During the first few years of marriage, my wife and I were largely directionless. We both had jobs that paid fairly well that we enjoyed and we had a vague sense that we wanted to have children someday and wanted to have a nice house someday… and that was about it. I had really vague dreams of being a writer at some point, but I envisioned myself being a lot older when I thought about it.
We drifted. We went out a lot. We traveled a lot. We basically just lived for the moment.
I could look back on those years, when we were in our early and mid-20s and were simply drifting through life, and say that I regret them, but I don’t, not on the whole, anyway.
There are really only two things I would change, looking back. One, I wish I had chosen to spend more of our time doing things that would have helped me figure out what I wanted from life. Two, I wish I had saved a little more and spent a little less. Neither one of those changes would have radically shifted how we spent those years, but they would have done a lot to change my life as it is now.
To me, those two principles are really the answer to one key question, one that comes up quite a lot in questions I get for the reader mailbag: How do I not make my life into a train wreck as I find my direction in life? People ask that question in some indirect way at least once a week.
Today, I’m going to give my best general answer to that question, and it’s somewhat encapsulated in the two changes I’d make above. In general, there are two things you really need to do if you feel directionless but are scared of wasting your life just wandering through it. Let’s address them in turn.
Finding Direction and Meaning Without Losing Freedom
One of the big realities of personal finance success is that it’s really hard to motivate yourself to make good financial moves if you’re not doing it for any reason that benefits your life. Once you get beyond some basic steps (which I’ll talk about below), it’s pretty difficult to convince yourself to take on meaningful financial initiatives because doing so eats into other aspects of your life. It’s pretty hard to buy into the idea of saving for a very unclear goal in the future if it takes away money from enjoying life today, in other words.
Thus, one big part of the equation for finding financial success in a life without direction is taking some basic steps to figure out that direction. It all boils down to a single question, really:
Where do you want to be in the future?
It is completely okay and completely normal to have no good answer to that question. If you see that question and draw a complete blank, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with you. You’re not a failure. You’re not a weirdo. I’ve been there, as have most people that I know.
The first question, really, is do you need a direction in life? I think the answer is yes, but that “direction” doesn’t always mean the same thing for everyone.
What do I mean by that? I think having some anchors in life – good reasons to get out of bed in the morning and feel some excitement about the day ahead – is really useful for everyone. Without that, life does feel pretty empty. You can quickly find yourself in a cycle of things that are pleasant but not meaningful.
The one single meaningful anchor I had in the first few years of my marriage – and the one thing I built that really lasts from those years – was a strong relationship with my wife, and that’s all I really have from years of living. As much as my wife means to me, a full and rich life means having more anchors than just her (and I think she’d agree and say the same thing about herself – in fact, I know she would because we’ve had these kinds of conversations).
However, those anchors don’t have to lead anywhere in particular. Sure, some of them lead to big things. You might be anchored by a career you love that you want to build to a certain level (but you don’t have to be). You might be anchored by children and you want to raise them to be successful and independent adults (again, that doesn’t have to be your anchor). Or, on the other hand, you might just be anchored by something as simple as learning new things every day.
All that an anchor really is, then, is an area of your life that you want to improve about yourself or about the world around you, or something that you want to explore with more depth. That’s it. It really can be anything, as long as it’s something that you want to be better by the end of any given day. What do you want to be better about your life?
For me at that time, my one main anchor was my wife, and I wanted to constantly improve and strengthen my relationship with her. At the time, I didn’t really see it as a direction in life, but looking back, it obviously was.
Today, I have lots of anchors. My relationship with my wife is still a big anchor, but it’s now joined by the anchors that are my three children. Each day, I want to do what I can to be a supportive parent and help build them into functional adults to the best of my ability. Writing is an anchor – each day, I want to write (or conceive of ideas for) things that will help improve people’s lives. Learning is an anchor – I devote time literally each and every day to learning. And those are just some of the anchors I have, and together they provide a real sense of direction in my life. Some of my anchors have big destinations at the end. Others don’t. All of them, however, convince me to spring out of bed in the morning.
My sole piece of advice to anyone who feels directionless is this: Find some anchors. They don’t have to be big directions in life. They just have to be things that you’re excited to grow in each and every day. What do you want to dive into today? What do you want to be stronger when you go to bed tonight? Figure those things out.
How do you find those anchors, though? Try things. Try lots of things. If you don’t know how to do that, one way to start is to go to your city’s community calendar on the city’s website and go to as many of those things as you can possibly schedule just to see what they are. Do the same thing with your local library. Do the same thing with Meetup. Make a list of everything about yourself that you’re unhappy with, then try to find a couple of ways to correct each one, then do those things enough times so that you can get some actual feedback on whether they’re working. Make a list of things you want to learn about and try learning them, whether from a book or a deep dive into Wikipedia (to start) or a class or something else. Just try stuff.
What you’ll find is that a lot of that stuff just flows right by you. It’s not particularly interesting or exciting, and that’s fine. What you’re looking for are the things that resonate. Those are the things that you find yourself deeply enjoying in the moment, or you find your mind flicking back to constantly, or you find yourself thinking about when you go to sleep or wake up. Those things are potential anchors. Start digging into them. Do more of them. See how deeply that burgeoning interest goes.
What if you don’t feel like you have time for trying things? Well, for one, I’m not sure how you can feel directionless and also feel like you have zero time, but if you do find yourself there, drop some things. You’re clogging up your life with stuff you don’t find to be meaningful, so clear it out. Divest yourself of responsibilities, starting with the ones that have minimal effect on other people.
What you’ll find is that once you have several anchors, things you’re really excited about and want to dig into every day, your sense of directionlessness starts to fade. You do have a purpose – in fact, you have a lot of purpose. Sometimes, you’ll find that several of those anchors have a lot of synergy – they build on each other. You may also find that some of them point to an end goal or two – that’s a long-term goal, right there. You might even call it… a direction in life. At this point in my life, I think that a “direction in life” simply means that you have a lot of anchors with some synergy between them that call you to fill a significant portion of your day on things that fulfill multiple anchors.
You may also find that you really wish you could find ways to open up more of your life to these anchors, and that’s when we start getting into the financial part of things.
Anchors and Finances
Early on in this journey, you may not have any life anchors, or you may not have very many. You still feel directionless. What do you do?
At that point, the best thing you can do is to simply keep your options as wide open as you possibly can. You do not want to find yourself mired into a situation where you’re stuck in a job or stuck facing a lot of debt payments (thus requiring you to only be able to take certain jobs).
In other words, if you’re directionless, live as lean as you can. If you have debt, pay it off. If you don’t have an emergency fund (meaning you don’t have at least a month or two in living expenses in your savings account), build that up. Try to avoid taking on any more debt. Keep up to date on all of your bills and if you happen to be behind on any of them, make catching up a priority.
If it’s available to you, saving a reasonable amount for retirement is also a good move. Even if you don’t have anchors in life, you’re going to get older, and eventually it’s going to be more difficult and less compelling to work. If your work offers a 401(k) – especially if they offer any matching funds – put aside some money into there. If you don’t have that, start up a Roth IRA and contribute around 10% of your take-home income. If you’re making over $100,000 a year, you may not be eligible for a Roth, so learn more about Roth IRAs if you’re in that boat.
At the same time, live reasonably cheap. You don’t need to live like a miser, but you should be spending enough less than you earn so that you can save for retirement and build up an emergency fund without building up more debt. Learn how to prepare food at home instead of eating out constantly. Ditch cable unless you watch it a lot. Either find an apartment or a house close enough to work that you don’t have to drive there (and can maybe then ditch a car) or else find a cheap apartment or house. Look at smaller ones than you expect. Don’t replace your car until it’s in bad shape, not just because your lease is up or you’re no longer making payments. Those steps alone will get you there without really interfering with the things you do for enjoyment.
That’s really all you need to be doing if you don’t have a direction in life. It’s simple.
Now, as I mentioned above, if you feel directionless in life, the best thing you can do is to start finding anchors, and the more you find, the better your life will be. Anchors are simply things that make you want to get out of bed in the morning and things you genuinely want to improve at in some capacity each day. I want to improve my relationship with my wife and kids each day. I want to be healthier each day. I want to help people each day. I want to learn some things each day. Those are anchors for me because they’re meaningful enough for me that they push me out of bed each morning out of pure zest for making them happen.
Once you have enough anchors, you’ll find that one of two things start to happen. You’ll find that either your anchors are synergistic enough that they start giving you a clear single direction in life, or you’ll find that you have so many anchors that you want more time and energy to devote to them. Let’s address them separately.
What if you find yourself with a burgeoning “direction in life”? If that describes you, then you should orient your finances – everything you spend, everything you save, and so on on – around that direction. What kind of financial support does that direction need? Where is it leading and how will I have the money I need when I get there?
For me, my general direction in life pushes me toward helping my children become independent as they enter their twenties and then being prepared to fill in that empty time at that point. Thus, I’m saving for their college educations using 529 plans and I’m also saving for what will likely amount to a major career shift at that point. A lot of the anchors in my life synergize as I approach age fifty, so my financial plans are all about making sure everything launches at that point.
What if you just have a bunch of seemingly unrelated anchors that you’d love to be able to cultivate more? If that’s your situation, your financial planning should orient toward removing responsibilities and requirements from your life that aren’t anchors.
For many people, that means finding their way out of their current job, and thus they’re talking about either a major career switch or early retirement. In either case, you suddenly have a ton of incentive to really tighten your spending so that you can either amp up your retirement savings so that you can retire as early as possible or clear out all of your debt and other regular bills and perhaps save enough money quickly so that you can easily make a career switch.
A meaningful life is one where you have plenty of anchors to fill your days with joy and adequate resources to support those anchors. It may be that those anchors do form an overall “life direction” for you, and that’s great, but they don’t have to. They just need to give you meaning when you get out of bed each morning, and the financial role in that is to ensure that those anchors are well supported and secure.
We really need to talk about frugality’s role here. The areas of your life that aren’t anchors should draw as little of your money as possible. If you’re pulled out of bed with excitement each morning by the kind of soap you use in the shower, that’s great, but if you’re not, you shouldn’t be using anything more than the best “bang for the buck” soap bought at the best sale price you can find. Store brands and discounts should be your friend.
The real trick, though, is distinguishing between anchors and “perks.” Many people find themselves in a nonstop flood of “perks” in their life, where they buy high-quality and expensive versions of things that aren’t really anchors in their lives. Take coffee, for instance. Many people love their morning coffee, but is it one of the reasons they get out of bed with excitement in the morning? For some, sure; for many, probably not. If that’s not you, there’s nothing wrong with a morning coffee to wake you up, but you should be focused on finding a decent cup of coffee at a great price.
I have one friend who is an absolute coffee connoisseur – he absolutely loves it. He roasts his own beans and can wax at length about different bean types and roasting techniques. He has thousands of dollars in coffee brewing and coffee making equipment. Coffee is his anchor and that’s awesome – I don’t begrudge him investing his money in it.
If that’s not you, then coffee is a perk at best. Sure, enjoy a great cup as a treat, but don’t make it a daily thing. Find a way to make a decent cup as cheap as possible each morning and roll through life.
The recipe here is simple. Find your anchors. Invest in them. Don’t invest in things that aren’t anchors. That’s the secret to financial success in a life that feels directionless.
Your first step is to start seeking anchors without doing anything to disrupt your finances or bury yourself in a corner while seeking them out. Sure, that might mean working at a job that doesn’t excited you for now, and that’s okay. Focus your money on keeping as many options open as possible for you and focus your time and energy on exploring more avenues of life so that you can find the things that excite you.
After that, once you’ve found some anchors, hone your financial plans around those anchors. Trim the money and energy you spend on the things that aren’t anchors so that you can adequately support your true anchors. That might mean ditching hobbies or even cutting things that other people consider essential (like cable, for instance). Follow your anchors. Trust them. Support them. Sure, they may not collectively give you a direction, but what they will do is give every day meaning.
Good luck on your journey.