with the dividing line.

    I completely agree with you regarding frugality and work. Because of our frugal lifestyle, I can work part-time and do things I really love, like teach at a local college and spend time working on my blog. I love my job; I’m much less stressed out and have more time to take care of things around the house so my husband and I can enjoy more time together. It’s a beautiful thing.

  12. Georgie says:

    Very interesting post. I think that many people will find themselves in this situation through being let go and being made redundant. They are then forced to be frugal for a while and think about what they really want to do. I am sure I read somewhere that 95% of people who are made redundant end up much happier with life in the long run.

  13. Frugality can provide you with freedom . . .
    Freedom to choose:
    - Family over work
    - Leisure over work
    - Rest over work
    - The work you will do

  14. Kim says:

    Recommended reading: “Elsewhere USA” written by sociologist Dalton Conley (2009) about the continued blurring of the line between work and leisure.

  15. Bunny says:

    Fantastic post! The point about the intangible benefits of doing work you love is particularly insightful. In the end, we’re all trying to be happy. As much as possible, work should contribute to that goal, not be an obstacle to it.

  16. Jen says:

    Three months after walking away from a soul-sucking job, not having found a replacement yet, I’m glad to have this reminder of why I made my decision. Thanks. :-)

  17. Jonathan says:

    Trent,

    I was surprised to see that you send your children to daycare. What are your reasons for choosing daycare over taking care of your children at home? It seems to me like you would save money and get more quality time with your kids by keeping them at home. Personally, I think I would prefer keeping my (hypothetical) kids at home (if they are pre-K age). But I don’t have kids, and I don’t know how difficult it would be for you to complete your work while watching the kids.

  18. Harrison says:

    Hi Trent,

    I like the way to carry out how important the frugality is. The more frugal we are, the more choices we can have in our jobs.

    I can see that this is slightly different from what we usually think – Work hard in a job we dislike and spend money on something because we deserved to do it.

    For example, many people will go for an expensive travel or buy a luxurious car because they work so hard and deserve all this thing. However, this let them greatly in debt and lose their freedom in choices.

    So just like what you said, it really depends on our mind and thoughts to determine what our life will be.

  19. Jonathan says:

    Great advice. Even though I’ve heard it before, as I’m sure many others have, your personal twist on enjoying (or not enjoying) work made it unique and interesting.

    As long as there are more good days than bad ones, it’s a place worth being. If the scales tip the other way it’s time to move on.

  20. I don’t recall who actually said it or where I first heard of this idea… but the idea of having blurred lines between work and play is really a fantastic goal.

    And I think you, Trent, may be one of the best examples that I can “touch”. You spend time read and write as part of your job – hey, I run my PF blog in my spare time. You may be prepping ideas for a post while also prepping dinner.

    AWESOME – 2 birds meet 1 stone.

    Balance is a wonderful thing and it is made even easier when we’re balancing mostly enjoyable tasks and activities.

    Keep up the good work and contine to serve as an example for us all.

    Dave

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