Updated on 04.21.09

Eyes on the Prize

Trent Hamm

Right now, in our driveway, sits the oldest, most beat-up looking vehicle on our block. It’s a 1997 Ford F-150 with about 150,000 miles on it. It has some rust spots on the back bumper and a patch of rust near the door. In short, it shows its miles.

I could easily look to the house to the north, where a nice shiny SUV sits in the driveway, or to the south, where a nearly-new minivan sits, and talk myself into getting one. But my eyes are on the bigger prize, so I wait. I’ll wait until my truck literally gives up the ghost.

One of my good friends has an Xbox 360 and is regularly encouraging me to pick one up, too. He wants to play a number of online games against me, particularly Ticket to Ride.

I could easily afford to go pick one up and have a good time playing with my friend. But then I think of the other things I enjoy filling my time with and I realize that I don’t really need that Xbox 360 to be happy. My eyes are on the bigger prize. The money for that Xbox 360 (and for Xbox Live… and for the software I’d need) instead spends its time in my investments and my time is spent on other pursuits.

Several of our neighbors have installed satellite dishes recently, and a few of our friends have asked whether or not we watch various programs that aren’t available on our cable selections.

Again, I could easily get one and enjoy those programs. Again, though, I think about my life and what I enjoy doing now – and I realize I’d have to give up something I enjoy now in order to add that new activity – and new expense. So I keep my eyes on the bigger prize and my money in my pocket.

I could go through dozens of these examples – the neighbor’s lawn service, the wonderful shed behind another friend’s house, my other friend’s enormous separated garage, and so on.

I’d enjoy, on some level, all of these things. It would enable me to keep up with the Joneses. It would give me another enjoyment in my life. And, sure, I’d use all these things, likely quite a bit. And I have the money to do any of those things if I so chose.

This is the thought process that I used to follow when I would buy new things. I’d justify a new gadget with this logic. I’d justify new video games with this logic. I’d justify expensive dinners, kitchen equipment – all kinds of stuff with that logic.

But what I failed to look at was the real cost of doing those things.

For starters, spending the money on one dream means abandoning another one. I could own a shiny new minivan tomorrow, without skipping a beat, but by jumping the gun on that purchase, I’m taking money away from our long term savings for other goals (namely, our big dream of owning a nice home in the country). I could have that Xbox 360, a pile of games, and a Live account, but I’d have to pillage even more of that savings. Ever so slowly, that big dream begins to fade away, stolen by the immediate purchases.

Time is another sneaky cost. As things sit right now, I have more things I want to be doing than hours in the day. I love hours in the yard with my children. I love reading a good book in my favorite chair. I love playing Memory with my kids and playing Ticket to Ride with my wife. I love cooking delicious meals for my whole family. I love the volunteer work I’m involved with. Add on top of that my work interests and basic life upkeep and I have a lot of full days.

If I were to spend my money on these new things, in most of the cases I’d see another time sink. The Xbox would eat away plenty of hours, as would a satellite dish. A new garage would give me a place to hang out and tinker and generally fritter away my hours, as would a shed. Even a new car would suck away some time, as I’d want to read the manual and actually learn the nuances of the new vehicle.

That means taking my eyes away from my bigger goals means less money for them … and less time to spend on the things I enjoy now.

Instead, I have plenty of great things to fill my life right now. I have a great job (writing), a great family, a pile of good books to read, and plenty of things around me to explore. I also have a big dream – the house in the country with the barn out back that I’ve mentioned quite often.

Add the two together – and considering the cost of other, lesser goals – I think I’ll keep my eyes on the prize, and enjoy the ride along the way.

What’s your prize? What’s distracting you from getting there?

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  1. It is all about finding what you value and following after those priorities. For a long time I had no idea what was important to me and as a result was wasting a lot of money on material possessions that brought absolutely no value to my life. It took me a long time to realize how I was destroying my financial future by the decisions I was making today about my money. I eventually realized that I wasn’t aligning my spending with my values and once I was able to do that my relationship with money changed dramatically. I was no longer living my life in pursuit of money in order to buy more Stuff.

    I was able to get out of credit card debt in a very short amount of time by focusing my energy and money towards preparing myself for the future. Since making these changes I am no longer living my life on the verge of disaster. I have eliminated most of my debt and been able to save more money than I ever have. I can afford to buy things with my own money instead of using credit. It feels good to be where I am at today compared to where I was 2 years ago.

    Keeping up with the Joneses is the biggest financial mistake a person can make. I remember looking at the houses on the hill and saying to myself that someday I would be “rich”. Now I realize that these people are not wealthy, but are choking on debt. I’ve also redefined my idea of rich, and it has nothing to do with money.

  2. I can relate with the old rust bucket of a car…I started off with 1987 rusted out Oldmobile that I had to use for years and was content with while I was first living on my own…I was making money, but knew that the current car was running well (but looked ugly) and my money could be used to pay for school/rent instead of going into debt.

    My friend on the other hand would laugh and mock me for having the worst car. They all got loans for cars and were paying interest on items that were depreciating.

    Fast forward years later, these friends are not in that struggle phase now that some are married/have kids/etc because their excessive spending on cars, latest gadgets, etc have all piled onto their small down payment on a large mortgage house…me on the other hand, saved and paid cash for a brand new Lexus last year, own a few properties and have the money in the bank…funny how life turns out!

  3. BT says:

    > spending the money on one dream
    > means abandoning another one

    True enough, but don’t forget the other extreme (which bit me) not spending money on any dream means abandoning all of them. I had my $$, but was tired of living without, so I made a few purchases that turned out to be wasteful. I learned to give myself a little every year (usually on vacation so I don’t relate splurging to every day life).

  4. paula d. says:

    It’s all about priorities. I would rather have no debit and an emergency stash of cash than a brand new car or other toy. I’m still driving my 1996 Volvo, with 242,000 miles on it, and I have no intention of getting rid of it any time soon.

  5. Joey says:

    It’s telling that you’re already pining for another truck just weeks after dropping $22,000+ on a new Prius. If you’d bought used, you could have afforded two vehicles instead of one brand new one that you still won’t own until you’re through with the monthly payments.

  6. Kelly says:

    Right now my prize is being debt-free.
    I love seeing my balances drop as we pay off our debt.

    I put off a lot of things for me, the hubby, and the kids. It’s tough but I know it will be worth it to have this weight lifted.

    After that we’ll start saving cash to renovate our house. We love it here, but it is 40 years old and it shows!

  7. Shymom says:

    Around here keeping up with the Jones is a sport. They have the coolest uniforms and the nicest club house.

    When we first moved here we wanted to go out for the team. Happily, when the time came, we decided against it.

    Once we got to know the Jones we realized that we didn’t really like them, and didn’t want to become them.

  8. Meri says:

    I love my six year old CRV and hope to be driving it for many, many, many more years to come. I’ve put over 120,000 miles on it, but that doesn’t bother me one bit. I will say, when it comes time to buy another car, I will buy new. I know the financial pundits say to buy used, but this is the one area where I want to know the history of the car and the only way to be certain of that is to be the first owner.

    I make some of those other types of sacrifices too, in order to save some money. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of the public library where I can check out not only books but DVDs and CDs as well. I’ve cut back my cable channel package to the most extreme basic service for only $15/month. I am contemplating going to an antenna TV with a digital converter box in order to eliminate the cable bill, but I think that will only come when my 10 year old TV finally gives out.

    I had cut back to only a cell phone, but after a tornado ripped through a town just south of here a couple of weeks ago and the only phones working were the land line ones because of the number of towers knocked out and the number of people trying to call out of or into the area, I’m wondering if that’s such a smart move. I’m still thinking on that one.

    Cutting expenses here and there sure adds up to a lot of savings in the long run.

  9. Dave says:

    +1 to this. I got an XBox 360 but haven’t really even had time to play it because I’ve been too busy doing other things I want to do.

  10. marie says:

    My ‘prize’ is to graduate from university debt-free. Everything else that life puts in my way is distracting. Clothes, going out, being a young adult, wanting to travel, etc.

  11. Andrew B. Watt says:

    I am more than halfway to my goal of saving $10,000, and it feels great to have so much cash in the bank. I’m debt-free, my credit cards are paid off, and I’m starting to spread the gospel of financial savvy to my students.

    But I don’t have a clear sense of what my goals are. That’s the hard part.

  12. Bill in Houston says:

    Always keep your eyes on the prize, dude!

  13. Zella says:

    I’m in the middle of a cross-country move, and it’s amazing what I can live without. I haven’t watched TV in a month, but I’ve been spending more money going out to eat because I miss the socializing that I got from my husband and dogs (who aren’t with me yet). I’ve been completely carless and have loved! walking and bussing everywhere, that I think we’re going to probably go ahead and sell one of the cars as soon as it gets here.

  14. Zella says:

    And what I meant to add is that what’s motivating me to keep this up are the gorgeous houses down the street from my apartment… which are about double what I can afford right now, if not more. But I’ll get there… it’s just nice to have a visible reminder :)

  15. BT says:

    > I am contemplating going to an antenna
    > TV with a digital converter box in order
    > to eliminate the cable bill, but I think
    > that will only come when my 10 year
    > old TV finally gives out.

    Cut to antenna only now. When your TV dies, you will likely buy a new one, and it it is so tempting to keep cable so that you can really use your nice new TV. If you get used to Antenna TV now, you will likely not start your cable up again when your TV dies – you may not even replace your TV.

  16. Sierra says:

    This month, for the first time in a long time, I have a little extra money. Last night I was wondering what to do with it. My wish list of things we could not afford while moving got so long.

    This was a nice reminder that I don’t have to do anything with that money. I can put it aside in savings, or make an extra debt payment,a nd keep right on not gratifying my extra spending whims.

  17. Chef says:

    The prize is Christ – you know that Trent. I’m afraid that you shy away from your faith because it’s not the advertised topic on this blog, but it permeates everything about a true believer. The prize is Christ, material things won’t fill that void as you point out, but neither will financial freedom, retiring early, or other good things like spending more time with your family.

  18. Marie says:

    I realized today that I’m living my dream. I spent 9 years in a college town – an additional 3 after I got my masters waiting for my spouse to graduate with his. We were POOR. Last year we moved and bought a 2000 sq ft home. In a decent part of town. My spouse has a 20 minute commute. He works 40 hours a week, overtime is not permitted. He’s home a lot and homework doesn’t take him away from us anymore. We just got a 2nd car – we own both outright. We have a 4 month e-fund and working to get it to 12. I just had our 3rd kid and since I won’t be pregnant ever again my health will be great.

    If I wait patiently I’ll be able to get the furniture I want and some other stuff for the house. My spouse can get the tools he wants if we take our time.

    Others around us are freaking out and are stressed. We’ve planned for a long time and now the day is here to enjoy our good work. We are calm and moving forward.

  19. Jamie says:

    Just FYI, I drive a 1989 F-150 with 250,000 miles on it, and it still has its original engine and runs great (doesn’t like the cold but…). So keep your nice truck, it will last you a few more years :).

  20. Jules says:

    I know what you mean–the Saturday shopping is turning into a devil’s playground, since I actually have the means to buy Stuff.

    But I’m usually not tempted enough to pull out my wallet, because I know what I want, too.

  21. Carolina says:

    Thanks so very much for this! These have been sentiments I have been echoing lately. I really needed to know I was not a longe.

  22. tadeusz says:

    Besides: a neighbor that wants to play TtR online? Playing with real physical train tokens, poker faces and cold beer is approx. 3.74 as much fun as doing it online on the XBox 360. Come on!

  23. John at PlainCents.com says:

    Whenever I’m tempted to pull into McDonalds, I always remember that dream to be financially free. So, taking the long-term dream over the short-term, I pull away and don’t wait my money. Thanks Trent!

  24. Jennifer says:

    I also drive an old rusty car (1999 Mercury Villager minivan with a rust hole in the hood) while my neighbors drive shiny new Lexuses . . . it’s not always easy, but I have my eye on the prize too! My focus today is on earning extra money through my on line jewelry business – instead of spending extra money. Two short years ago I spent every Saturday shopping, for nothing in particular, just looking for anything I might like to spend my money on, and I always found something! Now we are just one month away from being debt free except for the house!

  25. Wait, I’m confused. You just bought a brand-new Prius (certainly a hot-ticket “keeping up with the Joneses” car, at least where I live!), and you’re still feeling car-poor by comparison to yoru neighbors? That’s really really interesting to me.

    Both the cars in our household are over 10 years, both over 100,000 miles, and sometimes we both get caught up in wanting a shiny new car. I find it interesting to read this post, because it tells me that even someone with our same frugal outlook (times about 10), who goes and gets that “dream” car, will still feel at a material disadvantage because only 1 car is brand-new, and the other is old. Obviously that’s not the point of this post (in fact, it’s kind of the opposite since your end decision is to postpone costly choices for your real goals), but it’s an intersting point that sticks up for me. Hmm, food for thought…

  26. DD says:

    “I could easily look to the house to the north, where a nice shiny SUV sits in the driveway, or to the south, where a nearly-new minivan sits, and talk myself into getting one.”

    Couldn’t you just look in your own driveway and see a brand new Prius? :)

    I’m all for staying away from “time sinks” (I need to limit how many blogs I read), but clearly you have to money to drop on an X-Box, and if you discipline yourself to only play with your friends once in a while, I think you’d really enjoy it.

    Spending time with one’s family is very important and it is fantastic that it’s your #1 priority. But some day your kids will grow up and move away, so you’re gonna want to make sure you maintain your own life too.

  27. olivia says:

    i don’t get all the comments inferring that trent is pining after a new car or feeling “car-poor”. he simply used it as an example of what OTHERS may see and not value as much as he does. just like all the other examples in the post. seriously, where do those negative comments come from? i think this post is awesome and think if more people thought this way, we’d have happier families in this country. unfortunately, these values are rarely seen lived out. many may think they are doing fine with their money & family values or wish they could live this way, but all we have to do is ask our neighbors how stressed they are about their finances to reveal how people really are living out their values.

  28. Kirk Kinder says:

    @ olivia: great points. I see so many people strapped for cash who make solid salaries. This causes an enormous amount of stress, which only hurts the financial burden as they are too stressed to deal rationally with the issue.

    I like the Buddhist maxim that says show me a man with simple needs and I will show you a happy man.

    Despite having all the Xboxes and lavish cars/flat screens/clothing/etc. we are not any happier than our grandparents or our grandparents’ grandparents. Focus on what makes you happy, not gadgets.

  29. Joseph Tanner says:

    I’m just curious. You have your eye on the prize. Have you been keeping dibs on this prize? With the housing market today, you might be able to get it now for much less than in the future, thus saving years of work.

    I’ve found that when we have our “eyes on the prize” so to speak, that we can accomplish almost anything. Stop extra spending, eat in more, etc. When we have a more general goal, it can be harder.

  30. Maranda says:

    I have to say that you might have to wait quite a while for your prize. We have a 94 F150 with over 200,000 miles on it. They really are good trucks :)

  31. KC says:

    I’m totally over keeping up with other people. I have had new cars, designer gear, all the bells and whistles in the past and they didn’t result in happiness. I now drive a 19-year-old car – hey, it’s reliable and that’s all I ask. I don’t shop as a leisure activity at all – in fact I resent having to go shopping when I really need to. I am happy picking up clothes second-hand and that includes corporate-style clothing for work. I revel in being frugal in all that I do.

    And I do all this as my goal is to be debt-free and live a simpler, less-stress life.

  32. J Brown says:

    My main issue is too many prizes. Here is my current issue – I have a 3rd kid coming in Nov. I have two paid for cars that seat ~5. In the meantime, I am on baby step 2: debt snowball. In additional, my small 3bdr townhouse feels full. Lastly, I am a plane ride away from family.

    Do I pick up and move closer to family?
    Do I get an used mini-van, trade in the older car?
    Do I ‘pay’ my dues for x months to get the debt paid off by staying put for 1-2 yrs?

    I do have goals, but it seems that life sometimes has other plans. I too would like that house in the country with land. However, those jobs may not pay as much.

  33. Bill in NC says:

    Repainting an auto is cheap – a $500 paint job will look fine for a few years…from several yards away. :)

    Homes and vehicles are still consumption items, though.

    And the prices for both are still deflating, so why buy now?

  34. guinness416 says:

    To all the stressed out car owners: I’m pretty sure your neighbours could care less about your vehicles. I couldn’t even tell you the colour of my neighbours’ cars, let alone the years or condition.

  35. Foxie says:

    Eh, cars only matter to those who are into them… Of course, my husband and I seem to annoy a lot of our neighbors. We’re always buying and installing new parts on one or both of our cars. What people fail to realize is that much of our money sits in our driveway… I honestly think people think our home has a ton of stuff in it, which it DEFINITELY does not. (Biggest expenses are probably the fish tanks and computers… No LCD flat panel tv here, or pretty furniture sets apart from our bedroom set, or a kitchen full of gadgets like most of our friends’ homes.)

    Of course, cars are what make us happy, so spending our money on our girls is in alignment with our values. :) If it wasn’t, it probably wouldn’t feel so right.

    Then again, I’m an odd-ball when it comes to finances… I want to experience a lot at my age, but not go into debt for any of it. My car provides me with a couple of awesome clubs to get together with, and plenty of events to go to. This year, we went to Myrtle Beach to meet other owners. It was a blast, we made so many friends and I can’t wait to make the trek back next year. I’d rather enjoy some of my money now rather than wait until I’m older… “Youth is wasted on the young,” this is a phrase I take to heart and do not want to be wistfully repeating when I’m older. (A lot of the older guys we meet at our car get-togethers always smile at us, since we’re a fairly young couple with two nice sports cars… What a lot of them wish they could have at our age, since we have so many more years that we can enjoy them!)

    I’m still saving, though. Having fun is great, but ya gotta work to play too.

  36. Todd says:

    Nothing can “literally give up the ghost”.

  37. liv says:

    This article is kinda true, but with really bad comparisons. You have a new Prius, and you have a Wii. So…saying you don’t need a new van and a 360 is pretty obvious, but also a little hypocritical at the same time. you probably didn’t need a shiny new prius or a Wii because those would also take your eye off the prize.

    I can’t remember the commenter, but someone above said that you could’ve bought 2 used cars…i’ve been looking into used sedans and they are totally almost the same price as new ones. So not worthit at this point in time. new cars get my vote because of that (but i’m not buying one for another few years anyways).

  38. Kevin says:

    Hang on, I’m confused. Isn’t this the same guy who just FINANCED a brand-new Prius, even though he works from home?

    And we’re supposed to take his advice about being happy with our old clunkers, so we can keep our eyes on a long-term prize?


  39. Jo says:

    It’s reasons like you state that my SO and I want to distance ourselves from buying a house in a subdivision. We, too, have our eye on the prize – a nice modest country home on 2-5 acres of land. And yes, there are plenty of those available for sale in somewhere PA.

    I recently replaced my poor old ’93 Eagle Vision with 180k miles, completely shot suspension system, all four tires in need of replacement, paint job gone. It was no longer driveable. We replaced it with a 2003 Honda CR-V and only 22k miles on it. We put over half down of the purchase price and got short-term financing from the credit union. My SO received a windfall from the VA – this was a long time coming, too. We could easily have paid for the vehicle with cash, but needed to set aside a certain amount for an upcoming move. Priorities…..

  40. JJ says:

    It’s not just about the Jones next door. It is about the Jones in your head, and the TV screen and screaming from newspaper and magazine and internet ads.

    It is about finding what is right and what is important. Those that scream about credibility issues or forgetting the Prius in the driveway are truly clueless. That is an example, just one, about the choices we make to get through this life and about what is important to us and the tools we use to get there.

    At least, that is my take on it. I will keep my 2 cents for my debt snowball, thank you.

  41. Lisa says:

    Trent, you don’t need an xbox to play Ticket to Ride. You can play remotely (against your friends if you wish) on the daysofwonder website. You already have the computer and internet access.

  42. Lisa says:

    BUT, I should add, playing Ticket to Ride remotely defeats the purpose of it being a more social and interactive event. You can still chat online or skype, but that gets to a point of being pointless.

  43. I think a ‘prize’ for a lot of people is financial stability. They put ‘having things’ higher on their prize list than having money saved and preparing for retirement.

  44. Golfing Girl says:

    A recent problem with Direct TV may be the catalyst that we needed. We’re talking about dumping the satellite and it’s huge bills for the basic of basic plans. That would get us to our goal $40/month at a time…and would probably free up a few hours/week since we’ll have fewer channels. It pains me to think back and add up how much money we’ve wasted over the last 6 years on satellite TV (enough for a trip to Disney World)…
    But that makes me think that I sure don’t want to be telling myself that in another 6 years so I think we’re cancelling TODAY. See you soon Mickey… :)

  45. We already live out our dream of owning a house and it’s on an acre of land. We are now expanding the garden along with planting fruit trees and bushes. I stay at home which is another goal we attained a few years ago. We live a much simpler life than many I know, but I’m also a lot happier than them. I don’t have the stress of working plus all the debt. We are very happy. We are also working on our goals of saving for retirement and fixing up our house. We both knew what we wanted when we got married. We were also fortunate to have a financial windfall that doesn’t happen to most people. I learned years ago to be content and happy with what I have and not worry about what I don’t.

  46. Evita says:

    Great post! and food for tought.
    About that old rusted Ford: keep it but make sure that it is still safe to drive! I kept my Tercel so long that the structure was ready to give out (and with barely a spot of rust on the paint to tip me off). When the mechanic showed me the “lacy” floor from below, I had the shock of my life (and bought a used car five days later).
    Sometimes things are just too old to use!

  47. I like the fact that you include lost time as an opportunity cost. I see many of my neighbors who are always so busy in what George Carlin called “meaningless structure”, that they miss out on the better things in life. It sounds like you’re very disciplined.

  48. emma says:

    I have mixed feelings about delayed gratification. I save heavily for retirement, knowing this will be my primary income at some point. I am not much of a consumer, because I’ve never liked shopping and am not much of a “thing” person. My main money sink is travel and even though I do sacrifice throughout the year to save for our travels, I don’t begrudge my family the here and now pleasures. I could say about ANYTHING, “if I buy this, eat this, spend this, then I won’t have it to spend on another dream 10 years down the road.” I could take away nearly any daily pleasure that costs money to save for something I have my eye on 10 or 20 years from now. But I want to live my life right now, too, travel while my child is young and developing ideas about the world, have experiences that bond us. Many of those experiences don’t cost money, but some do. And even though we have long-term dreams as a family, we give ourselves generous amounts of short-term financial dreams, too. Yes, traveling to Africa takes away from the savings I might have put into retirement, but it gives us HUGE emotional/family non-monetary dividends right now that fortify us and educate us and give us thrill, passion, new experiences, wider-open minds, etc.

    (though I agree that a new car, video game, etc. isn’t worth the amount it would subtract from dreams that have more substance in the long term… we drive old cars too, no tv, no video games… we sacrifice for things that matter to us).

  49. Sharon says:

    The best thing about having an old car that runs well? The thieves are going to go for the shiny new toys!

  50. alex says:

    Thank you Trent. I needed to read that. I’m 20 yrs old and now trying this new thing called delayed sef-gratification. haha this post has helped open my eyes more.

  51. Strick says:

    I wish I had a truck and a good friend with an Xbox!

  52. Good stuff Trent… we need to keep our focus on the right things… other things are simply distractions.

    Thanks for sharing!

  53. Thanks for posting this, very wise words.

  54. Randy says:

    What an absolutely great post. Truly either the best or one of the best ever. I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and truly, we cannot take them with us. Let’s enjoy our families. Keep smiling all! This was inspirational in dark times.

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