Balancing Financial Success and Meaningful Life Experiences

Megan writes in with a great question:

It seems to me that working toward financial success by spending significantly less than you earn is directly opposed toward having a life full of meaningful experiences. For most Americans spending 30-40% less than you earn puts you in a hand-to-mouth existence, cutting off opportunities for things like travel. How do you square those two things?

This is a really important topic, one that I briefly addressed a long time ago but one that I think deserves a much more thorough discussion.

The first thing that we need to look at is what exactly constitutes a meaningful life experience? I don’t think there is a universal answer to that question. However, I will share my own definition: a meaningful life experience is a life experience that changes or strongly reaffirms your perspective on the world and your place in it.

Because that definition is so focused on the self, it’s fairly hard to definitively say that one particular experience is “meaningful” and another is not, because what is “meaningful” is entirely connected to the person having that experience. What is meaningful for me is not necessarily meaningful for you, and vice versa. It is important to keep this in mind, because later in this article, when I’m discussing specific meaningful life experiences, I can really only rely on (a) what’s meaningful for me and (b) what’s said to be meaningful by lots of other people. That does not necessarily guarantee that such experiences will be meaningful for you, or vice versa.

The Price Spectrum of Meaningful Activities

Let’s say you sit down and make a list of the most meaningful and memorable experiences of the last month, the last year, and of your whole life. Just make a list of them. Which experiences in your life have been truly profound and meaningful for you?

I could make a pretty nice list. Off the top of my head, mine would include the following several items:

+ You might think I’d write about my wedding, but it was actually part of my honeymoon with my wife that felt incredibly memorable to me. We were on a train and she was sitting next to me with her back resting on me reading a book while I was looking out the window at the English countryside and I had this realization that we were now a married couple.

+ About three days after we brought our son home from the hospital, he fell asleep on my chest on our couch and I fell asleep there, too. He slept for almost six hours straight, which was the longest period of time he’d slept thus far. When he started to stir, it woke me up, and I looked at him with my sleepy eyes. His mouth was moving as though he was hungry, but he wasn’t upset yet. Rather, he seemed to really look at me for the first time. That was the moment that parenthood really clicked into place for me.

+ We were on a family hike on a long trail at Yellowstone that led into some backcountry terrain that was littered with small hot springs. It was a really cold day, but because we were in this tight little area with so much spring activity, it was almost warm there. It was so far back on the trails that it seemed like no one else was around, so we all sat down and took off our backpacks and our coats and watched the springs and mud holes bubble around us. My children had been arguing some earlier in the day but they suddenly seemed to really appreciate each other as they sat next to each other in a huddle and just looked around, and my wife grabbed my hand, and everything just felt good.

+ The first time I had a really meaningful meditation session, a few years ago. I often lose track of time when meditating and so I set a timer if I’ve got any other commitments, but this day I just sat down without a timer. About twenty five minutes in, probably my longest meditation session I’d ever done to that point, I had a really profound experience. It felt like I simultaneously noticed everything in the room at the same time, as though I felt connected to everything. This was a hugely profound and memorable experience for me.

+ I was standing in the Art Institute of Chicago looking at the Vincent van Gogh painting The Bedroom / Bedroom at Arles. It’s one of my favorite paintings and I just stood there enjoying it deeply, kind of lost in my own thought. After a bit, my daughter came up beside me and quietly said, “That painting looks real and not real at the same time.” I said, “I know,” and we stood there staring at it for a while longer.

I could go on and on naming these kinds of things, but you get the idea.

The thing is, I can put each of these experiences on a spectrum in terms of cost.

The meditation moment was absolutely free. The moment with my son was essentially free. The hike in Yellowstone was relatively inexpensive, as was the stop at the Art Institute of Chicago (we have family and friends in Chicago and visit them somewhat regularly). The only truly expensive moment on that list was the moment during the train ride in England.

The lesson is this: a lot of the truly impactful experiences in my life didn’t really cost that much. Yes, some did, but many others came without a stiff price tag attached.

If I were to focus solely on inexpensive life experiences, I would really only cut out one of those five experiences. The other ones could be recreated fairly closely for a small amount of money; two of them would have a small cost and the other two would basically be free.

To further test this idea, I made a list of fifty meaningful experiences in my life. I won’t bore you with that full list, but I entered them all in a spreadsheet and then estimated the cost to me personally to recreate each one of them as close as I possibly could (some of them are impossible, so I just did my best). 41 out of 50 of those experiences could be recreated for less than $200. 27 out of 50 of those experiences could be recreated for less than $10.

What’s the lesson here? You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a lot of meaningful life experiences. When I made a list of fifty meaningful life experiences from my own life, more than half of them were essentially free, and another 14 weren’t quite free but could be recreated for less than $200. If I cut out all of the expensive meaningful life experiences I’ve had, I’d lose less than 20% of them.

Living an inexpensive lifestyle does not mean cutting out meaningful life experiences, at least not for me. My life has been chock full of meaningful experiences and a frugal lifestyle doesn’t choke them off in the least.

Trimming the Expensive Life Experiences

The next thing I ask myself, however, is what was the truly meaningful element of each experience. With the Yellowstone hike, it was the moment with my family where we had all been exercising together and spending time together. With the moment holding my son, it was simply father-son bonding. At the Art Institute, it was father-daughter bonding mixed with art appreciation. Even with the train ride, it was a moment of bonding with my wife.

It turns out that most of the expensive experiences that really impacted me could have happened in a different context. For example, I likely would have had some sort of epiphany about my wife regardless of whether we were on a train in England or not; we could have had a honeymoon almost anywhere that we hadn’t been before and I would have had a similar moment.

This isn’t to say that travel or high-priced experiences aren’t worthwhile; they are. They’re just not a guarantee of a meaningful life experience, and quite often the meaningful life experiences you have through those events can be found elsewhere.

Thus, I don’t think you have to have an endless string of expensive events in your life in order to have a lot of meaningful experiences. Rather, I’ve found that most of the meaningful experiences in my life are actually payoffs in a way; they often come as the result of some sort of sustained effort.

Let me dig into what I mean by that.

The Garden of Life: Frequent Sources of My Own Meaningful Life Experiences

Looking back across my list of fifty meaningful life experiences, I’ve noticed that there were a number of consistent threads throughout those experiences. I view those elements as being “spiritual gardens” of a sort, as they are life elements that can be cultivated over time and provide consistent meaningful experiences where that cultivation really pays off.

In other words, I’ve found that the vast majority of meaningful experiences in my life were capstones on top of a large investment of time and energy and emotion rather than an investment of money. I like the garden analogy because the blooms of a beautiful garden only occur when you’ve spent a lot of time out there with them and they mean more if you’ve had your hands in the soil and pulled out the weeds and added the fertilizer yourself.

If you cultivate some “gardens” in your life, they’ll consistently provide you with happiness and with a steady drip of meaningful experiences.

Here are the nine “gardens” I really noticed in my life as strong sources of meaningful experiences. There are many possible “gardens” that people might cultivate in their lives; these are just sources of meaningful experiences from my own life. I often find that deeply meaningful experiences come when these gardens overlap in my life. It is strongly worth noting that cultivating these “gardens” is much more of an investment of time, energy, and emotion rather than money.

Strong relationships with other people The strong relationships I have with my parents, my wife, my children, and a few key friends have been a constant source of meaningful experiences in my life. Most of the deeply meaningful experiences in my life have involved at least one person with whom I’ve cultivated a strong relationship with. Sometimes the key experiences come from the process of relationship building; at other times, they come from sharing an experience with that person.

Reading and learning For me, meaningful experiences often come from reading and learning new ideas. Understanding something new (or in a new way) or being absorbed into a story by a skillful writer is often the source of deeply meaningful experiences for me.

Introspection has consistently provided me with deep, meaningful life experiences. I noted earlier that one of my first powerful meditation experiences was a truly meaningful experience in my life; I’ve also found them in journaling and in other introspective activities where I gain some greater understanding of myself.

Exploring nature I tend to have meaningful experiences when I’m outdoors and in a natural environment. A lot of my most meaningful experiences occurred in forests and national parks and state parks, hiking in the backcountry or walking along an interesting trail.

Exploring art A surprising number of my meaningful life experiences have come from visiting art museums and art installations. I would not have expected this, actually, but when I made my list of “fifty memorable things,” art popped up surprisingly often.

Trying new things I’ve found that simply trying new things often becomes a source of a memorable experience, particularly when I’m doing it with someone I have a strong relationship with or when that experience draws on skills that I already have.

Visiting new places, though they don’t have to be far flung Memorable experiences often occur in my life when I’m in a new place where I don’t have an inherent familiarity with the location and there’s something new around every bend. Having said that, this does not inherently require extensive travel; I’ve had meaningful experiences in small towns in Iowa that I’ve never visited before. It’s simply the newness of the place to me.

Intense personal challenge (flow state) Whenever I take on an intense personal challenge, something that really draws on my physical and mental abilities and forces me to perform to the maximum of my abilities and thus draws my focus so strongly that I lose track of time and place (this is often called “flow”). I find that, while those sessions themselves aren’t memorable, that feeling afterwards, where I feel calm and content and really happy with what I’ve done, is often very memorable, particularly when I’ve done something quite big over a lot of “flow” sessions. I’ve felt it after intense workouts, after really productive writing sessions, and so on.

Charitable work This is something of a “meta” mix of focused effort, new experiences, and spending time with people I care about, but I find that charitable work popped up regularly on my list of meaningful life experiences. I think it’s just something I’ve done a lot because it’s a great mix of elements that are otherwise meaningful to me.

Meaningful Life Experiences and Money

In the end, for me personally, I don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a ton of meaningful and profound life experiences. I can find them in my own home or in my own neighborhood with regularity, or with short distance travel from my home.

While there are meaningful experiences to be found in things like travel and expensive experiences near your home, they don’t need to be a frequently repeated source of meaningful experiences in your life. Rather, meaningful experiences can be found and cultivated by investing time and love and energy into things, not just money.

In the end, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea that meaningful experiences are often the result of an investment, but that investment does not have to be an investment of money. If you’re willing to invest other resources in your life into “gardens” that will eventually grow into sources of meaningful experiences, then you can have a deeply fulfilling life full of meaningful experiences without frequently spending money trying to seek out those experiences.

Use your money instead to build and secure those “gardens” that produce meaningful life experiences. Eliminate debt. Build an emergency fund. Start building toward financial independence. Those things will lower the stress of your life and likely make it much easier to enjoy meaningful life experiences while also building toward the big dreams that you have in a sustainable way.

Good luck!

Read more by Trent Hamm

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.