Updated on 02.22.16

Using Memories of the Past to Build a Memorable and Frugal Future

Trent Hamm

Step back for a second and make a brief mental list of some of the best moments of your life. Let’s say… 10 of them or so.

Think of moments where you felt the happiest and proudest that you ever felt. Perhaps you were surrounded by people you cared about. Maybe you had just achieved something momentous. Perhaps you had just come to the completion of a long project. Maybe it was just a common moment when you came to realize all of the good things you have in your life.

When I think of a lot of the “big moments” in my life – my wedding day, the birth of my children – I remember a lot of joy, but I also remember a lot of stress.

When I think of some of the most truly joyful moments in my life, though, I remember a few of my biggest personal accomplishments, where lots of work paid off for me.

I remember, with extreme vividness, the first time I received an email from a reader that I didn’t know. That reader told me that my story and the material I had shared on The Simple Dollar had helped them make some changes in their life over the past few months and they had managed to pay off two credit cards already and didn’t feel like they were strangling in debt any more. I read that email and got that “tingly” feeling all over that one gets when they’re just paid a spectacular compliment, so I went outside. It was this crisp late fall day where the leaves were falling off the trees and swirling about, but the sun was shining and it wasn’t overly cold yet, and for the first time I really believed that I could make this whole writing thing work.

I also remember a lot of simple moments, ordinary moments where lots of positive things in my life just clicked together all at once.

For instance, I remember one particular warm and sunny day when my oldest child was about five or so. We were at the park practicing soccer together. The sun was warm on my skin, but the wind was blowing just enough to keep it from being hot. My son was running around and laughing. My daughter was rolling on the ground, as she loved to do at that age. My wife is sitting there in a sun hat watching us play, with this huge smile on her face. It’s just a very joyful memory.

Memories like that are stuck in my head. They represent some of the most wonderful, most joyous moments in my life.

They also have a few very key traits in common.

Common Trait #1: I’m Not Sedentary

I don’t have a great memory of my life in which I’m not either mentally or physically active. I’m either doing something physical – playing with my children or getting some exercise – or something that’s strongly mentally challenging, or else directly celebrating the culmination of something that was physically, mentally, or emotionally challenging.

Nothing great in my life has happened in front of the television or while surfing the web. I’ve never felt connected to the world around me. I’ve never felt loved. I’ve never felt a big idea clicking into place in my head. Every great moment in my life has involved me being physically engaged or deeply mentally engaged or deeply emotionally engaged in something.

Common Trait #2: I’m Not Spending Money

None of the best memories of my life involve much financial cost beyond my day-to-day life. Even the best memories of traveling don’t involve expensive hotels or exotic destinations – they usually involve just a moment in an unusual place.

Instead, many of my memories involve experiences. They often involve some feeling of being outdoors, of breeze on my skin or warmth on my face. They often involve other people.

Interestingly, they often involve a personal challenge of some kind. I’m either relishing the act of taking on that challenge or enjoying my success over that challenge.

Common Trait #3: I Don’t Need or Use Much Stuff

Again, most of my memories don’t involve the acquisition or the use of many physical objects. I don’t have much need of “stuff” in my fondest memories.

When I consider all of the best memories in my life, the only physical items in use are pretty everyday items. A cheap computer. A soccer ball. A book. A decent pair of running shoes.

In fact, all of the physical stuff I’d need to recreate all of the best moments of my life would fit inside a storage tub. It’s really not that much at all.

From Memories to Values

Obviously, my life is not about recreating memories. I don’t really have much interest in walking back over the same area my life path has already crossed. I want to move forward and onward to new things.

Still, it’s instructive to think about what those memories tell me about what I value as a person.

I value personal challenge. I want something I can wrap my hands around and take on. I enjoy being able to build things on my own and to succeed, whether through skill or through stubbornness.

I value personal relationships. I like to feel connected to others. I like to know that I’ve had a positive impact on their life and that they care for me as well.

I value simple pleasures. Warmth on my skin. A breeze in my hair. A nice flavor on my tongue. The sound of a running stream or of my child laughing or of my wife’s whisper. Getting lost in the pages of a great book. They’re simple, but they run through all of the great moments of my life.

What do your memories tell you about the things you value the most?

From Values to the Future

Those values give me some great guidance as to the choices I make every day and how those build into a future with a lot of great experiences ahead of me, experiences on par with the great ones I’ve had already.

I don’t need to spend money to have those things I value most. The great moments in my life had nothing to do with spending a lot of money. I wasn’t anywhere special or expensive in those moments. I wasn’t consuming anything expensive. I wasn’t spending money on anything. Mostly, I was enjoying things that are essentially free in life – the sensations of a nice day, the feeling of being mentally or emotionally or physically engaged, and so on. Why do I need to spend money to have some kind of “special” experience when the great moments of my life haven’t required that at all?

I don’t need to have lots of stuff to have the experiences I value most. Almost every peak experience I’ve had didn’t involve many possessions, either. Do I really need to be collecting so much “stuff”? Do I really need to buy anything more? I already have what seems like far more than enough stuff in my life. Why shouldn’t I “do” something rather than “buy” something?

I need strong personal relationships. Almost every great moment in my life involved being with someone I cared about or making a deep connection with someone. Connecting with people, forging relationships, and having a positive impact on others is something that’s front and center in the great moments of my life. What am I doing to build those types of relationships, both old and new?

I need personal challenges. Many of my greatest moments in life have come in the midst of or at the conclusion of great personal challenges. The success I’ve felt in building various projects in my life, The Simple Dollar being one of them, has brought incalculable pleasure and joy into my life. I need challenges. What big challenges does the future hold for me? What can I take on?

I need ample time to experience simple pleasures. A lot of my great moments involve simple things. I’m reading a book that’s really engaging my mind. I’m learning something new. I’m playing soccer on a warm day. I’m exploring a park somewhere. I’m having a great conversation with someone. I’m tasting a meal my wife and I made together. Simple things.

I Don’t Need Money for My Memorable Life – I Need Time

The real message from all of this is that the most valuable resource in my life is time, not money. Those great memories outline what I truly want most from my life, and those desires don’t involve having a huge house or a shiny car or a ton of money to spend on elaborate getaways. None of that really interests me.

What interests me is having the time to really enjoy simple things, while also having the time to take on personal challenges of all kinds.

How can I achieve that? For me, the recipe for making that happen is to spend as little money as possible so that, as soon as possible, I’m able to live on the money I’ve saved. I no longer have to devote my time and mental energy to the stresses of a workday, though I can certainly take on big challenges on my own terms if I choose to do so (and I most certainly will). It gives me more than enough space to fill my life with the simple pleasures that I so desire.

For now, though, it means trying to spend as much time with my children as I can while they’re growing up. It means not buying them everything under the sun, and certainly not buying everything I might desire, either, because those desires are really fleeting.

What matters most becomes clear when I look back at the great moments in my life, and I don’t need to buy stuff or spend money to have those things. Instead, money becomes merely a way to open the door to a much richer life.

Where do your memories lead you? What values do they spell out? Where do you want to go from here? Chances are, you can’t buy what made your life great, but you can certainly build a life that involves more of it if you’re wise with your money.

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