Stuff Won’t Fill the Hole in Your Life

It’s a weird connection on the surface.

The more time I spend reading, the fewer books I buy or even think about buying.

The more time I spend actually playing games, the fewer games I buy or even think about buying.

This phenomenon repeats itself over and over again. When I pay more attention to an activity that I care about in my life, I tend to spend less money on it (to a certain point, of course).

(I’m going to use board games and books as examples for this post because they’re straightforward, but all of this could be true of any hobby that I’m deeply passionate about – or any hobby that you’re passionate about.)

I’ve actually witnessed this phenomenon over and over again. During months where I spend an hour or two a day reading and actually finishing several books, I usually don’t buy many books – maybe one or two. On the other hand, during months where I spend my spare time doing other things, I buy more books. The exact same thing happens with board games.

(It’s worth noting that when I say I spend “more,” I mean that it takes up a larger portion of my monthly hobby and personal spending budget. During a month where I read a lot, book buying takes up maybe 5% of that budgeted amount. During a month where I don’t make as much time for reading, book buying takes up maybe 25% of that budgeted amount.)

It took me a while to figure this out. You might expect that if I spent more time engaging in a hobby, I would thus spend more on that hobby. Why did the opposite happen?

It happened because those hobbies are a deep and important part in my life. Reading books and playing tabletop games are very important to me. They are activities I deeply enjoy and I am happiest when those activities are a regular part of my life.

When those activities are missing, I can sense that hole that the missing activity leaves behind. I simply don’t feel as happy as I once did because an important part of my life is missing.

That emptiness doesn’t go away when you buy things. Sure, you might get a little burst of pleasure after the purchase, but it comes back pretty quickly.

It only really goes away when you do things.

This realization has caused me to change a few little pieces of my financial routine. This little change has made me happier and also altered my hobby spending in a way that brings me greater joy.

First of all, I engage in a monthly review of my spending and my budget. I do this every month, usually by reviewing the previous month’s budget and spending on the first weekend of a new month. I use ]You Need a Budget for this and it works quite well.

Part of that review involves tagging all of my purchases. I go through my credit card statements and try to group all of my spending into a number of groups. Among those groupings are “books” and “board games.” (If you’re a YNAB user, I use flags for this, with specific colored flags to describe the different types of hobby/entertainment purchases, with all of my hobby/entertainment purchases in a single category.)

Doing this keeps me in touch with what I’m spending. I’m forced to take a real look at each expenditure as well as the “big picture” of where all of my money is going. I find this incredibly valuable.

Once I’ve done that, I like to compare each month’s spending to the previous month. So, on the first weekend of October, I’ll go through all of my expenses from the month of September and, when that’s done, I’ll compare September’s spending to that of August (and that of the September the year before).

What I’m looking for is change. What went up? What went down? Why?

If you do this month after month, you begin to see patterns. For example, months where we eat almost entirely at home usually exhibit a significantly lower amount spent on food – we’ll come in way under budget. I was able to notice a pretty significant change in our energy spending – more than I expected – when I replaced a bunch of our home’s incandescent lightbulbs with LEDs.

Over time, I began to notice that during months where my spending on a various hobby went up, I would recognize that I hadn’t spent as much time on that hobby during that month.

Months where I didn’t read much would see my book spending go up. Months where I read a lot would usually see my book spending go down. It was true of most of my major hobbies.

When I see those kinds of changes, it triggers some re-evaluation of how I spend my time.

That spending change is usually a very clear demonstration of something I can sense subconsciously. Often, I don’t really recognize the change in my day to day life. I don’t immediately sense that something is missing or, if I do, I often don’t know exactly what it is that has changed.

However, as soon as I see that change, it pops into clear vision for me. If I see a big jump in the spending for any hobby, it’s almost a guarantee that I’ll recognize that I’m not spending as much time as I’d like on that hobby lately. I’ll then usually commit more time to actually engaging in that hobby.

Why does that happen?

Well, my life is busy. Sometimes, in the day-to-day course of a busy life, I’ll simply not devote as much time to one of my deep interests as I should. My daily routines get out of whack and I’ll simply not devote time to a deep personal passion. I’m tired after a soccer game, so I’ll go to bed early and not read. We’ll fill up several weekends with big projects or little trips and before you know it we haven’t had a game night in a month and a half. Sarah and I are both tired in the evenings, so we don’t play any games together.

Losing participation in those hobbies that I’m so passionate about leaves a little hole in my life. It’s not something I usually notice actively, at least not at first. Instead, my subconsciousness drives it. I find myself looking at other ways to fill that hole, and with so many easy ways to spend money online on almost anything, I’m usually driven to e-commerce.

When I’m waiting for my kids to finish their soccer practice, I’ll find an interesting book off of Amazon and order it. On some level, that purchase will make me feel a bit more fulfilled due to my lax reading hobby, but that sense of fulfillment goes away quickly.

When I’m running an errand near a game store, I’ll stop in and maybe pick up a new game or a game expansion. Again, on some level, that purchase will make me feel a bit more fulfilled due to my lax gaming hobby, but that sense of fulfillment goes away quickly.

This same concept holds true for virtually anything. Subconsciously, I sense something missing from my life, so I try to find an easy way to fill that hole. Buying something is really easy and it seems to fill the hole… but only for a moment. That false fulfillment evaporates quickly.

There’s only one solution to this problem. Build a more fulfilling life. If your life is as fulfilling as you can make it, then there are fewer gaps to fill in.

Simply look for ways that you’re spending your time that are less fulfilling – say, watching television or surfing the web or playing computer games or whatever it might be – and push those aside to make room for things you find more fulfilling.

Another good strategy is to simply avoid things that try to convince you that your life is less fulfilling than it is. Avoid entertainment that focuses on how great someone else’s life is. Avoid “news” articles that try to convince you that you need something new to have a fulfilling life.

Finally, focus entirely on doing things. If you’re spending your time on something that you won’t look back on with any sense of joy or pride at the end of the day, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Purchases won’t make you happier. They won’t make you feel more fulfilled over the long term. They’re just a short term fix, one that quickly dissolves and leaves you right were you were before except with less money in your pocket.

The only thing that can make your life feel more complete are the things you choose to do. It comes from inside you because you did something that you really care about.

All the stuff in the world can’t replicate the sense of fulfillment of spending time accomplishing something or enjoying a personal passion you care deeply about or connecting with another person.

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.