On “Living For Today” or “Living Each Day Like It’s Your Last”

For a long time, I found myself frustrated by the sentiment of “living for today” or “living each day like it was your last.”

If today was my last day on earth, I’d eat my favorite meals and spend pure leisure time with the core people that I love the most. If today was the only thing that mattered, I wouldn’t do things like clean the house or do my job or anything like that.

In short, I viewed statements like that as encouragement to lead a purely short-term hedonistic lifestyle, which is great if the world was going to end tomorrow. Just do whatever feels good because the consequences don’t matter. However, in the real world, there are a lot of consequences for living like that. You can’t sustain an income, for starters. Your health will probably fall apart, depending on what you choose to do. Your living areas will fall into a pretty bad state before long. If you live solely for today, then tomorrow will end up being pretty terrible.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve come to take a much different approach on this advice, and I’ve found that it’s actually incredibly good advice.

Rather than looking at the advice as simply an encouragement to ignore all consequences for your behavior, treat it as an encouragement to live each day as though it defined who you are as a person.

In other words, live for today in the sense that when people think about you as a person and your eulogy is written, it’s based upon your behavior today. What do you want said about you when you pass away? What do you want people to remember about you when you’re gone from this world? That’s what you should fill today with, not the other stuff you waste time and energy on.

Or, for another way of looking at it, live today in a way that, when you look back on it in twenty years, today will be a day you’re really proud of.

In other words, “live for today,” to me, means nothing else matters other than making today a day you’re incredibly proud of.

So, what exactly does that mean for me?

It means a day where I didn’t waste money and energy on things that aren’t meaningful for me. If I’m spending money just for a little burst of pleasure, or if I’m spending time and energy on something that I’ll just forget in a day or two and for which there will be no positive residue in my life, then I’m probably not living for today. When I live for today, I don’t waste resources on things that aren’t really meaningful.

It means a day where I planted a lot of seeds for the future. A really good day means a day where I go to sleep knowing that there are a lot of things to look forward to in my life, and to have that means that I have to invest time now in things that won’t pay off for a while. That can mean investing in myself, as I discussed yesterday. It can mean putting aside money for the future instead of spending it on something meaningless today. It can simply mean taking a real step forward on a big project that won’t be finished up for a while. If I plant several seeds like this each day, then there will come a point in my life where lots of seeds are sprouting each and every day, making my life into a lovely garden. When I live for today, I move forward on big projects and do some things that won’t pay off for a while.

It means a day where I go to bed genuinely tired from physical and mental exertion and sleep comes easily. A good day is a day when I exerted myself, where I used my body and my mind and my “social batteries” to do something useful, draining them such that when I go to bed, sleep is a meaningful recharge. I also know that if I used my body and my mind and my “social batteries” thoroughly, I probably did some worthwhile things. When I live for today, I fully exert my mind, my body, and my social batteries.

It means a day where I built or sustained positive relationships rather than damaging them. That doesn’t mean every single interaction has to be happy and positive, but that they do have to be full of love and care. I can provide lessons for my children that aren’t necessarily positive ones while still maintaining the understanding that I love them deeply, and they’ll know that too and it can actually strengthen our bond. There are also infinite possibilities for positive bonding, too. The key thing is to have those interactions be meaningful, not just empty babble, because it’s the meaningful things that build bonds. Have conversations where you say worthwhile things. Do active things together. Those are what sustain and build relationships. When I live for today, I build up relationships and don’t tear them down.

It means a day where I laughed, I thought, and I cried, and I shared those experiences with someone. I’m a big believer in Jim Valvano’s idea of a great day, in which a person laughs, cries, and thinks deeply about something. If you do those three things, you’ve had a pretty good day. If you can share those experiences with others, then that’s even better. (This is part of why I enjoy board game nights so much; they almost always involve laughing and thinking with others.) When I live for today, I laugh, I cry, I think, and I share those things with others.

It means a day where I don’t feel like I missed opportunities. Life hands you opportunities all the time. Your wife is standing there at a table doing something and you have an opportunity to put your arms around her and kiss her neck. Your son looks bored and you have an opportunity to do something meaningful with him. A great idea flickers in your head and you have an opportunity to write it down and maybe eventually take action on it. You see a great bargain at a yard sale and you have the cash to immediately take advantage of it. Good days are ones where I take advantage of lots of those opportunities; bad days are ones where I lay in bed thinking about opportunities lost. When I live for today, I don’t let those opportunities pass.

It means a day where I share the good things I feel. If I feel love for someone, I let them know. If I see someone do something I think is great, I tell them that the thing they just did is awesome. If I appreciate someone, I get ahold of them and tell them that I appreciate who they are or what they did for me. I’ve learned, over the years, that there is only upside to this, and you’re almost always better off saying something, even if you’ve said it many times before. You can never tell your wife you love her too many times. When I live for today, I say the good things I feel about others and about the world around me.

It means treating my body and mind as things that I want to last for a very long time. This is probably the part that I struggle with the most. Living for today doesn’t mean hurting my body and my mind; rather, it means the opposite. It means treating them as things that I want to be able to rely on for many, many more years, so that I don’t feel completely worn out after relatively little exertion, so that understanding complex things doesn’t feel overwhelming. I am to eat well, to exercise well, and to be observant of the world around me and to think clearly about what’s happening. This doesn’t mean I don’t go out for a nice meal with friends; it just means I try to avoid putting junk in my body. This doesn’t mean I don’t engage in silly things; it just means I try to enjoy the moment. When I live for today, I do and eat healthy things and aim to be present in the moment as much as possible.

It means doing everything in accordance with the values I hold dear. I’m not going to get into a lot of what I think is morally right or wrong or what my own values are, other than to say that I do think some things are right and wrong in terms of personal behavior and there are clearly some best practices for being a good person. The closer I stick to those values and practices, the better the day is. When I live for today, I try to live as closely as possible to my own core values in everything that I do.

For me, that’s what living for today means. It means that if my entire life were to be judged by a single day on this earth, it would be today. It means that if I could design a day that I live right now that, if I were to repeat it, would lead to a truly amazing life in the future, that’s the kind of day I want to lead today.

Living for today doesn’t mean binging on junk food, buying a bunch of stuff online, and watching a bunch of Netflix while barely moving from the couch. It doesn’t mean partying all day and all night, either. It means simply living a truly great day that’s in line with everything you want out of life, and that includes health, financial stability, good relationships, and everything else.

Go out there and live for today. As John Wooden put it, “Make each day your masterpiece.”

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.