Personal Finance and the Bucket List

The BucketA while back, I watched part of the Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman movie The Bucket List. In it (if you didn’t already know), the two main characters, older gentlemen, come up with a list of things they want to do before they “kick the bucket” – and proceed to do most of them, even though many of them really push their physical and mental limits.

It was a cute movie with a pretty thoughtful premise – the idea of the “bucket list” itself. Like a million other viewers of the movie, I was anxious to make my own “bucket list” – and so I did. Here it is, for all of you to read.

Spend more than a week in a rural part of France.
Spend more than a week in a rural part of Italy.
Drink a bottle of 1982 Latour, Pauillac wine with my wife and some friends.
Run for a significant political office.
Write the novel I have inside me – and get it published.
Visit Petra.
Run a marathon.
Do a three week gastronomic tour of America, a la Feasting on Asphalt.
Dance with my wife and with my daughter on a special evening.

Those were the nine I wrote down, anyway. Some may seem silly to you, but those are all things I want to do before I pass away.

We all have “bucket lists” of some sort, but for most of us, these things remain just a list of dreams, likely to be unfulfilled. It’s fun to think about them and make lists of these things, but for many of us, such things often lay in the realm of dreams. Take my list, for example. Does it seem sensible or frugal to drink a $2,200 bottle of wine (yes, the 1982 Latour, Pauillac goes for that much)? Do such things really matter in the greater context of our lives?

Experiences are something that’s easy to overlook in the cut and dried world of personal finance. Tight budgets and careful saving rarely leave room for powerful and life-altering experiences, so we tend to tuck them away, intending to do them someday.

When we look back on our lives, however, it is the experiences that we remember. We don’t think fondly about that iPod we bought in 2003; we think about the night we danced in the backyard with our spouse under the moonlight. We don’t recall all of the things we fritter our money away on, but we remember the big moments, those experiences that changed our lives.

In the end, a “bucket list” is merely a list of experiences we wish to have, and just like any other dream for the future, there’s no reason to not start planning now for your own bucket list – experiences that cap your own fulfilling life. Here are six steps that will take you from where you are now to grabbing ahold of your bucket list.

6 Steps to Achieve Your Bucket List

1. Give some consideration to your “bucket list” – the list of great experiences you’d like to have before you die

This is actually quite fun. While I constructed mine, I just kept a few pages in my pocket notebook devoted to it. I’d add ideas as they came to me and scribble off other ones after some reflection, and after some time with some very nice daydreams, I came to the list above.

The process itself was very valuable. It provided a big prod for me to spend some time thinking about the experiences I dream of having in my life. Along the way, I brainstormed a lot of things, spent some time deeply reflecting on dreams I once had (and maybe don’t have any more), and realized that most of the things on my bucket list are things I want to share with my wife and my children. Great reflections, indeed.

2. Identify one (or perhaps two) items from that list that seem the most reachable

Obviously, your “bucket list” is not something you’re going to be able to just start running through, like a checklist (that’s the humorous part of the movie, actually – they run through many of those items like a person might run through a grocery list). Instead, just pick out one or perhaps two of the items to focus on right now – leave the rest for a later time.

For me, I decided to focus on writing the novel and going on a gastronomic tour of America. Both of these seem possible in the next few years. The wine one was also tempting, but honestly, I’d like to do something with that with my children and their spouses in about twenty five years. I might consider saving up and purchasing the bottle at some point, but I’ll hold it for the right moment.

3. Flesh them out into full-fledged long term goals

So, now we have two items off our “bucket list” that we’re intending to do. Now what? The next step is to flesh those goals out into something tangible and specific. Specify exactly what that bucket list item is and figure out when your target for getting it done is.

I’ll take my goal of writing the novel as an example. I’d like to be able to accomplish that in five years and I think it’s a reasonable timeframe. So I’ll spell it out clearly – I want to write and publish a strong novel in five years’ time. That’s a very clear goal now, not just something vague on my bucket list.

4. Start developing short term goals and microgoals that build a road to that item

Now that it’s a clear long-term goal, I need to figure out the little steps to get there. The first step is to get my fiction writing chops in gear, and that simply means writing more fiction. To get in gear, I’ve decided to commit to writing a short story a week, polishing up another one each week, and then sharing them with my wife, who is my best critic for writing, and others, too.

These little baby steps are just the push I need to start moving forward with this. They not only will tangibly improve my skill at writing fiction, but it will also force me to expose my fiction writing to others, which is actually the hardest part for me. Eventually, when I start writing fiction that clicks, I’ll start by entering some short story competitions, but for now, my microgoals are mainly there to keep me writing fiction.

5. Make those little steps a priority

Now we have these little goals in mind, but it’s easy to just leave them on the table and forget about them. There’s a lot of other things going on in my life – why not just leave that little goal on the table this week and forget about it? Why not do something really fun instead, or do something that will eventually earn me some income in other areas?

The real trick here is to keep how much you want that big dream in your mind. By sitting down and working on a short story or editing one, I’m taking a little step towards that big dream in my mind. Simply setting aside an hour or two a week to focus on this – and maybe a few lazy hours in the evening when everyone else is asleep – will make that goal come ever closer to reality.

6. Rinse and repeat

Once you’ve got the basic steps down, it’s a matter of doing it over and over again – making those little steps a natural part of your routine. Maybe it’s setting $20 a week aside for some sort of big, momentous goal. Maybe it’s a little task you need to accomplish. Whatever it is, make a steady effort to do it over and over again until it becomes completely natural.

Before you know it, you’ll be happily marking something off your bucket list – and you’ll have a life-altering experience to savor for the rest of your years.

Trent Hamm
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.

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