The Struggle to Find Meaning and Purpose in Financial Progress

When I go back and read some of the earliest articles I wrote for The Simple Dollar, I see someone truly enjoying the process of discovery of new frugal tactics and financial strategies. Don’t get me wrong, I still love finding new techniques, but when I was first starting out, all of the ideas were new to me. All of the strategies were new to me.

It was exciting because I could see a direct and notable impact for almost all of the things I was doing. I was watching our debts melt with surprising speed. I was trying out new ways of doing things every single day (and writing about them in the evenings), because there were tons of new things to try. A new book on frugality would give me a hundred new things to try, and I’d dive in as deeply as I could. I’d download long lists of frugal strategies and just dig in.

Over time, however, things began to gradually change.

For starters, Sarah and I started to reach our financial goals. We managed to pay off all of our consumer debt fairly quickly, followed by paying off our car loans and our student loans. Eventually, we moved forward on our life goal of buying a family home, but we bought a smaller one than we could have afforded and managed to pay off the mortgage in four years. We saved for retirement, we saved for our children’s college educations, and we’re debt free and have been for most of a decade. Our big goal nowadays is to essentially retire as early as possible – we plan on visiting every single national park in our fifties.

Second, the “honeymoon period” wore off. I don’t mean that the idea of being financially successful became somehow boring or that new frugal strategies became dull. I still like finding new frugal tips, after all. What happened is that a lot of the frugal strategies became incorporated into our normal everyday life and many of the tips I was finding were repeats of those ideas. Yes, a lot of them worked well and were better than what I was doing before, but I already had tried many of the tips I was finding. Plus, we had already climbed several of the hills we wanted to climb – our credit cards were paid off and so on – and our savings for our big goals had been completely automated. To put it simply, we stopped discovering new strategies to try every day and instead found ourselves implementing what we already had found that worked.

That’s, frankly, a lot less exciting. It’s much more fun at first, when you get out of bed each morning and try out a new tactic, when you can check the mail and see that debt that once seemed immovable breaking down and fading away surprisingly fast. Later on, when the debts are gone, all you have is a climbing balance in an account you probably shouldn’t touch and a life that’s already full of the best common sense routines.

Finally, I began to really notice what I was giving up. The choice to live below our means is a conscious one, but in that choice is a decision to give up some things that you might have otherwise had in life. For me, this meant seeing friends go on great trips that I would have also enjoyed. It meant watching the new technologies come and go while I’m still using a four year old cell phone.

Those things seemed far less important when the days were full of the newness of discovering new frugality and financial tactics and watching our debts disappear. When that newness faded, however, it became harder to ignore.

Those changes over the course of a few years led me to something of a crossroads in my financial journey – and in my life journey as a whole.

Why, exactly, am I pursuing financial success? Is it worth more to me than the things I’m giving up for it? What is the purpose and meaning in those choices?

I’m sitting at a point where I’m in very good financial shape compared to the average American with a similar income at my age. We have a fully paid for home, robust savings for retirement and for other goals, and a plan that leads us to retire early. I’m no longer being chased by immediate financial concerns.

So, why not relax a little and enjoy some of the perks of our financial state?

Why keep going with our financial progress?

It’s a hard question, and I know it’s one that many people deal with once they achieve their short term financial goals and begin the long slog toward their biggest goals.

You no longer have any immediate hills to climb. This isn’t a new adventure any more.

What is the meaning that keeps you going? What is the purpose?

I’ve struggled with this question for the last several years. I’ve really only figured out a few answers to that question, but those answers have been more than enough.

I Like the Life I Have Right Now

I have a marriage that still makes me happy to get up in the morning and see Sarah next to me, even after fifteen years. I have three great children. I have a job that I love more often than I don’t. I have a house that I’m happy living in. I have enough breathing room in my life to enjoy a lot of passions and avocations. There are a few things I need to work on, but those aren’t things that are solved by throwing money at the problem.

In short, I like the life that I have right now.

I view my life as a low stress place where I’m largely content, and from that base of contentment and low stress, moments of true happiness and joy bubble up consistently.

This was not how I felt about my life when I was struggling with debt and under financial pressures. In fact, I felt quite the opposite. I felt like my life was a pretty high stress place in which I was generally unhappy, and I spent money on things because I didn’t have any sense that there was happiness and joy bubbling up in my life. I had a high background level of professional and financial stress, coupled with the lack of sleep that comes from having babies, and it added up to a situation where I felt genuinely unhappy most of the time.

There is no sensible reason for me to risk what I have now, where I’m content almost all of the time and happy much of the time without having to spend money, to have a few amazing experiences but go back to a situation where I’m stressed out much of the time and under financial pressures and need to spend money to feel bursts of happiness.

My life is good, and part of that is because my finances are secure. My life remains good even I spend quite a bit less than I earn. There’s no reason for me to spend a bunch more for something fun that would bring a burst of pleasure that would quickly fade, but in the process disrupt the low stress levels and stability of my life. It’s a losing proposition.

I Like the Life I’m Heading Toward

I suppose that if I were in a position where I was happy with my life right now but I knew I was headed into a less happy life in five or ten years, I might strive to change things, but when I sit down and make a picture of my future, I’m pretty happy with that, as well. As with my life today, there are certainly a few things I want to work on and improve, but on the whole, the place I’m headed to is a place I want to go.

Sarah and I are likely to be able to retire early, not long after our youngest child leaves the nest. At that point, we’ll have a couple of decades of good health (at least) ahead of us, to do with what we wish, adventuring together.

As I mentioned earlier, one of our biggest goals is to visit every national park and camp there for at least one night. I want to get heavily involved with a local charity, far beyond what I can pull off with current familial commitments. Sarah and I are interested in starting a local tabletop gaming convention to be held annually in October. We want to read a lot of books, go on a lot of walks, do a lot of gardening, and simply enjoy a lot of things together.

That’s a future that makes me feel incredibly excited about what the future holds. I want to do all of those things quite badly, and I know I’m on a path to do those things.

The question for me then becomes what would it take for me to want to disrupt those plans? Sure, there’s always a chance that life might step in the way and keep those plans from coming true, but our current trajectory takes us right to those things, and those are what I want most for the future.

Not only that, even if my vision for the future changed a significant amount, I would have the resources to roll with a lot of those changes.

This is not a vision for the future that I significantly want to alter. I want things to keep trucking along, just as they are.

I Can Feel a Strong Connection Between My Daily Actions and My Long Term Goals

This is a subtle factor, but it’s actually incredibly important. I’ve spent a great deal of time encouraging my own natural long term thinking, especially in terms of how I evaluate everyday situations. Because of that, I feel a strong connection between the things I do every day and how that impacts my broader life.

When I take those two factors into account – the fact that I like my life as it is right now and that I’m heading in a direction I’m pleased with – it becomes very obvious very quickly that I have meaning and purpose in the path I’m on and the life I’m leading. That meaning and purpose comes from almost every sphere of my life. I’m happy with my marriage today and where it’s headed. I’m happy with my parental situation today and where it’s headed. While it’s not universal through every sphere of my life, I’m in a far, far better position than I was a decade ago and the areas that I truly want to continue to improve in are very clear to me.

If I were to make a significant change to my life right now, in an effort to seek out some great new experience or some other fundamental change in routine, I would upset those plans and I would upset the life that I have right now that I truly enjoy.

That’s the threshold I use whenever I consider making any notable changes to my life.

I’m not really talking about small one-off events here. What I’m really focused on are repeated behaviors and big events.

For example, if I notice that I’m starting to adopt some sort of new regular routine, particularly if that routine involves spending money, I start to strongly question that routine. Does that routine really make sense? Is it bringing a lot of value into my life? Is it bringing so much value that it overcomes the additive cost of that routine?

As an example, let’s say I’m starting to drift into a regular routine of eating more expensive foods. I’m eating out a little more and using much more expensive ingredients for home cooking and it’s starting to show in our food budget, which has grown by about $300 a month.

That $300 a month could have gone into a Roth IRA, adding up to a contribution of $3,600 a year. With a 7% return and an annual repeat of that contribution, it adds up to about $60,000 in retirement savings over a decade. Ouch. That’s enough to allow Sarah and I to retire a year earlier.

So, how much value am I really getting out of bumping up the relative quality of my food? Is it worth that cost? Is the difference between what I was eating a year ago and what I’m eating now making that much of a difference in my life? Furthermore, would I actually be getting more value if the high quality meals were less consistent and thus more appreciated and anticipated?

That’s the line of thinking I use to tamp down on steady, stealthy increases in normal day-to-day spending. I simply look at what it means in my life compared to what my life looks like if I dial it back, and I usually wind up on the side of dialing it back.

The same thing is true with a big purchase. Sarah and I are planning on doing a few international trips with our children when they’re a bit older, but we do have the means to start doing them right away. When we look at the impact of those expenses on the big picture, plus the relative difference in value that everyone would get out of doing a big international trip right now versus a much simpler domestic trip, we usually come down on the side of the domestic trip.

I Try To Keep In Touch With What I Really Value

A final part of this equation is the fact that we all change as people over time. The things we care deeply about today might not be so important to us in the future, and vice versa. All of us had things that were incredibly important to us when we were younger and are now not much of an impact at all.

Part of the reason that people run into financial trouble is that they sense those kinds of shifts in meaning but don’t really sit down and consider what’s going on. They keep pumping along a certain trajectory in their life, but what they don’t consider is that their values have shifted and that the trajectory they’re on is no longer taking them to a place they want to go.

It is far better to notice those values as they start to change and deal with them when the shifts are minor rather than not paying any attention until you wake up one day hating your life and the trajectory you’re on. That happened to me in the days before I started The Simple Dollar, and it’s an utterly miserable feeling.

In the latter half of my college years, I was really happy with the trajectory I was on. I had found an area of study I was happy with. I had a couple of mentors that were incredibly helpful to me in figuring out what my next steps were. I had a woman I was deeply in love with. The future looked great.

Over time, the worm turned on those things. I took a job related to that area of study I loved, only to gradually discover that I really intensely liked the bureaucratic structures and how much time I was taking away from my family and wife. My values had shifted – I still loved my area of study, but it no longer weighed above the frustration of dealing with bureaucratic issues. I also found myself caring deeply for my wife and, then, for my infant children.

Yet, there I was, still trying to chug along a career path that was headed to places I didn’t really want to go any more.

If I had sat down then and considered carefully how my values were changing, I probably would not have made a lot of those choices. I made them based on where I thought I wanted to go, without realizing or considering how my values were changing.

As a result, I found myself on a pretty unhappy trajectory, and I “solved” that, in part, by overspending. It led to me feeling better on a daily basis, but actually made my long term problems far worse.

It wasn’t until I sat down and strongly considered what trajectory my life was on and what I really valued that I started to make changes – radical ones. It was getting back in touch with what I really valued that pushed me onto the path that led to The Simple Dollar and to the life I have now.

I learned my lesson well. Nowadays, I think often about what I actually value, what direction my life is headed, what I’m doing right and doing wrong on a daily basis, and so on. I write in journals. I read philosophy. If I start to see some disconnect between what I want most out of life and where my actions are leading me, I address it head on. Is this really what I value? Why am I making these choices, then?

Those might be weighty thoughts, but they’re not all I think about. Rather, I find those thoughts to be something of a cleanser. They leave me with a life that I know I’m happy with today and I know is heading in a direction that I value, and that adds a lot of contentment and joy and erases a lot of worry and stress. It makes my other moments much better.

Final Thoughts

I guess, in the end, my recipe for finding meaning and purpose on the road to financial freedom is to be really sure that you’re happy with your life today and in the direction it’s headed, to deeply understand the connection between the two, and to keep a constant eye on things to make sure that you don’t gradually drift off into a direction you’re unhappy with.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll find a great deal of meaning and purpose in being a good financial steward when you consider these kinds of questions in your own life. For me, the argument for being smart about my money is really obvious and evident in my own life. I get far more benefit from being financially stable and heading in a good financial direction than the money can ever be worth if it were used for other purposes.

If you’re sure of the meaning and purpose of your financial moves, everything becomes so much easier.

Good luck!

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.