Financial Success Is a Lifestyle Outcome, Not a Skill or a Fad

When I first started making financial changes in my life, I believed at first (and for a surprisingly long time after that) that the changes I was making to my life were largely short term changes. Sarah and I would “get ourselves on a good financial track” and we’d basically go back to the lifestyle we had before.

As I started making changes, however, I began to realize that a lot of the changes I was making to my life were strictly better than the way I was doing things before.

For example, we started buying a lot of store brands, and we learned that for the most part, they were basically identical to name brands in every way other than perhaps the aesthetic appeal of the packaging. We just switched to buying store brands for most things, and we probably buy an even higher percentage of our items in store brand form today.

Another example: we started trying to fill our weekends with new things by challenging ourselves to a “money free weekend”, where we’d try to go from Friday after work to Monday morning without spending any money. We actually grew to love these and actually did a lot of “money free weeks” where we wouldn’t spend any money from Friday after work until Monday morning ten days later. I wrote about money free weekends quite a bit when we were really diving deep into them, listing deeply fulfilling ways to spend a money free weekend and other similar pieces, eventually culminating in a giant list of 100+ things to do on a money free weekend.

I could list dozens of these changes – installing energy efficient light bulbs, making meals at home, shopping around more carefully when we made a significant purchase, etc. etc. – that all produced the same end result: a life that was at least roughly equal or notably better in non-financial terms and strictly better in financial terms than the life we were leading before.

These new routines that we were discovering weren’t the temporary changes we expected them to be. It became pretty evident pretty quickly that these changes should be permanent, as the upside that they produced in our life was quite clear.

So they became permanent. They became the backbone of a lifestyle that was just as enriching (if not more so) than our previous lifestyle, but the difference was that it was financially positive. Rather than seeing our net worth stay in place or go down year over year, it went up drastically each year.

We still go out to eat, but it’s a pretty rare thing to do so. We took our oldest son out for a birthday dinner recently and we realized that the last time we had eaten out before that was for another child’s birthday two months earlier (excepting a trip that we went on for a remote wedding). We just realized that eating at home was usually more convenient and pretty tasty and usually healthier, and the better we got at cooking, the easier it became. We can usually make dinner, serve it, eat together as a family, clear the table, and load the dishwasher before we would have even ordered at one of the nearest restaurants to our home. Plus, I’ve come to really value doing dinner-related tasks as a family, where we’re loading the dishwasher or prepping food together and just talking about life. This is a net improvement in our life, not just because of the money, though the money is a strict improvement.

We still stop at coffee shops, but we make 90% of our coffee at home. When we do go to a coffee shop, it feels like a genuine treat rather than just something we grab all the time, and that makes it seem a lot better. (It’s also probably healthier.) This is a net improvement in our life, not just because of the money, though the money is a strict improvement.

We both still like to read, but I’m more interested these days in curating my waiting list from the library and getting through a big pile of unread books I’ve picked up at used bookstores or received as gifts over the years. I haven’t been in a bookstore in several months aside from a quick stop where I was helping my dad find a specific book. I spend time reading, not seeking out new books to buy. This is a net improvement in my life, not just because of the money.

We have to have a real reason to spend money now. Incidental spontaneous spending of money feels wasteful because there are so many times when that incidental spending is just completely forgotten. If I want to be spontaneous, it’s usually far more memorable and meaningful if I’m spending time or energy. If I “splurge” on my own with money and it’s not something planned, it’s usually just completely forgotten before long, and that’s just an utter waste. Moving away from “splurging” or “being spontaneous” with money has been a net improvement in my life.

I’ve discovered many new hobbies over the last ten years or so. The biggest one has been hiking, which I have come to dearly love. There are few things that feel better to me, regardless of spending, than going deep in the woods somewhere and coming out on some beautiful vista or some unexpected clearing that is rarely touched by people and just enjoying the view and the quiet and the moment. It costs nothing, it’s deeply meaningful for me, and it’s something I’m going to keep doing as long as my legs can get me there. There are many other things like that, too: meditation and journaling immediately come to mind. They’re passions that fill my time and bring me deep personal value regardless of the fact that they cost essentially nothing to practice.

These changes – and many, many, others – are lifestyle changes. They are the default in how I live my life now. They aren’t temporary changes to get my head above water. They’re better ways of living – or at least comparable ways – that happen to be financially positive to boot.

For me, the decision of whether or not to try something is often influenced by finances, but whether it sticks around usually has nothing to do with finances. I filter the things I try by the expense of it and then stick with the things that seem strictly better or meaningful. I’ve learned over the years that there’s an infinite abundance of things to do and try and tweak if you use a “low cost” filter, something I simply didn’t see before. Now, our lifestyle choices often run through this filter first unless there’s something that truly doesn’t fit.

The end result of all of this is that our everyday life is perhaps more joyous and fulfilling than it ever has been, but it’s one where we’re spending drastically less than we earn rather than spending every dime (or more). Furthermore, being on a consistent financially positive track is a great reliever of background stress. I don’t feel the need to buy anything to “escape” from stress, and I haven’t for a long while.

The bonus? These changes have put Sarah and I on a track to retire relatively early, and that’s just the kicker. I genuinely believe that even if we were not on a track to retire early, we wouldn’t change anything significant about our current lifestyle. It’s fulfilling as it is. It gives us fertile ground for happiness. We don’t really need anything else, especially not anything we can buy.

It’s because financial success is a lifestyle outcome. It’s the result of living a lifestyle that makes financial success practically inevitable, and that means normal daily routines that minimize spending while maximizing opportunities for joyful and meaningful activity and connection with other people. Find those things that make you feel good (without making you feel bad later) and don’t involve spending money and fill your life with them. Discard the rest. You’ll find yourself with a very good life that inevitably marches you right toward financial success (provided you do something smart with your leftover money after each paycheck).

Good luck!

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.