Finding Fulfillment for Less

Jack writes in:

Seems to me that frugality is about balancing fulfillment with money in the bank. If you’re cutting off some options because they’re too expensive you’re eliminating some of your most fulfilling experiences. That’s a tradeoff I don’t want to make. If I have the money for something that’s incredibly fulfilling, I’m going to go for it.

Jack is pretty clearly describing a philosophy that many people subscribe to: hedonism. The idea behind hedonism is simple: It’s the idea that seeking maximum pleasure is the highest good and proper aim of human life. In other words, everything you do should be directed toward maximizing your personal pleasure in life.

The philosophy makes sense and, in the short term, it will make for a very fun life. However, there’s a cost behind hedonism.

The Hidden Cost of Hedonism

Whenever you make the choice that gives you the maximum pleasure or fulfillment in the moment, that choice comes with some cost you’re going to have to pay at some point.

Let’s say, for example, that I thought it would be more fun today to spend all day playing a game with a few friends instead of working. In the short term, that’s an awesome choice that contains a lot of pleasure. I’m probably going to have more fun in the moment hanging out with my pals playing a game than I would working.

However, if we stretch that out over the long run, there begins to be a problem. If I’m not working, eventually I’m going to get fired. I’m going to not deliver on my contracted work, they’re going to cease paying me, and then I’m in a real pickle.

While that’s a really obvious example, the truth is that the same phenomenon plays out in almost everything that you choose to do in life. Everything has a cost in terms of time and money.

Every time you choose to spend some of your time, there’s an opportunity cost involved. By devoting your time to one thing, you’re choosing to miss out on the many other things that you could be doing with it.

Similarly, every time you choose to spend some of your money, you’re choosing not to spend it in some other fashion or to save it for the future. You’re choosing to miss out on the many other things you could be doing with it.

No matter what you choose to do with your time and your money, you’re making choices like this. You spend money on one thing at the expense of not spending that money on other things. You spend time on one thing at the expense of not spending that time on other things.

Frugality and Cost

The frugal approach (at least, the approach to frugality that I advocate) is that the best balance of those factors is usually toward finding fulfillment and pleasure with minimal outcome of money so that you spend less of your life working and more of your life doing pleasureful things.

Let’s put that another way. Whenever I choose to spend my free time on something fulfilling, I’m more likely to choose a fulfilling option that costs less money because, by doing so, I have less need in my life to earn money. That means that if I make those kinds of choices consistently, I can have a less stressful career, a job that eats up fewer hours, or, if I take the long term view, I can save up my money and retire much earlier than I would otherwise.

In other words, I choose lower-cost avenues for fulfillment because, in the long run, it puts less stress in my life and reduces the number of hours in my life that I have to work for an income.

I recognize that there are many expensive things in life that can bring a great deal of personal fun and fulfillment. Driving a shiny new car is fulfilling. Going on vacation to a resort in Jamaica is fulfilling and fun. Those things are quite expensive, though, and in the expense of those things, I’m adding months of additional work to the end of my career or I’m choosing to have to take a career path that’s higher stress or more hours to earn more money.

In my eyes, the fact that a national park vacation costs a lot less than a vacation in the Caribbean doesn’t detract from the Caribbean vacation’s value, but it adds a lot to the perceived value of the national park vacation. It adds greatly to the fulfillment factor of that vacation.

I think a look at one of my favorite concepts in personal finance, the fulfillment curve, might make this clear.

A Quick Look at the Fulfillment Curve

One of my favorite topics over the years has been the fulfillment curve. I’ve written about it in detail twice, in Some Thoughts on the Fulfillment Curve and Another Look at the Fulfillment Curve, and I want to bring it up again here because it’s such an important concept.

Take a look at this curve:

Fulfillment curve

The idea here is that the more money you spend on something, the greater your fulfillment gets — to a point. After that, your fulfillment drops to the point that there’s no longer any fulfillment at all.

I wrote up an example of this fulfillment curve many years ago, and I still like it. This is one way to interpret the numbers on that curve in an example of buying a home:

1 – We’re essentially homeless. We live in our car.
2 – We live in an extremely cheap, extremely small old apartment. The rent is extremely cheap, but there’s barely enough room for sleeping space for everyone or room to do anything at all. We’re embarrassed to have guests at all.
3 – We live in a nice apartment or a small house. There’s enough room for everyone to sleep and have meals, but we’re sometimes pinched for space and there’s more clutter than we’d like. We have some of our friends over, but we feel pretty self-conscious about the place and don’t have the dinner parties we’d like.
4 – Our house is just the right size for our family. We feel comfortable having any and all guests over, the housework doesn’t overwhelm us, and the bills are completely manageable.
5 – Our house slightly exceeds what our family needs, but it gives us some room to grow. The bills are slightly painful, but we can manage things. We spend a bit more of our weekends on home cleaning and maintenance than we’d like, but we feel quite proud giving dinner parties and inviting people over.
6 – Our house is a McMansion. We can afford the bills, but just barely, and only if we eat everything at home. The bills make me feel kind of guilty, and there are times where it feels like all we do is upkeep.
7 – We bought a house nine times our annual income on an ARM and it just adjusted. Our house is mind-blowingly awesome, but we’re getting foreclosed tomorrow. We have no equity and we have no idea what we’re going to do. I wish we’d never come here.

In most things in life, I shoot for somewhere between a 3 and a 4, probably closer to a 3, on the fulfillment curve. That’s actively my target, because I view any option where I spend less money as having some “bonus fulfillment” attached as I described above.

Many people tend to shoot for a little over a 4 and end up somewhere near a 5 on the fulfillment curve. These are people who are stretching their finances to the breaking point. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, in my opinion, you’re above a 4 on the fulfillment curve in many areas of life and the stress of living paycheck to paycheck is bringing down your overall fulfillment.

If you give me a choice between a 3 and a 5 on that curve, I will choose the 3 every single time. I would far rather have a house that’s a bit smaller than I’d like than one that’s bigger than I would like, because the smaller house means fewer hours devoted to it and much lower costs, both of which maximize my free time and minimize my stress. I can basically modify that sentence for anything in my life from which I draw fulfillment.

Finding Fulfillment for Less

So, how do I find fulfilling experiences and things for a low cost? This post actually started off as just a long list of things that I find deeply fulfilling that don’t cost very much. All of the things listed below are things that bring me a lot of personal fulfillment with relatively little cost. Many of them are obvious substitutes for other things that I could be doing.

I strongly encourage you to try out some of these strategies for finding fulfillment for less money. See which ones work for you. Some of them might not click and that’s fine, but I will say that the more fulfilling things for little cost that you can put into your life, the more fulfilling and less stressful your life will become and, over the long haul, the more free time you’ll have to boot because you’ll have less long-term financial demands and can retire earlier or switch jobs easier.

1. I meditate/pray each day for ten or fifteen minutes, after which I almost always feel fulfilled and refreshed.

2. I go on walks and short hikes in local parks. My favorite place in the world for hiking is Ledges State Park in Boone, Iowa, which I know like the back of my hand at this point. When the weather is decent, I try to go on a hike there or at another nearby park at least once a week.

2a. My absolute favorite places to vacation are our national parks. I can spend days and days and days in them, exploring new trails, taking photographs and little videos of things I discover, and just relaxing in a completely natural surrounding. While international travel definitely has appeal to me, I actually find more lasting fulfillment exploring Shenandoah or Acadia or Glacier or Yosemite or Yellowstone.

3. I make food from scratch quite often. Making things like pasta, bread, pasta sauces, casseroles, beer, and many other things from basic ingredients is incredibly fulfilling. Start with simple things, like dicing up tomatoes and a few vegetables to make a sauce. It’s often much less expensive than buying the equivalent at the store.

3a. I love the flavor of fresh foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. There is nothing more satisfying on my plate than items that have either come straight from our garden or a neighbor’s garden and moved to our plates as fast as possible, but barring that, items from the produce section turned into snacks and meals makes for a fulfilling meal for me. Fast food and other things are okay, but they’re mostly just fuel and not really fulfilling.

4. I write down the things I’m grateful for in my life. Make a list of five or 10 of them, and do it regularly.

5. I wall off blocks of time to get “lost” in actually doing my hobbies. This isn’t about buying new things for my hobbies or anything else. I like to curl up with a book when there’s no requirement to be anywhere else or do anything else. I like to play board games or card games with my friends.

5a. I read challenging books that I know from the beginning are going to challenge my understanding and how I think. There’s almost nothing more fulfilling to me than reading a book that challenges my way of thinking and introduces me to new ideas that I have to slowly grasp and wrap my mind around.

6. I also wall off blocks of time to do something with my children that’s completely focused on the thing we’re doing. I literally turn off my cell phone completely and leave it somewhere where I can’t see it for a while and make a genuine effort to get lost in whatever I’m doing with them.

6a. If I’m being honest, my favorite activity with my kids is coloring. I love taking a sheet of paper and making an elaborate doodle on it, or else taking a page from an “adult” coloring book and just getting lost in filling in all of the space with color and pattern.

7. I like the taste of water, as cold as possible, and maybe with a slice of lemon or lime or orange in it. There is no other beverage I would rather have in the entire world. What I like to do is fill up a water bottle, put a slice of a citrus fruit in it, put it in the freezer until it’s just about to freeze, and then drink it down.

8. I love the smell of coffee. I actually don’t like drinking it, but I love the smell of it when my wife grinds beans in the morning. I would actually be disappointed if she switched to buying a Starbucks on the way to work.

9. I have “passive conversations” with people, which means that I intentionally shut down the part of me that just wants to say things that I think and not really listen to what the other person is saying. I ask a lot of questions and listen. What I find is that when I do that, I tend to not only understand the other person better, but they tend to like me and even trust me more. I even sometimes look up people who I’m interested in and have such a conversation with them, an idea that I picked up from Brian Glazer; he calls them “curiosity conversations.”

10. I try to “get lost” in whatever task that I’m doing. If I’m going to take on a task that’s going to take a while, I shut off distractions as much as humanly possible and focus just on the task at hand. If everything goes well, I get “lost” in that task – I lose all sense of time and location and just get so absorbed by the task that time just zips by. Whenever this happens, I feel incredibly fulfilled. This connects back to other things I’ve listed here, particularly reading.

11. I love to work in our small garden. Again, I often try to get lost in what I’m doing so that time passes without notice and I’m absorbed in the task.

12. I love exercising enough so that when I get up the next morning, my body is a little sore but still functional. I like to breathe hard for a while and stress my muscles, but not reach a point of feeling utterly miserable. The exact exercise doesn’t matter – I usually do a workout from Darebee – but I really like playing soccer with people in the park if I get a chance.

13. I love doing volunteer work, when I know that some task that I’m doing actually provides some tangible benefit to the life of someone who’s really in need. I personally feel drawn to the issue of hunger in the community where I live. The fact that somewhere in the area of 30% of the children in my children’s school district are food insecure at home shakes me to my core, and taking action to do anything to help reduce that statistic and be sure that children in my community have enough to eat and clothes on their back is very meaningful to me.

14. I love having long conversations with my wife about the world, about our philosophy on living, about the things we’ve learned, about the things we’d like to change, about our parenting strategies, about anything. I find the meaningful periods of time with her to be deeply, deeply fulfilling.

15. I feel deeply fulfilled when I can take an idea in my head and, over the course of several hours, translate it into something meaningful on a sheet of paper or in a computer program. I’m creating something and that feels great.

Those things are honestly enough to fill almost all of my waking time, even my work time.

Final Thoughts

I live a life that I consider to be deeply fulfilling, and those fulfilling elements generally come from spending time, not money. By consciously making that decision and filling my life with genuinely fulfilling activities, I can afford to have a super-flexible and low-stress job that still keeps me on the path to early retirement.

I’m fulfilled now because I have a life full of fulfilling things and a job that doesn’t consume my time or my patience. I’ll be fulfilled later because I’ll be able to walk away from working for money a lot earlier than I might have ever believed.

That, to me, adds up to a fulfilling life for less. It’s a path that I’m happy with every single day.

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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.