The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

We are faced almost constantly with choices.

Walk into a supermarket and you’ll find literally tens of thousands of goods for sale, of which you’ll choose a few dozen to buy.

If you find yourself without urgent tasks at work, what will you do? Idle? Find a project to take on?

Someone comes up to you with a request that will take time and energy. Do you say yes? Do you politely say no? Do you bluntly refuse and discourage them from ever asking again?

You’re tempted to buy some item for your hobby. Can you afford it? Will you actually use it? Can you justify it to your spouse?

You have some extra cash in your checking account. Do you go out and splurge on something? Or do you make an extra payment on a debt or bolster your emergency fund?

Your boss is asking for volunteers for a tough task at work. Do you stay silent so that your job remains easy? Or do you take on that extra challenge, bolstering your resume and opening the path to promotions and raises, even though it might mean more work for a while?

When we face those choices, we almost always have an instinctive response, our natural way of doing things. We can run through the grocery aisles on instinct, grabbing items and dropping them in the cart. We blow through our urgent tasks at work and then look at social media. We say yes to requests from anyone who might have power over us, and no to everyone else. We give into temptation and buy that item if it’s small. We splurge when we have a little bit of extra cash. We stay silent when the boss is asking for volunteers. Those types of reactions are almost instinctive; we don’t even think about them.

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

The problem is that many of those instincts are borne out of a set of values that we had at one specific point in our lives, and we keep repeating and firming up those instincts even as our values change. Those ways of doing things have become so natural to us over the years that we don’t even really think about them. We just do them.

Often, those instincts are also shaped by what we perceive as “normal” behavior in others, built up over the years by pop culture and news coverage and advertising. Name brand goods are seen as “normal” by many, whereas store brands are not. Doing the minimum amount of work to keep your job secure is seen as “normal” by many, whereas working hard to earn promotions and raises and build a resume is not. Spending everything that you earn and living paycheck to paycheck is seen as “normal” by most, whereas spending significantly less than you earn and building up money in the bank and living without debt and potentially retiring early is not.

Our instincts usually guide us right down the road that’s more travelled. It’s the path of least resistance. It’s the path we’re more familiar with. It’s the path that we often repeat just because we’ve seen it.

It’s a path that leads us to paycheck-to-paycheck living. It’s a path that leads us to a career that doesn’t grow like we want. It’s a path that leads us to a lot of short bursts of pleasure but perhaps lacking in long term joy.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

The road less traveled is a bit different.

It’s a path that leads to having plenty of money in the bank, giving you the freedom to move to a different career or retire early or make any number of surprising lifestyle choices. It’s a path that sometimes forsakes pleasure in the short term in order to gain some amazing long term benefits.

The thing is, for the vast majority of Americans, it is very much a road less traveled. It doesn’t feel like the choices are natural ones. Almost all of the cues of society around us are pointing down the other path, the one where we spend everything we earn, the one where we enjoy a nearly endless flood of short term pleasures, the one where we don’t do as much as we could to improve our career path.

That path leads us to a future where, even if everything goes perfectly, we’re spending our golden years scraping to get by and working until we’re quite old. It’s a future where if something goes wrong, we find ourselves almost destitute. It’s a future where half of Americans die with essentially no assets at all, meaning that their final years were almost entirely hand-to-mouth.

It’s a path that may look beautiful from here, but it bends around a corner to a place we don’t really want to go.

But what about that road less traveled? It looks a bit harder from here. It means making grocery lists and buying store brands. It means making hard career choices and not burning time at work. It means buying fewer frivolous things and selling off some of your unused stuff. It might mean things like living in a smaller home or a smaller apartment.

Further along that path, though, it flattens out and becomes very smooth. You have money in the bank. You can walk away from your job if you hate it. You can afford to retire early or become a stay-at-home parent. You can launch a side business and when it becomes successful, make the leap to doing it full time. You have more options and more freedom and more protection of those options and freedoms than you could ever have on the other path.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The road not taken looks a lot more difficult than the path that most Americans follow. It doesn’t involve things that are advertised on televison. It doesn’t involve a shiny new car that “sets you apart.” It doesn’t involve a huge house in the suburbs. It doesn’t involve spending half of your day at work surfing the web or playing with your phone and the other half making it appear as though you’re working.

It involves buying just what you need and being very selective at buying the things that you want. It involves working hard and working smart. It involves rethinking many of the choices that you normally make in a given day, a given week, a given month, a given year.

But where does it lead? It leads to much less stress. It leads to incredible freedom of choice. It leads to early retirement if you want it. It leads to a ton of security against the unknown. It leads to having tons of time to do the things you want to do in life.

Two roads diverge in front of you. Will you choose the road not taken?

The poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost was interspersed with this article. You can find this poem and many other works by Robert Frost in the excellent volume The Poetry of Robert Frost: The Collected Poems.

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.

Loading Disqus Comments ...