Whenever I see a headline like that, I can’t help but think that it’s drenched in positive thinking.
Then, I look at a day like yesterday.
Yesterday, I didn’t really feel like working. At all. The motivation to write was nonexistent. I didn’t feel inspired and the words were simply not coming out. So, I got up and headed over to Ledges State Park. I packed a backpack with a lunch, a full water bottle, some bug spray, and a few other odds and ends and I headed out on a solo hike that took me a large portion of the day.
About halfway through, after climbing a big hill, I was completely winded, so I stopped for a while. I sat down against a tree and read a book in the natural light for a while, maybe half an hour or so.
I got back to my car in the mid-afternoon, drove home, and met my kids as they got off the bus. We went on a short geocaching run to see if there was something wrong with our geocache (there was – it had fallen into some water), then we came back home and made supper together.
After supper, I sat out in a comfortable chair on the back deck and read for another hour.
At the end of the day, I felt fantastic – that kind of physical and mental tiredness where all you can think about is going to bed but you feel good because you’ve been using your body and mind so hard.
Here’s the thing: What I described is almost exactly what I want in terms of a normal day-to-day life. That’s the life I want, one where I get exercise and fresh air, where I exercise my mind thoroughly to boot, where I get quality time with the people I care about.
When you break it down, that vision for what I would like my day-to-day life to look like doesn’t require a whole lot of money. I spent a large portion of the day walking on a trail in a state park, which is basically free. I went exploring with my kids – also free. I read a book, which was free from the library. I prepared my own meals, which means that they were about as low cost as possible.
Why? When people visualize their ideal day-to-day life, it’s almost always oriented around experiences, not stuff. It’s all about the things they would do, not stuff they would own. (This isn’t universally true, but it’s extremely common when I hear from readers or have face-to-face conversations.)
I hear about the books they would read, the projects they would work on, the local things they would get involved with. These choices don’t involve having more stuff – typically, they already have all of the stuff they need. They involve time, along with a perception that they currently don’t have enough for the things they want to do.
My question, in response to those desires, is why aren’t you doing those things right now?
The answers are almost always flimsy. A very common answer is “I’m so busy…” but when that statement gets pressed, it’s often hard to nail down what makes them so busy. I’ll often hear about nebulous commitments, too.
The truth? The average American watches five hours of television a day. They also spend somewhere around three hours a day using the internet for non-work purposes (this includes smartphone use). For most people, that’s where a lot of time goes, but it’s time that isn’t noticed very much.
There’s nothing wrong with watching television or using the internet, but when that’s filling your time and creating an impression that you don’t have time for other things, it’s actually blocking you from living the life that you want to live.
So, what does this have to do with personal finance?
Before I figured this issue out about how I was using my time, I used to just throw money at hobbies and interests that I really wanted to devote time to, but I never felt like I had the time.
For example, I often felt like I never had enough time to play strategy board games, something I’ve been passionate about for many years. My solution? I bought a lot of them. I would read the rules before bed. I would think about playing them. But I would never actually get them to the table. This ate up money and eventually filled a lot of shelves.
I did a very similar thing with books. I never felt like I had enough time to read a book, something I’ve been passionate about since I was a third grader reading Encyclopedia Brown books. My solution? I bought tons of books. I’d look at the covers and read the back and add them to my bookshelf and rarely actually read them.
Those actions were substitutes for things that I wanted to be doing. They were really expensive, too.
The thing is, they didn’t bring me any lasting joy. They were pretty obvious substitutes for things I wanted to be doing.
A few years ago, I had an epiphany. Any time I wasn’t spending on an actual work task or on a worthwhile home task was time I could be spending on things I truly care about. When I’m distracting myself from work with a YouTube video or when I “veg out” on the couch to watch SportsCenter, I’m sucking away time from those things I really care about.
If I’m tired and I need some “down time,” I either go to bed or I do household tasks that need to be done so that I have free time when I’m more awake.
The end result of this approach is that I usually have an afternoon and an evening to actually play strategic games each week. I usually have time for a multi-hour hiking session once or twice a week when the weather is nice. I set aside at least an hour a day for uninterrupted book reading. I’m spending a few hours a week doing volunteer work, too.
Because of those changes, my desire to buy “stuff” for my interests has greatly abated because now I’m actually getting to enjoy those interests.
The truth is this: Your time use defines the gap between the life you have and the life you want more than your money use. Your money is primarily useful for maintaining that day-to-day life you want and securing your ability to continue to enjoy that life you want going forward.
So, here’s some actions you can directly take to start building the life you want.
First, start scheduling regular blocks of time for things you want to do. For example, I devote Sunday afternoons to board games. I often read for an hour between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. each day, which borders the arrival of my children coming home from school. I block off my mornings almost every day for work tasks (and I try to do them with minimal distraction and maximum focus) and early afternoon for exercise. I try to block off the first half of one day a week for a hike in a state park. I block off two to three hours each evening for focused family time. Those are things that are important to me that I want to do and I treat them as pretty firm walls.
Outside of those blocks of time, stick to tasks that need to get done. Bear down on your work tasks and your household tasks. Don’t be afraid to spend a whole evening doing household tasks if there’s nothing on television. I’m lucky to be able to use such flexibility for my work tasks as well, meaning that on days when I don’t have blocks of time cordoned off for personal finance tasks.
What you’ll find is that by cutting out tasks that aren’t bringing value into your life, you will suddenly have time for the things in your life that you think you don’t have time for. You will suddenly be able to, in large part, live the life you want to live right now.
Even better, you’ll no longer have that drive to buy things as a substitute for being able to do things. The library started to make a lot more sense to me because now I’m actually reading books instead of merely buying them, for instance. I don’t have time to learn about the latest board games and desire them and buy them because I’m actually playing the games that fill up my shelves (and the shelves of my friends). I have a tighter relationship with my family because I’m actually spending quality time with them and I don’t feel the need to throw money after “special experiences” to make up for time that I didn’t spend with them.
In short, I have a life closer to the one I want to live and I spend a lot less money on stuff for my interests and passions because I’m too busy doing things rather than accumulating items.
Choose the day-to-day life you want to live. Shape the contours of your life to give you the freedom to do those things. You won’t regret it, and neither will your wallet.