The Happy Life on the Path to Your Financial Goals

I’ve written many times about the value of having long-term goals and plans. Having long-term goals helps you to make choices in your day to day life that will guide you to the big outcomes that you want in life, such as debt freedom or a comfortable retirement or paying for your child’s college education. We all have different goals, but the principle is the same: A goal gives you a framework for your daily decisions and guides you toward daily decisions that will move you toward the big things you want in life.

The thing is, though, goals are extremely difficult to achieve if you’re unhappy with your daily life. When you are missing things that you need to thrive in your daily life, life becomes more about day to day survival and just getting from the morning through the afternoon and the evening than anything else. When you’re in that mode where you don’t relish your life, long-term goals seem impossible because you’re so focused on the bare mechanics of getting through the day.

The best way to achieve your financial goals is to have a life you’re happy with right now that simultaneously points you toward your goals. If you’re happy when you get out of bed in the morning, you have big goals in mind, and you’re making progress toward those goals, then you’ve got a much better chance of achieving the things you want out of life than if you wake up dreading work and dreading your day and feeling miserable about it.

I want to make it abundantly clear that I’m not talking about clinical depression or other diagnosable mental health issues. Those are serious matters that should be handled by an appropriate professional.

Instead, my focus is one simple thing: The best approach for any goal is to make sure you’re living a life that you really enjoy right now that is gradually leading down the path to that big goal you want. Without that day to day life that brings you contentment and happiness, you’re going to find it prohibitively difficult to achieve the things you want to achieve.

If you are trying to achieve a big goal in your life and you are unhappy on your path to achieving that goal, your chances of succeeding at that goal are incredibly slim. Your day to day life is telling you to stop and to do something else with your time and energy, and that’s like water eroding a beach – eventually, your willpower and discipline will give out. Instead, you have to find a path toward your goals that you’re happy with on a day to day basis.

So, how on earth do you do that?

An Example: Debt Freedom

Let’s say your big goal is getting out of debt. You relish the thought of having all of those debt bills be completely gone. That sounds absolutely amazing.

So, how do you get there from here? Obviously, the core of your strategy will have to be centered around spending less than you earn. If you’re spending as much as you earn or more than you earn, you are never, ever going to get your debts paid off.

Taking that as a given, that you need to spend a notable amount less than you’re earning each month, how do you build the best possible day to day life? There are a lot of approaches to that question.

For some people, it might center around throwing themselves into their career or their jobs. Some people deeply enjoy working and being productive and strive to earn more money. This might involve taking on a second job or a side gig, or simply pushing down the throttle a little on your current career path.

For others, frugality may be the key. Some people thrive by finding things that save money without disrupting ordinary life, like buying lots of store brands. Others may enjoy diving into frugal projects, like making meals in advance or installing weatherstripping. Still others might simply enjoy trying lots of free or super low-cost hobbies.

For me, it was a mix of elements. I started a side gig doing something I loved (writing). I threw myself into frugality, both in terms of doing very low impact things to save money and finding low cost things to do that I enjoyed.

The key, however, is to not keep plugging away with the same tactics when you’re miserable. You will fail, and that sense of failure will likely convince you that what you’re trying to do is essentially impossible.

12 Strategies for Finding the Happy Life on the Road to Your Financial Goals

So, how do you pull that off? How do you live a happy life while still spending significantly less than you earn so that you make real progress on your financial goals? Here are twelve strategies that actually work – I should know, because they’re how I’ve found happiness and contentment over the years while paying off tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, several car loans, tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and a mortgage on a nice family home. We’re debt free today. Here’s how I managed to live a happy life through all of that, which helped me stay on track.

Automate your personal finance moves so that you’re not even thinking about them and have to live on what’s left. Choose a bank with robust online banking and make as many of your financial choices automatic as possible. Make your Roth IRA contributions automatic. Set up an automatic transfer into your savings account so you have an emergency fund. Pay your bills automatically and set up an additional automatic extra payment on whatever debt you’re trying to knock down.

You’ll want to keep an eye on things so that you’re aware of how much money you have left over. Part of this strategy revolves around living your day to day life on what’s still left behind in the account – not using credit cards and not overdrafting, either. This can be a learning experience.

However, having everything automatic means that the “path of least resistance” is healthy financial behavior, and you’ve got a lot of freedom regarding what’s left over in your checking account once all of the bills are paid. You can decide for yourself where that money goes with regards to things like food, household supplies, entertainment, clothing, and other such variable expenses.

When you’re feeling in the right mood for it, spend time doing things that will lower your future cost of living. I don’t feel like “being frugal” every day, but when I do, I like to take on things that I know are going to lower my cost of living in the future. Spending a couple of hours doing something frugal usually results in feeling good about the future and feeling as though I’ve accomplished something worthwhile.

There are many, many frugal projects you can take on that will cut your spending down the road. You can air seal your home. You can make some meals in advance. You can get your cell phone bill reduced or shop around for a better deal. You can shop around for better car insurance and renters or homeowners insurance. You can install LED lights throughout your home, putting them in any sockets that still have CFLs or incandescent bulbs. You can make a big homemade meal and save several small batches of leftovers. You can make a thorough meal plan and grocery list. You can clean out your fridge and pantry and plan things to do with all of the stuff you find. The list goes on and on and on.

You don’t have to spend all of your free time doing these things, but when you feel in the mood to do so and you take on one of these projects, you’ll feel good. What often causes negative feelings about frugality is when you force yourself to do these things when you don’t feel like it. Don’t!

However, I will suggest this: Reminding and nudging yourself to do ordinary things in a frugal way where there’s no extra time or energy cost is pretty much always a good thing on the road to your financial goals. Get used to buying store brand products, for example, and only switch away from them if they don’t work for you. Figure out the cheapest commute for yourself and use it every day. Those are ordinary practices that simply cut your spending without really changing anything else about your life and thus they’re pretty much always a net positive.

Dabble in lots and lots of low cost and free things to do and pay attention to what you truly enjoy (and what you don’t). There are countless low cost and free things to do out there in the world, and chances are you haven’t tried most of them in a fair way. If you find yourself ever edging towards being bored, simply make the conscious choice to go try out one of the abundant free or very low cost things there are to do in the world.

Here’s a quick list of things to try. These just scratch the surface.

Go on a hike. Start a natural collection of things you find while hiking. Go on a Wikipedia journey on a topic you’re interested in. Read a book from the library. Take a free online class. Write a journal entry. Go on a bike ride. Go to a free community concert. Attend a religious service. Go on a walk. Make an interesting meal or a food item. Volunteer for a political campaign. Volunteer at your local food pantry. Volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. Do some bodyweight exercises. Find something cool on Meetup and go. Take your child or your nephew or the child of a friend to a park and play with them. Learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

I could go on naming these things for page after page, but you get the idea: there’s an abundance of low cost things to do and try out there in the world. So get out there and try them, even things you think might not be for you!

Yes, some of them will turn out to not be fun. That’s okay. Now you know about them and have made up your mind from experience. Move on to something else.

When you discover low-cost or free things you enjoy, dive deep. Some of the things you try will just click with you. That’s great! Dive deep into them. Build a huge rock collection out on the patio. Read a 12-book series this summer. Make 50 pounds of homemade sauerkraut and swap it with your friends. If you find one of these activities that really clicks with you, run with it. Try new things when the opportunity presents itself or you find yourself edging toward boredom with the other options.

Personally, I have a cycle of hobbies that come and go in my life. I’ll go through periods where I’ll devour books like a madman – two or three a week. I’ll go through periods where I’m obsessed with exercise, and then other times when I really get into long walks. I’ll make many batches of fermented foods, then I’ll grow bored with it. It’s cyclical, and when I start feeling bored, I move onto trying something new or back into something else I enjoyed in the past and am thinking about revisiting.

Between revisiting old low-cost hobbies and activities that I’ve enjoyed in the past, exploring new ones, and diving deep into ones I’m currently excited about, I really have no chance to be bored and I don’t have to spend much money to feel constantly engaged with plenty to do.

Spread out your treats a little, but don’t go without if it makes you feel unhappy and miserable. Some people envision a frugal life as being an endless wasteland of pleasureless living, a joyless life without any of the pleasures one once had. That type of mindset almost always leads to a backlash and a glut of overspending.

A much better approach is to not give up those treats, but to instead spread them out a little more. Instead of getting a cup of coffee every day, get one three times a week or so, or maybe even a little less often than that. Rather than going out for dinner three times a week, cut it back to a special treat one weeknight each week.

The advantage here is that you’re not giving up the treat, but instead just adding a little bit of anticipation time in front of each treat, so you have some time to anticipate it and think about it and look forward to it. Looking forward to a treat is quite fun, but if the treat becomes so routine that it’s just completely normal and you don’t actually have any anticipation, you’re losing some of the fun and spending more than ever.

There’s a perfect point that balances out those conflicting desires, where you enjoy a treat infrequently enough that it seems special and there’s some sweet anticipation, but it’s not so rare that you feel like you’re depriving yourself. Try to find that sweet spot and stick with it. On many things in life, we can find ourselves diving into a treat too frequently because we do enjoy it, but in doing so, we lose that wonderful anticipation, but the thought of cutting back is a visualization of the opposite extreme. Find that magic point in the middle where you enjoy a bit of anticipation but you don’t feel deprived. That’s the real sweet spot for getting the most out of your little pleasures.

  • Related: Depriving Yourself Doesn’t Work

Look for things about yourself that you’re happy with, and accentuate those in your day to day life. We tend to be much more prone to overspending when we’re not happy with ourselves. If a person has a sense of inadequacy about themselves, marketing tends to work very well because we want to believe that some product or service will make things better.

One of the key principles of stoicism is the idea that you have control over what you think about. You decide what occupies your mind and you decide how you respond to it.

If you carry that principle over to the problem of feeling inadequate, a pretty smart solution appears. Simply think about the positive aspects of yourself and accentuate them instead. Perhaps you’re unhappy with your job and with your weight, but you do think you’ve got a good sense of humor and are a good storyteller. Think of those things. Think of the joy you bring to others and to yourself when you tell a good joke or a story. Take pride in yourself as a storyteller and focus on that. Don’t waste your free time thinking about what isn’t right when there’s a lot that is right.

Accentuate your positives. Don’t stress about your negatives unless you’re actively working to change them and that’s part of your long term goals.

Look for things about others that you like, and accentuate those; diminish those factors and traits you don’t like. Just as you’re going to minimize financial costs by accentuating your positives and not worrying about your negatives unless you’re actively fixing them, do the same with other people. Look for the good things about them and make those good things your focus; don’t sweat the bad things.

How does this help with a happy life? It helps reinforce the truth that the people around you are good people. We live in a society where there is often an overarching sense that other people are somehow bad and not to be trusted. That creates a sense of negativity about the world and a spiraling sense of negativity about everything, which, as I mentioned earlier, makes people very prone to marketing messages. It also means a generally unhappy life, and for no real good reason. Yes, people out there might be different than you and they might not agree with you, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad people. It just means they’ve lived a different life, experienced different things, and learned different ideas. That’s something to learn from, not something to fear and dislike.

Look for the good in others. Look at them as a source for learning about the world. Look for the good that they bring into the lives of others. You’ll have a happier life if you do.

Watch for moments where you’re thinking negative thoughts, then counteract them by intentionally looking for the positives in that situation. Again, it’s all about harnessing your mind to seek out positive thoughts, not just about yourself and not just about the people around you, but about everything in life. Even the worst situations can have silver linings, and even though that shouldn’t overwrite a difficult situation, it can make it seem a little less bad.

Just keep an eye on your mind for negative thoughts about anything and when you notice yourself thinking negative thoughts, try to look for the positives in whatever it is you’re thinking about. Think of two or three good things about whatever that negative thing is and see if it at least becomes somewhat positive in your mind.

I often do this when dealing with things like feeling worn out after exercise, or feeling as though I’m depriving myself of something I want. If I’m worn out after exercise, I think of the good I’ve done for my body and how I’ll genuinely feel a lot better over the next day or two and a little better over the long tail. If I’m feeling deprived, I’ll think about all of the things I already have in my life – and sometimes I’ll even treat myself a little, as discussed earlier.

Keep other areas of your life strong (without just throwing money at it and not actually making it better). If you find yourself becoming overly focused on one area of your life, you can let other areas of your life slip away from you. Make sure that you’re giving some time and energy to all areas of your life.

What are you doing for your health, for example? Are you eating good food? Getting a bit of exercise? Getting good sleep? Are you in a good state with all of your close relationships? Do you have an outlet for expressing your feelings, and do you use that outlet regularly? Are you giving some time each week (at the very least) to the hobbies you care about? Is your job going well? Do you have a good relationship with your boss, your coworkers, and your customers or clients?

While you’re working on your finances, you shouldn’t be neglecting those questions. They deserve answers, too, even if they’re not your main focus. Furthermore, if you start to let a few of them slide, you’re going to feel bad about the state of things in your life even if your finances are in great shape.

Consciously build up friendships that aren’t centered around “retail therapy” or other expensive activities. It can be hard to develop new relationships as an adult. Many of us continue to rely on relationships formed earlier on in our lives or spend social time with people of convenience, like coworkers or others in our field, but those friendships tend to last for only a season and then they drift away as people move and circumstances change.

In some ways, however, that transient nature can be an advantage. Rather than just hanging out with whoever’s convenient, put some effort into filtering those people a bit and then put effort into building genuine long-lasting friendships with a smaller group of them. I have an old coworker that I haven’t worked with in ten years that I met for lunch less than a month ago.

Invest that effort. Seek out people already in your life – coworkers, people at your church, people in the professional and social groups you participate in – who seem to share many of your goals and at least some of your interests. Build up a friendship with them. Invite them for coffee. Have them over for dinner. Help them with a project. Be there whenever they need a hand. You’ll be glad you did.

Start each morning by thinking about five things you’re grateful for, and think about how great those things are for 30 seconds each. This is a simple little practice to start your day that makes a surprising difference. You can do it while you’re getting dressed in the morning or taking a shower or even brushing your teeth. (I often do it while brushing my teeth – I have a toothbrush that vibrates every 30 seconds while brushing, so I think about one thing I’m grateful for between the vibration.)

Just think of five things you’re grateful for. When one comes to mind, think about how great it is for thirty seconds or so, then think of another one. When you’ve done that five times – literally two and a half minutes of thought – you’re done.

There’s no right or wrong answer. Just think of things you’re grateful for in your life. Maybe it’s someone you love. Maybe it’s something good that happened to you. Maybe it’s something like warm sun on your skin or green grass under your toes.

It seems simple, but what I’ve found time and time again is that it contributes a level of contentment to my life that isn’t there if I don’t do this regularly. If I start the day feeling good about what I do have, it is far less likely that I begin feeling bad about what I don’t have later in the day.

Focus on experiences and achievements over possessions. Rather than focusing on the size of your book collection, focus on adding to the list of books you’ve read. Rather than focusing on having more and more clothes, figure out smart ways to mix and match the things you do have. Rather than having a huge amount of camping equipment that you’ll barely use, go on lots of weekend camping trips with minimal gear.

In other words, focus on experiences over stuff.

I keep a list of books I’ve read. That fills me with far more pride than a shelf full of books and it’s far less expensive thanks to the library. I keep a list of places I’ve camped. My screensaver consists of pictures of places I’ve hiked to and I love adding new pictures. We have a sizable “found” rock collection in our front garden. Those things are collections, sure, but they’re all based on experiences and they involve very little spent money.

Keep your attention and focus on the things you’ve experienced and achieved. Don’t worry about accumulating stuff.

Final Thoughts

The path to financial success is a long one. If you’re unhappy with your day to day life along that path, you’re going to constantly find reasons to undermine your attempts at financial success. It’s much harder to find those reasons if you’re happy with the state of things in your life.

So, start by making your day to day life as happy as possible. Focus on finding things to do that you enjoy that don’t sap your money. Master some basic mental techniques for seeing the positives above the negatives in yourself, the people around you, and the day to day routine of your life.

What you’ll find is a more content life, and it’s that contentment that will help you stay on the path to financial success.

Good luck!

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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.