A Life Well Lived

One of the best people I’ve ever known celebrated his 90th birthday very recently. His children put together a wonderful birthday party for him and invited tons of people – old friends, extended family members, all kinds of folks. There were people I knew well, people I knew vaguely, people I didn’t know at all, all drawn together to celebrate this occasion.

At events like this, the most wonderful part is how our shared relationships with this guy drew us all together. It was the common touchstone for all of us, and because of that, stories about him flowed. I wound up swapping stories about the guest of honor with all kinds of people and getting to know some of them along the way.

The thing that stuck out to me more than anything else was that people really don’t care what kind of house you have or what kind of car you drive or whether you have the latest gadgets. No one at that party cared in the least about any of that. They cared about the person – his humor, his kindness, his generosity, his good advice, his character, his reliability. So many of the stories involved the guest of honor opening his door to someone or showing up in a needed moment or coming through over and over again or doing something hilarious.

I didn’t hear stories about his house or the cars he drove or the fancy restaurants he dined at or how well he dressed or anything like that. That’s not what drew literally hundreds of people to his party. That’s not what filled all the bedrooms in several nearby houses and had people camping in tents and campers.

He spent much of the party holding court, with people sitting down to chat with him for a bit, then making room for other people. The sheer number of people and memories that shifted across his table in that afternoon was almost unbelievable, a true celebration of a lifetime of memories.

When I’m 90, what will I remember?

I won’t remember going out to expensive restaurants with my wife or with my friends. I will remember eating with them and laughing with them and enjoying their company.

I won’t remember the expensive watch I owned forty years ago. I will remember a random lazy afternoon with my kids when we rolled down hills and blew tufts of dandelions.

I won’t remember that I had the latest and greatest smartphone. I will remember being able to be there for a friend, and when they were there for me.

I won’t remember the books that filled my bookshelf. I will remember the things I learned from reading books, the lessons they taught me, and some of the great stories.

When I’m at my 90th birthday party, I don’t want to hear people talking about my board game collection. I’d rather hear them talking about the time we stayed up most of the night playing a game together, or how I showed up at their doorstep when they were down with a sack of food, some beverages, and a board game and spent the evening with them.

When I’m at my 90th birthday party, I won’t remember the exact details of some trip I went on with friends years and years ago, but I will remember us doing something new and laughing together.

When I’m at my 90th birthday party, I won’t remember the money I frivolously spent, but I will remember when I was able to help a friend and when they were able to help me.

Those are the things he remembers and laughs about when he talks about his life. Those are the sources of the pieces of wisdom he offers, the things that just come naturally from him. Those are the things that people talk about when they talk about him.

His old farmhouse isn’t full of expensive artifacts from forgotten trips. They’re full of meaningful memories, of things made by him and things made for him by loved ones, of photographs, of well-used and well-loved functional items.

The people who came to that party weren’t there hoping for a spot in a will. They were there to appreciate a wonderful person. They remember his character. They remember time spent with him. They remember the skills he had. They remembered what he gave of himself.

Those things aren’t bought. They’re earned over a lifetime of living.

When I look ahead at the life I have yet to live and I ask myself whether I’d rather have a house full of stuff or a life full of good memories and great relationships, I want the latter, and it’s not even a question.

That’s why my financial plans are largely in service of that. I want to have a life that gives me the ability to be there for friends, to be a part of people’s lives, to be more than just a career and a shiny car and a nice house.

I don’t want to end up in an empty house full of stuff with my kids counting down the days to clean it out and sell it off, without friends and people in my life.

With every year that has passed, he has taught me how to live that life. You don’t get there by spending money on forgettable things. You get there by spending time and care on the people in your life. You don’t get there by getting. You get there by giving.

Later that evening, as the festivities were winding down, I wound up sitting fairly close to the guest of honor, engaged in a conversation that he was merely listening to. I looked over at him and he looked absolutely tired, but he had this half-smile on his face that simply said he’d rather be there than anywhere else in the world.

After he went to bed, about forty people were still hanging out, playing cards and swapping stories and laughing. I can’t imagine a better sound to fall asleep to.

Thanks for the example, Herb.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.