Finding Inspiration for Financial Success

At first glance, it can seem quite easy to find inspiration for financial success. Just turn on the television, right? You can’t even flip through the channels without finding some show with someone in their mansion or rolling around in their luxury car or going on some super-expensive and super-exclusive trip.

The problem is that such things aren’t actually financial inspiration – they’re consumption inspiration. The people spending $5 million on their home or $500,000 on their car or $300,000 on their destination wedding aren’t making decisions that will preserve or optimize their financial future. They’re making consumptive choices, spending money on luxury experiences that are over quickly or buying items that require tons of maintenance and taxes and still likely depreciate in value fairly rapidly.

Finding actual financial inspiration is a bit harder. Financial inspiration is inspiration and examples that encourage and lead you to build a strong financial foundation in your life, and that kind of example can be hard to find. It’s not nearly as flashy or shiny as the things one might see on reality television.

How does one seek out sources of inspiration on their financial journey? The key isn’t so much where to look, but to know what you’re looking for.

Be Inspired By People Who Achieve Things…

Make a conscious decision to seek out people based on their personal achievements – not what they were given or the possessions they have, but what they’ve actually done with their lives. Have they created things? Have they built things? Have they made the lives of people around them better? Have they worked hard and channeled that work into a good life for themselves and the people around them? Those are the people well worth looking at and using as your personal inspiration.

Read biographies and personal profiles. A great place to start with this type of inspiration is between the covers of well-written biographies. Read the stories of people have done these things. Find out how they started out, how they turned the little that they had to start with into something much greater, how they stuck to principles, and how they made hard personal sacrifices along the way.

Look at people like Howard Schultz, who started life in low income housing in the New York City Housing Authority, worked hard at sports to get into college, leveraged that college education into a career in sales, found himself selling equipment to a nascent Starbucks Coffee in the early 1980s, joined them as Director of Marketing, and eventually became their CEO, turning them over the decades from a tiny West Coast chain into a global phenomenon. Not bad for a kid from low income housing.

How did he do it? Being careful with every dime was a big part of that story, particularly up to the point where Starbucks really took off. Before that, he often didn’t have a dime to spare, and it was his care with those dimes that managed to make things work.

Schultz is just one example; there are many more. Find ones that click with you. Read lots of biographies of people who made things, built things, discovered things, and turned very little into something much more.

Build friendships with the pillars of your community. Often, some of the best financial inspirations exist already within your own community. They’re the people who seem to be on the board of every local event and in lots of organizations. They often run a local business. They’re the people everyone knows and virtually everyone thinks highly of.

Learn from those people. Make an effort to become their friend. Get involved with the community and work with them and, as you get to know each other, invite that person to lunch and pick their brain. Find out how they got from point A to point B. Listen. Be inspired.

Join civic groups. A big part of finding that local inspiration is simply getting involved in your community. It’s much easier to meet people in your community who have done amazing things if you actually get involved yourself.

Seek out civic groups who are doing positive things. Find out about joining up. Go to their meetings and see what they’re all about. Don’t just retreat into your turtle shell – stick your neck out a little bit. Volunteer for things. Get to know as many people as you can.

The people you meet in such organizations will surprise and inspire you, every single time. These are people who tend to have their lives organized and their hearts in the right place. They tend to be doing a lot of good things with their life, often starting in a difficult place. In short, they can be a real inspiration.

… and Not By People Who Possess Things

A big house might be a nice place to visit or live, but it makes very little commentary about the values and achievements and stability of the person living there. The same goes for a shiny car or an expensive suit. Such expensive trappings of wealth might be held by a wonderful person who has done much for society, or it might be held by an empty suit who cut every moral corner along the way.

Don’t value or devalue people by the house they live in or the clothes they wear or the car they drive or the gadgets they have or anything like that. That’s just an expression of how that person happened to use the money that happened to flow through their hands. Maybe they earned it through hard work. Maybe they were handed that money via inheritance. Maybe they committed nefarious acts to acquire it. Maybe they’re so leveraged in debt that their blood pressure is through the roof.

Look past the stuff. It’s irrelevant. Look at the person underneath the stuff.

Don’t pay attention to people who are primarily known simply for having wealth, particularly inherited wealth. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with being wealthy, but when you have accomplished so little in your life that your wealth overshadows it, what have you really achieved?

Look for actual achievements. Consider how the person actually made the world a better place for those around him or her. Do you admire that person because of their big house and shiny car? Let go of that. Instead, admire the person because of the lives they improved and the self-discipline they exerted and the values they expressed through their actions.

When you feel jealous of someone else’s possession or experience, consider what effort that person had to put in to be able to earn that possession or experience. What did this person actually do to have the things that you’re feeling jealous of? Did that person do great things while practicing self-discipline? That’s something to be admired, but the admiration should be aimed at the person, not at the stuff.

On the other hand, maybe that person was simply handed those possessions or experiences and did little to earn them, or maybe they had to do things that would leave you feeling very uncomfortable or unhappy to get there. Perhaps the acquisition of those things was a bargain that you would never, ever want to make. Again, it comes back to the person inside, not the expensive stuff on the outside.

When reflecting on people, consider the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Consider people first and foremost by the content of their character, not by their skin color or the clothes that they wear or the things that they have.

Remember, anyone can wear a fancy set of clothes, but few can win the respect of their community. Anyone can live in a nice house, but few can bring about positive change in lots of lives. Value the character, not what’s on the outside.

Be Inspired By People Who Have Less Than You…

On one hand, I’m talking about people who are making ends meet with less financial resources than you have. How exactly are they doing it? I’m also talking about people who have turned extremely humble backgrounds into personal and financial success. How did they do that?

On the other hand, I’m also talking about people, regardless of financial specifics, who have committed to a simpler and more minimal life, with fewer possessions and fewer distractions. What is their journey like? What values are they seeking? How are they resisting distraction and temptation?

There are valuable things to be learn and inspiration to be gained from people who make do with less, regardless of how they do it.

Do volunteer work. One great way to start down this path is to actually interact in meaningful ways with people who have to make do with very little in their lives. Volunteer work virtually always brings you in contact with the realities of life on the edge, and it quickly becomes clear that many of those people struggle with burdens far beyond what you might expect and yet still manage to make it through.

The first time you help a single mother with two jobs carry groceries out to her car from the food pantry, only to meet her very well mannered children and catch a glimpse of the careful organization of her life and how she’s always on stage, you can’t help but feel inspired.

Study minimalism and decluttering. Take a look at the lives of people who live with very few possessions. How do they do it? Why do they do it? What is their life like?

What you’ll often find is a surprising amount of joy in a life lived without a lot of stuff. Rather than seeking out more things to own (and more space to store them), they seek out experiences and relationships and learning to create fulfillment for themselves, and those things often are far less expensive and require far less maintenance than a big house full of stuff.

Study people who elicited great things with few possessions and little wealth. This circles back to the idea of reading biographies, particularly of people from very humble backgrounds. One of my favorite stories is that of Gregor Mendel, one of the most influential early geneticists for his discovery of independent assortment and genetic segregation. He was pretty close to poverty for much of his life, working as a low-paid friar and raising pea plants and bees both for his own food needs and for the faith community he served.

Yet, even with those very limited means, he was able to devote much time and thought to his studies of how pea plants inherited traits from their parents, and those studies ended up becoming a fundamental part of the field of genetics.

You don’t need a lot of stuff to explore what interests you. You don’t need much to have a mind forever voyaging. You don’t need a great number of possessions to change the people around you or to change the world.

… Rather Than People Who Have More Than You

It might be nice to daydream about having the big amazing house with lots of elegantly decorated rooms, but consider what that would actually mean for your life. How much upkeep would be required – vacuuming, dusting, cleaning, and so on? How much would the insurance and property taxes devour? When that much of your time and money is gulped down, what’s left?

The desire to have a big home full of lots of possessions is a treacherous one, because it’s actually just a short term desire. To own such a home in the long term would either devour a lot of your free time and a lot of money, or if you had to hire help to maintain it, it would gobble down incredible amounts of money, leaving you strapped and unable to do the many other things you might want to do in life.

A good way to cut down on those dreams is to simply stop focusing on the things in your life that are nudging you to have those kinds of dreams.

Avoid media that focuses on the possessions and homes of others. If you see television shows that include lots of long drawn out shots of houses and cars that you could never afford, and particularly if the show involves extensive discussions of those things, just skip them. You’re only missing out on a sliver of the content out there and you’re skipping a particularly pernicious set of programming in terms of helping you channel your inspiration in a healthy direction.

Remember, our aspirations and goals and desires are influenced greatly by who we surround ourselves with and what kind of media we take in. Cut back on the media that points us toward heavy spending.

Don’t spend your time in appreciation of other’s possessions. Watch yourself for situations where you find yourself staring longingly at a neighbor’s car or daydreaming about someone’s house or driving slowly through an expensive neighborhood. Those are daydreams focused on spending money rather than building a stable financial foundation.

Instead, spend your time in appreciation of personal freedom, of people who may not have an abundance of material items but have a strong foundation and can thus make a lot of different life choices that enable them to do what they want with their time without the constant pressure of work and money needs. Admire freedom, not stuff.

Focus on how your life might be improved by your own financial success. Consider what your life might be like if you no longer had any debt. What would it be like to not have that constant pressure? Think about what it would be like to have enough saved up that you no longer had to stay at your current job and could take one with lower pay and more meaningful work. Think about what your life would be like if you didn’t have to work at all.

A lot of stress would just disappear. You’d have much more freedom to do the things you want to do. You wouldn’t be tired all the time.

Keep that visual fresh in your mind. Reflect on it often. Let it inspire you to better choices.

Be Inspired By People Who Exhibit Self-Control…

Self-control is one of the most valuable traits that a person can have on the road to financial recovery and financial independence, but it’s not a trait typically lauded by popular culture or social media.

Self-control is what builds a financial foundation, not impulsiveness and hedonism. It’s the ability to recognize that, sure, you desire something, but there is more value in not giving into every desire.

There are actually a lot of inspirational tools for this kind of thinking.

Read books about stoicism. Books on stoic thought are incredibly valuable for this kind of thinking, as stoicism is all about reflecting on one’s desires and making more rational decisions.

I highly recommend Meditations by Marcus Aurelius as a starting point. Marcus Aurelius was one of the last great emperors of the Roman Empire and Meditations is his personal notebook, where he reflected on how to be a wise steward of the wealth of the empire and how to handle both his inner circle of advisors and the citizens of Rome.

For a more modern take on the idea, check out How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci, by William Irvine, or my own article covering how stoicism’s principles can help you transform your financial life.

Fill your social circle and build friendships with people who practice self-control. Look for people who don’t regularly succumb to unhealthy routines like substance use, who don’t seem to constantly have a flood of new possessions, and seem to have a good grasp on their physical health (at least to the extent that it’s under their control in terms of lifestyle choices). People who exhibit self control in at least some areas of life often have some degree of self control in most areas of life.

Remember, as Jim Rohn said, you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Elevate people in your life who naturally practice self-control over their temptations and find other healthier and more productive channels to spend their time, money, and energy.

Study people who achieved successes through willpower and sustained effort. One great way to keep yourself focused over the long haul is to regularly remind yourself of how great things are achieved by people who give long-term sustained effort to something.

Michael Jordan didn’t wake up one day as the greatest basketball player in the world. He got there because of sustained effort over many years. Winston Churchill wasn’t born a legendary orator. He practiced his speeches constantly, tweaking his delivery style and seeking improvement in getting his message across. John D. Rockefeller didn’t stumble into the enormous success of Standard Oil – rather, he spent countless years running around oil fields in Pennsylvania, balancing ledgers, and tweaking manufacturing and extraction processes. Sustained effort and willpower led these people to success, not momentary luck.

Don’t confuse a single three point shot made at a key moment as the sign of success. Rather, consider all of the practice and effort that went into building that person up to the point where they would have the opportunity and courage and ability to take that shot.

… Rather Than People Who Revel in Hedonism

It can be fun on some level to watch a pleasure seeker buy endless piles of clothes, go out to clubs constantly, buy tons of expensive foods and meals, and so on. The problem is that when the cameras turn off and people look away, that person’s usually left with nothing at all.

If the joy in your life is centered around the fleeting joy of consumption right now or in the very near future, you’re going to struggle mightily when your bank account is empty and those opportunities aren’t there any more. If you find yourself falling into that cycle of joy based on the pleasures of the moment, especially when those pleasures cost your money and your health, consider backing away from that and from the influences that got you there.

Avoid reality television, especially centered around the lives of the wealthy. A large portion of reality television is centered around hedonistic living, where people chase the latest pleasures, whatever they might be. They go shopping for new clothes constantly, go out to the clubs constantly, gawk at expensive houses constantly.

Turn that stuff off. It makes up only the tiniest sliver of content available to you anyway. Look for something else – anything else – to watch.

Minimize your relationships with people who consume their money and time in wasteful and harmful ways and center their time and energy around further consumption. If you know people who rely on alcohol and drugs to enjoy anything, people who constantly turn to “retail therapy,” people who can’t seem to find any joy unless they’re going out to an expensive restaurant or bragging about their expensive stuff, they’re living a hedonistic lifestyle, one that’s in almost direct opposition to financial success, and that lifestyle and mindset is likely to rub off on you at least a little.

Rather than following along with it, intentionally seek to find other friendships and relationships in your life to accentuate and minimize your relationships with people who are strongly hedonistic.

Tune out of the social media of people who constantly post about their consumption and possessions. If you tune into the social media feeds of people who are always showing off their latest stuff and their latest expensive experience, tune out. Such feeds are less about the person themselves and rather about the stuff they’re buying and consuming. (Better yet, tune out of social media entirely.)

There can be value found on social media, but it involves following people who use social media, at least in part, as an act of self-reflection or as a method for sharing the things they’re doing to bring themselves closer to their life goals or their true internal values. Focus on those people, not the product placement people.

Be Inspired By Dreams of Achievement…

Often, the most powerful inspirations we have come out of our own head. We visualize things that we want in our own future and keep coming back to those visions, crystallizing them until they become a guide for our actions.

Let your own imagination and dreams inspire you and become the basis for your actions and choices.

Set meaningful goals for yourself and develop plans for achieving them. We all have daydreams, but it’s when we sit down, figure out which ones we can actually achieve, and then translate them into actionable goals for ourself that they become real and tangible.

What can you do this year to achieve something you really want? What part of that can you tackle this month? What part of that can you tackle this week? What part of that can you finish off today – right now, hopefully? Ask yourself that over and over again, because that’s a path connecting your dreams of achievement to your actions today, and you’ll feel inspired to take that action.

Study the goal-setting practices of others, particularly those who have a history of achievement, and see what you can emulate. I read a lot about goal setting and planning, not because I deeply enjoy productivity busy work, but because I want to deeply understand how others translate their big dreams into actionable goals and then into things they can do today to move toward those goals.

Spend time reading books and articles that are about that very subject – how different people organize the big goals they have for themselves and break them down into steps that they can actually follow. There are lots of different variations on this and I find each of them inspiring. Often, they end up helping me tweak what I myself do.

Practice envisioning a future for yourself where you’re doing things rather than possessing or consuming things. When you’re daydreaming about the future and transforming it into goals, focus not on the things you’ll own (or, if you do, keep them really modest) and instead focus on the things you want to be doing with your time that, for whatever reason, you can’t do right now.

What do you want to do in the future? It probably requires some skill building. It probably requires a financial foundation, too. Start figuring out how you get from where you are to where you can be doing that thing to the level that you dream of.

… Rather Than Dreams of Possession and Consumption

Even though some of our daydreams are very inspirational in terms of a “big picture” view of our lives, an awful lot of daydreams fall into the short term “desire” picture. We envision things that we want right away (for me, for example, those daydreams right now tend toward an Apple Watch and a pasta machine).

We all have those dreams. The key is to recognize them as false inspiration and figure out how to handle and de-emphasize them.

Avoid “retail therapy” or situations where you shop as a form of entertainment. Putting yourself in situations where you’re in retail or online stores for any purpose other than making a planned purchase is an exercise in whipping up material desires. Kill those financially damaging “inspirations” by simply avoiding them. Don’t engage in “retail therapy.” Don’t shop as a form of entertainment.

If you’re struggling with this, just consider things that you enjoy doing that don’t involve an outlay of money. What hobbies do you have? What things have you always wanted to try? Focus on those things, and strive to fill your spare time with them instead.

Avoid media that seems centered around the latest products. An astonishing portion of news coverage is centered around hyping new products: the newest Apple gadget, the newest car, the newest clothing trends, even stuff as ludicrous as the hottest paint color.

If you’re watching a television program or reading a website or checking out a social media posting and all it’s doing is telling you about a new product of some kind, check out. That “news story” isn’t helping you in any way; it’s just cultivating desires that aren’t helpful for your bigger goals in life.

When you find that you want something and are tempted to spend money on it, ask yourself what experience you hope to gain from that expense and then look for better ways to gain that experience or something similar. In other words, identify what things you actually want out of life, recognize that the product you’re tempted by probably won’t get you there, and then look for the actual ways you might get to that goal.

You’re shortchanging false desires and inspirations by seeing that they won’t actually get you to where you want to be. Don’t despair in that – instead, use that as fuel to find things that actually will take you to where you want to be.

Be Inspired By Meaningful Experiences…

Every single person’s life is made up of an infinite multitude of experiences. Most are pretty ordinary and relatively meaningless, but some of them provide deep meaning to us. They’re the experiences that stick in our minds, building up our motivation and convincing us to change how we act.

Meaningful experiences are valuable, and they come in all shapes and sizes. Many of them are absolutely free. Some cost just a pittance. Others, yes, are expensive. If you seek out experiences based on their meaning, first and foremost, you’re likely to gravitate toward the abundance of low cost and meaningful experiences that the world provides for us.

Check out free or low cost activities that many other individuals have described as deeply meaningful for them. For me, the most meaningful experiences I have regularly are times when I meditate, when I write meaningful things, when I exercise, and when I get lost in the moment of whatever I’m doing. During those times, it feels almost like a different switch flips on in my head, one that I can’t ordinarily access, and I feel somehow different, somehow better.

Try lots of ordinary experiences that others have identified as meaningful. Try meditation – it might click with you or it might not. Try getting more exercise. Try reading powerful books. Try going to a free concert and just getting lost in the music. Try going to a powerful religious service. Try things – there’s a wide variety of human experience out there and when something clicks, it can be incredibly inspiring and life changing. It can change almost everything you do.

Look for great experiences you can have closer to home that you may not have explored before. People often seek inspiration in experiences that go beyond the everyday of their life. They’ll go on trips or other adventures in order to seek out some meaningful peak experience.

The truth is that there are thousands of unexplored places relatively close to home that might provide meaningful or inspirational to you. You don’t have to travel halfway across the globe to find inspiration or a deep meaningful experience. You might find it on a backwoods trail at a nearby state or national park. You might find it at a religious meeting of some kind in your very community. You might find it on stage at a local theater. Great, novel, inspirational experiences can be found everywhere if you simply look a little closer to home.

Try lots of variations on experiences that you’ve found meaningful in the past. If you’ve found, say, prayer to be inspirational in the past and now it’s faded, try a new way of praying. Go from simply saying what’s in your heart to reciting a short prayer or a mantra many times. If you’ve found journaling your day to be meaningful in the past but that’s faded, try writing three morning pages.

You may just find that the new variation breathes life into the old practice or even carries it to a more meaningful level than before. Such new practices can inspire you onward to greater things in life.

… Rather Than By Expensive Ones

It’s often easy to fall into the trap that expensive experiences are inherently the most meaningful ones or the “best” ones, but that’s often not the case at all. You can pay hundreds of dollars to have a dreadful meal. You can pay thousands to go to a seminar that’s so dull you fall asleep. Even a toilet can be gold plated.

The trick is to not simply substitute “expensive” for “meaningful” or “inspirational” and instead look for what might actually have an impact without prejudging how great it is based on the price tag.

Skip over costly activities and experiences unless the evidence of their value is overwhelming. By default, I tend to skip expensive experiences unless it is extremely clear that there will be a great deal of value to be found there. Why? There are many, many, many inexpensive or free experiences that I know will be meaningful to me that I haven’t engaged with yet, so why throw money at expensive ones?

I find a great deal of inspiration from being in an amazing natural place. I’ve visited maybe 20% of our national parks at all and, out of those, I’ve spent enough time to truly explore and enjoy and be inspired by exactly zero of them. Why do I need to fly to Kilimanjaro to be inspired when there are so many opportunities at far less price closer to home?

Avoid travel media. Travel media is almost singularly designed to convince you that the only good experiences are in remote places with a hefty price tag, which isn’t true at all. It’s an illusion created by travel magazines and television shows and radio programs.

Turn those things off. Instead, look within yourself for what you’d like to see. Discover things by serendipity in the other things you read and hear about. Let those guide you, not glorified travel brochures.

When learning about the travels and experiences of others, look for how they grew, not what they specifically did and where they did it. I almost always ask people what the best part of their trip was – not the best thing they saw or the most amazing place they went, but what moments they’ll really remember from all of it. Often, it’s a moment spent with a travel companion, or an ordinary moment on an unfamiliar street.

Why is that so important? It reveals the truth of peak experiences – they’re all around us, in the people we spend time with and in the relatively ordinary places we go. Those moments of inspiration can strike anywhere; you don’t have to go to a sacred site in Bolivia to find them.

Look for the elements of meaningful but expensive experiences that you can replicate in a free or inexpensive way. What kinds of experiences are really being offered by those expensive experiences? An exquisite natural setting? An appreciation of the effort of humans past? A deep religious or spiritual experience? What’s drawing you to this?

Once you figure out what kind of experience is drawing you in, ask where else you can find a similar experience. Perhaps there’s something similar in the next state rather than halfway around the world. Perhaps there’s something similar for free if you head west rather than incredibly expensive at a tourist site in the east. Look for that inspirational experience you desire elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

People seek and find inspiration in a wide variety of ways, but, particularly with financial inspiration, it’s easy for that experience to be misguided or the sticker price of that inspiration to be incredibly high.

You don’t need a mountaintop on the other side of the world to be inspired. You don’t need a several thousand dollar seminar to believe you can do great things. You just need good material around you, good people in your life, and an open eye and an open heart.

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.