Updated on 05.13.16

‘Wealth Is Doing What You Love to Find Joy and Fulfillment.’

Trent Hamm

That quote comes from page 58 of Killing Sacred Cows: Overcoming the Financial Myths That Are Destroying Your Prosperity, a great little personal finance book by Garrett Gunderson.

One of the central principles of the book is that wealth – or at least the expression of it – is spending your time doing things that are deeply fulfilling to you and living a joyful life. Money simply serves to make that possible.

In other words, wealth isn’t about numbers or dollars or account balances, at least not directly. Instead, the closer you get to the day-to-day life that you want, the wealthier you actually are, and the further away you are from that day-to-day life, the poorer you are. Money is just a tool to help that migration.

Underlying all of this, of course, is what your ideal day or ideal week is like. Figuring that out isn’t as obvious as one might think.

Take me, for example. My ideal day involves spending about six hours working (in my ideal world, I’d work almost every day, but work less each day), one hour exercising, one or two hours learning something new, two hours on a hobby or community project, two or three hours with good friends and loved ones, and the rest of the time on household maintenance, personal maintenance, and sleep.

Now, obviously, there are variations in that. The truth is that this is what an average day would look like across an average week. One day might involve four hours spent on a hobby project, while other days might involve nothing at all. Some days might combine these things, such as a game day which combines social time and hobby time or a volunteer shift at the food pantry with some of my friends, which also combines social time and community project time.

I’m actually much closer to this than I’ve ever been at any point in my life. Prior to 2008, work filled up a much larger portion of my life, as I often worked on work projects over the weekend and did a lot of traveling for work and also spent a lot of time on potential side businesses. When I made the decision to go full-time on The Simple Dollar, a big part of that decision was to move closer to this ideal life.

So let’s talk about that choice a little more closely.

In early 2008, an average day didn’t really look much like that ideal day. I worked about 10 to 11 hours on an average day across my main job and The Simple Dollar. I basically didn’t exercise. I’d spend an average of maybe one hour a day on a community activity or a hobby, but that was usually bundled with an average of an hour a day on focused family time or time with friends. I spent maybe an hour learning something new each day, but that was mostly done directly to fuel The Simple Dollar or my primary job. The rest of my time was life maintenance – taking care of myself, making meals, eating, taking care of my child, spending a few minutes with my wife, and sleeping.

At that point, I was faced with a tough financial choice. I had put in countless hours over the previous two years to make The Simple Dollar a success, writing many, many, many articles for it and using everything I could think of to promote the site far and wide. The site’s revenue had climbed to a point where it was a notable percentage of my personal income, but it was still substantially less than the income from my stable job.

The problem was, I wasn’t happy at all with my life balance. I was working too much. I wasn’t spending nearly enough time with my wife and children. I felt I was neglecting many parts of my life in this chase for more money.

So I sat down and made a “pros-and-cons” list covering a few options for major life changes. Doing The Simple Dollar full time offered many pros – a strong reduction in work time, a very flexible schedule – but a big con – a huge drop in income.

Here’s the catch, though: I had spent the last two years also getting our financial life in a good place. The only debt we had at that time was our mortgage. Over the previous two years, our credit cards had vanished. Our student loans had vanished. Our car loans had vanished. We were spending way less than we earned – in fact, we were spending way less than we would be earning if I dropped my “main” job.

Knowing that, I made that career switch. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It took me far closer to my ideal life than I had ever been before.

However, I can’t deny that our family would have more money in the bank right now had I not left that other job. If I had stayed in that position, there’s a very good chance that I would still be there, as that job still exists. If I had kept running The Simple Dollar in my spare time, it would have continued to be successful on some level as well, and thus my total income would have been higher.

Yet… my life would have been miserable in comparison.

In the end, wealth really isn’t about numbers or account balances. It’s about a fulfilling life, and money simply supports that.

What does that really mean for your day-to-day life? Here are three key things to consider.

First of all, how close are you to that ideal life of yours? What is your ideal life, what is your life like now, and how close or how far apart are they? In general, I find that the further people are from what they consider to be an ideal life, the less happy they are and the more misery they find in their daily existence.

Spend some time thinking about your ideal day and your ideal week. What does that look like for you? How much time would you spend on each significant element of your life?

Then, consider how close or how far away your current life is from that benchmark. Are you in the ballpark? Are you far away from it?

The second thing worth doing is to consider whether each dollar you spend moves you toward that ideal life. Does this purchase move me toward that ideal life? Or is it simply a bandage to make me feel a little bit better about my current life while also pushing me a step back from that ideal life?

Almost every purchase or decision you make falls into one of those two categories. A dollar put into savings or investments almost always pushes you toward that ideal life. On the flip side, many of the dollars you spend constitute a step away from that ideal life – but not all dollars. Some things, like life maintenance expenses and self-improvement expenses, help you continue along that journey.

The third thing worth considering is whether each hour you spend moves you toward that ideal life. Obviously, the realities of work and intrinsic life commitments might hold you back from that ideal life to a certain degree, but are you actually spending your spare time in accordance with your real values?

For example, take the time you spend watching television. Is that time part of what your ideal life looks like? If not, why are you doing it? What about time visiting celebrity gossip websites? What about time spent playing a game on your phone?

There are two outcomes here. Either you might realize that your ideal life isn’t necessarily what you first envisioned and needs some changes, or you’ll realize that the way you use your time isn’t in line with your ideal life and thus your time use needs some changes. In either case, this is a step toward your ideal life.

In the end, keep one thing in mind, always: your everyday choices shape your future and your long-term happiness. While many commitments can make us feel like we’re far from our ideal life, we still have a great deal of freedom to choose how to use the remaining time and energy in our lives.

So, how are you going to use that time, that energy, that money? Are you going to use it to make your life a bit more pleasurable for a moment or two? Or are you going to use it to build true wealth in the form of your ideal life?

The choice is yours, every single day.

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