Updated on 04.06.10

Am I Unhappy?

Trent Hamm

I talk to a newspaper, radio, or television reporter on the phone once a day on average. The topics vary all over the place, but they’re usually seeking a quote from the “author of 365 Ways to Live Cheap” for their article or report.

Usually, my response has to do with some financial discipline. I often talk about the many ways my wife and I have cut our spending. I usually mention the fact that our daily routine doesn’t involve much spending – we eat at home, I work at home, our children play outdoors a lot, and so on. I also often include the fact that we don’t indulge in luxury items that much, particularly new ones.

These revelations usually cause the reporter to ask some variation on the big question.

Are you happy living like that?

Absolutely. Here’s why.

I realized that the best way to spend your money is to spend it on time, not on stuff.

For starters, that means trimming your spending on material items. We just don’t buy as much stuff as we used to. Our entertainment budget is about 20% of what it used to be. We don’t buy gadgets very often any more. I wear my socks until they’re actually worn out. We buy many items in bulk and try to get every possible use out of them. The end result of that is that our normal routine of life is a lot less expensive than it used to be.

Many people, in that situation, would channel that extra money into more stuff. We choose to channel it into more time.

Because of these spending choices, I get to spend tons of time with my kids. I was able to switch to a job with a much more flexible schedule (writing) because we didn’t require the nice income from my previous job. Now, we go to the park, the Science Center, out in the yard, and do countless projects all of the time. These are things I simply didn’t have much time for until we took control ove our life.

Because of these spending choices, my wife will take a sabbatical from her job for a while to be a stay-at-home mother. She loves her job and wants to go back to it, but like me, she wants to spend a lot of time with our children, especially when they’re young. This would have been impossible a few years ago – we “needed” the money too much.

Because of these spending choices, I have the time to learn new things. I’m learning to play the piano. I’m steadily improving as a fiction writer. I’ve become very adept in the kitchen. I’ve been able to tackle some extremely challenging books and really stretch my mind. Back in the day, I would have never had time for all of these things.

My life is more rich not because I can afford more stuff, but because I have more time. I’m able to have that time because I applied some financial discipline to my spending.

To put it simply, I stopped trading my time for more stuff that I didn’t have time to adequately enjoy. The first step in this journey, of course, is financial discipline, and it can be hard. But when you reach a point where your debts are taken care of and you’re spending far less than you earn, you begin to see a huge world of opportunities before you. You can move into work that matches what you want in terms of professional challenge and time flexibility instead of whatever work pays the best.

That might not be the result that everyone wants – or even that most people want. I certainly know people who seem very happy with the material items that they have.

I just know that because I took control of my spending and installed some financial discipline, I was able to find a lot more of the one thing I wanted most – time. And I couldn’t be happier with it.

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  1. Anna is now Raven says:

    Excellent, excellent post, one of your best. This clearly answers the question “What’s it all about?” (“it” being cutting expenses, making your own bread or laundry detergent, carrying coffee from home, etc.) and shows the ultimate reward of all these measures.

    The generic big question, “Are you happy living like that?” contains a very potent phrase: “like that” — as though “like that” were simply unthinkable. It says a lot about our collective sense of values, doesn’t it?

  2. Tahlia42 says:

    I often get the same kind of question – how can you live like that? – when people hear I don’t have cable or Netflix, I unplug appliances not in use, I partially air dry my clothes, I only buy food that is on sale, etc. It’s all about priorities. I’m a home owner on an income that makes many people think it’s impossible. I’m also a competitive ballroom dancer … an exceedingly expensive past time … but it is my passion. The money I don’t spend on things I don’t value goes to lessons and gowns and competition fees.

    Like you, I very my life as very rich.

    Thank you for being the voice of the rest of us!

  3. todo es bien says:

    Well, reading your description of your day to day activities I think you are living the dream. Maybe not the “American Dream” but a dream that honors the fact that we are not here for a long time, so why not fill it up with the most meaningful & engaging experience that we can. Congratulations, you have attained something rare. I admire you.

  4. wanzman says:

    It is very hard to live a life that is out of the ordinary (by American standards) without feeling weird yourself, or having other people think you are weird.

    I have been in the workforce for about 3 years now, and I am realizing that the majority of my time and effort is spent obtaining a certain lifestyle (pretty average American lifestyle).

    I keep thinking that if I significantly downgraded my expectations, or simply came up with a way of living that was outside of the box, I could work a lot less.

    For instance, I am trying to talk my wife into purchasing a very large boat and just living on it for a few years. We could pay cash for the boat after selling our house ($30,000 to $50,000). It only costs about $2,000 per year to rent a slip, and fuel usage would be minimal. Insurance would also be less than our homeowner’s insurance.

    If we did this, all we would need to pay for is food, boat insurance, boat slip, vehicle gas, and discretionary spending. We could easily get by on about $25,000 per year, which means we could both just work part time, and spend the rest of our time doing whatever we want.

    Needless to say, I am having a hard time talking my wife into this.

    To me it just seems sad to sell so much of my time in exchange for money that gets spent on things that really won’t matter 100 years from now.

  5. JonFrance says:


    You might want to take into account this little dictum:

    “A boat is a hole in the water, surrounded by wood, into which one pours money”

    :) Granted, that’s more about yachting as a hobby than living in a houseboat–it’s actually common in Amsterdam for folks to live in boats because it’s cheaper, IIRC.

  6. Trent,
    This is one of the the things that has eaten at me for several years.
    While you can’t out-frugal your way to monetary wealth, you CAN always make more money.
    You can NEVER make more time.
    Again, just like any decision, it comes down to what you value most.
    Do you value your stuff more than your time? Ufortunately, whether they realize it or not, most people do.
    Sad, to be sure.

  7. Bavaria says:

    A thought provoking, terrific post Trent.
    “Living like that” makes me happy too.
    Keep up the good work!

  8. SEC Lawyer says:


    A prominent doctor in my neighborhood was given a “death sentence” of late-stage cancer, so he resigned from his medical practice, took his children out of school and began to sail the world in his boat. His life became every happy, his children have been hom-schooled, and he has extended his life several years (and counting) beyond what he was “given” by his doctors. Food for thought.

  9. partgypsy says:

    I think there is something a little out of whack with our society that we can tolerate all kinds of religious/spiritual beliefs, political views on both ends of the extreme, diets, hobbies,and all the various “reality show” lives, yet the example of someone living a life of satisfaction not based on material things is seen as – strange, and maybe not possible.

    I find that strange, but not surprising. My husband and I are constantly getting feedback from members on both side of our family that we should trade up our house for a better one. Not because it is a shack or in a bad neighborhood, but simply because we didn’t buy a house at the very top of our price range. We are happy, but it is hard not to second-guess yourself when you are asked the same question all the time.

  10. SEC Lawyer says:


    Don’t do it unless you decide it will improve your lives net of all relevant considerations. And your relatives’ need for you to endorse their way of life by making the same spending decisions that they have made is simply not a relevant consideration, to put it mildly.

    I’m the oldest of six children. Three of my siblings “own” more or bigger residences than mine. But I have all the real estate that I need or want and — note this — my net worth exceeds the net worth of all six of my siblings taken together. I’ll be retiring at least ten years younger than any of them will be able to retire. I don;t point these facts out to them. They are facts nonetheless. They’ve made dumb choices. Not I.

  11. bethh says:

    There’s a nice reminder why I’m happy renting. All my time outside of work is MINE, and I don’t feel compelled to hustle for more income either. (I live in a very expensive area where a crappy condo in a worse area would cost double my rent.)

  12. SEC Lawyer says:

    I’ve come to EXPECT people who spend too much to implore or cajole me to do the same. They don’t want to admit to anyone, most especially themselves, that they are messing up their lives. Part of convincing themselves that they’re doing the right thing is convincing ME to do the same thing.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t work, as I don’t fall for this gambit. When I was younger, it was harder to simply say no (although I did), as there was so little to show for it. There was a “feeling” of comfort and security, but feelings don’t “show” the way consumer goods do. Now that I’m older, however, I demonstrably am MUCH better off than are the spendthrifts around me, which makes it easier to simply say no to them. And, after a while, they stop asking.

  13. wanzman says:

    @ SEC Lawyer:

    That doesn’t surprise me in the least.

    I just got through reading a book called “All in the Same Boat”. Its about a guy who was a lawyer who decided to quit, uproot his family, buy a large sailing yacht and travel the world. I think he has been doing it for over 20 years now.

    Spends most of his time sailing in the Bahamas….sounds pretty good to me….don’t have to worry about traffic.

  14. Molly says:

    @bethh –
    Me too! Isn’t it a nice feeling to work “enough” and not have to worry about falling house prices and upkeep?

  15. chacha1 says:

    And yet, isn’t it interesting that Trent chose to title this post, “Am I Unhappy?” Is there, somewhere, an underlying sense that maybe his view of his life as perfect may involve some rationalizations? a la, am I unhappy and I just don’t realize it?

    I doubt it – I think Trent is sincere in his appreciation for his life (although it’s a life that would drive me nuts in about a week) – but the choice of title is provoking.

    @ Tahlia42 #2 – high five! Ballroom is the bomb. :-)

  16. Stephanie says:

    Trent – I think this ties in beautifully with your other post which followed about your father and “the long decline”. When taken together, I really applaud your perspective. Time is the one thing that we can’t always value in our lives because we don’t know how much of it we have or how much time those that we love have. Sure we can put a dollar figure on a per hour basis for things, but when you get right down to it, I think most of us would be more than happy to trade a flat screen TV for another day with someone we love, but it parent, child or friend. As we are also facing declining parents and a spread out family, one question that we have really focused on when we consider purchases is whether or not this purchase is going to bring us closer to the ones we love or further away. Does the purchase help give us time or does it take time from us?

  17. David says:

    Amen, Trent.

  18. colleen c says:

    I am happy that your wife will be able to stay home for a while after your new baby comes. I think it is a tragedy of American culture that most parents go back to work within 6 weeks and infants go to day care that young. It makes it very hard to exclusively breastfeed, which is extremely important, and the babies get sick so often. The parents are exhausted and overwhelmed. So sad!

    Also happy for your family that you are within driving distance of your families so you can see them regularly. Best of luck in the coming months.

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