Let’s do a little thought experiment before we get to some practical advice.
In an ideal week, a person has 168 hours to spend. Let’s assume that they spend 50 of it sleeping, another 20 on life management tasks (eating, preparing food, basic housework, basic hygiene), and another 18 on leisure.
This leaves 80 hours to fill.
Most American adults fill a lot of that time with their job. They go to work to earn money. This eats up a lot of, but not all of, that time – remember, there’s time spent commuting and so on. Let’s say that 60 of those hours are taken up by actually performing your job.
What about the other 20? That time can be used in a lot of ways.
Many Americans add it to their leisure time or to other aspects of their life like strengthening their marriage or being a great parent. Their leisure/family/marital/spiritual time goes up to 38 hours per week. That time is often spent watching television or using the internet. However, people in this group are doing little to cut back on their spending or to increase their income. We’ll put Adam in this group.
Some Americans devote that time to things that save money. They prepare meals at home. They take on home improvement projects. They fill those hours with things that enable them to spend less so that their paycheck goes further. People in this group are putting forth effort to spend less in both the short run and the long run. We’ll put Becky in this group.
Other Americans spend that time improving their careers or at least working harder to earn money. They take classes for certifications. They read books. They put in extra time to really nail work projects. They spend time evaluating their own performance and thinking about how to get better. Some people in this group are working a second job or a third job for more income. People in this group are putting forth effort to earn more in both the short run and the long run. We’ll put Chris in this group.
Each scenario has some advantages and disadvantages.
In terms of personal stress, it’s likely that Adam (the person with more leisure time) feels the least life stress, provided he’s using his leisure time well.
In terms of making ends meet in the short term, it’s likely that Becky (the person who is frugal) is having the easiest time keeping the bills paid this month, provided she’s using the rewards of frugality well.
In terms of maximizing lifetime earnings, it’s likely that Chris (the person who is career focused) is on the most direct path to a high income, both now and later, provided that Chris is using that professional time wisely.
As I’ve said many times, the fundamental rule of personal finance is “spend less than you earn and do something smart with the difference.” Adam isn’t doing either part (though his day to day life is probably the least stressful), Becky is handling the “spend less” part, and Chris is amping up the “earn more” part. Becky is likely to have the most financial success over the next few years (assuming wise use of that saved money), while Chris probably will over the course of a lifetime.
Most Americans are like Adam most of the time and the numbers bear that out. For short periods, they might choose to live more like Becky or Chris, but Adam is the default. This is why most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and why the average American devotes more than 10 hours a day to screen time.
Many Simple Dollar readers might find themselves having a lot in common with Becky, who strives to maximize every dollar spent. I certainly do.
Many other Simple Dollar readers might identify most with Chris, who strives to maximize income. For many years in my life, I was probably closest to Chris.
If I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that you can’t be Adam and Becky and Chris all at once. You can’t “have it all.” There are only so many hours in the week and if you try to strongly fill all three roles, you’re going to end up short-changing at least one of them and probably all three of them, often without realizing it.
(There’s also the issue that following only Chris’s advice when you’re a Becky – or any other mismatch – will lead to a miserable life.)
So, what can a person do?
My solution is simple. Be Adam or Becky or Chris – whichever one feels most natural to you – but borrow the most powerful low hanging fruit strategies from the other two. It’s okay to be in any of those camps. I find myself naturally in the Becky camp, though I found that I was more naturally in the Chris camp at an earlier stage in my life. I have a lot of friends like Adam and a lot of friends like Becky and even a few friends like Chris and they’re all cool with me.
From Adam, learn what things are most effective in terms of keeping your stress low and getting the most bang for the buck from the other spheres in your life – marriage, parenting, leisure time, spirituality, and so on. What things does Adam do that are hugely beneficial in those areas in terms of the time and energy and money invested? That’s what Adam can teach you if you’re Becky or Chris.
From Becky, learn what frugal tactics provide the most bang for the buck. Which ones provide a huge return with minimal time and energy input? That’s what Becky can teach you if you’re Adam or Chris.
From Chris, learn what career strategies work the best in terms of maximizing one’s lifetime earnings. What can you do in your career to get the most long term benefit out of those 60 hours of work a week? That’s what Chris can teach you if you’re Adam or Becky.
This is what I do in my own life. While I like to spend a lot of time doing “frugal” things, I do spend some time trying to learn from the Adams in my life (and in books) what the most effective things are in terms of keeping stress low and maximizing other spheres of my life, and I also like to learn good career strategies from the Chrises in my life (and in books).
Here are the big home runs that I’ve learned from each one.
Life Balance: Five Lessons from Adam
These are the most important lessons I’ve learned from “Adam” – in other words, the most effective “bang for the buck” strategies in terms of feeling good about life and keeping stress in check.
Get enough sleep each night that you can consistently wake up on your own without an alarm. Good sleep is the foundation of everything. If you’re not getting good sleep, you’re not performing well in any aspect of your life. Make sure that you’re getting enough good sleep that you rise naturally most of the time without an alarm clock. That probably means going to bed a little earlier and not using your phone or other screens for an hour or so before bed.
Eat a healthy diet that’s mostly plant based. There are lots of different dietary approaches out there, but the core principles behind almost all nutritional science is that eating a diet that’s mostly plant based without overeating is the best approach. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Don’t overeat. If you do that, you’re ahead of most people. You’ll feel good and your weight will take care of itself and you’ll avoid a ton of long term medical issues and medical costs.
Move around more and get at least some exercise; even walks are good. Do at least some of it outside. There are a ton of ways to do this. Get a standing desk. Use a Pomodoro timer and go on a five minute walk every time it beeps. Get in the habit of walking to and from work while listening to an audiobook. Vigorous exercise is good, but most Americans would do themselves a great service by simply walking more. It helps you feel better and decreases a lot of long term health risks.
Maintain regular contact with the people you care about and that doesn’t mean just “liking” their Facebook posts. Most Americans feel lonely, and young adults are the hardest hit. Loneliness is a negative feeling that can have profound negative consequences in life. One very easy solution is to simply have meaningful contact with people in your life frequently, and that doesn’t mean just “liking” their latest Facebook post. Send someone a meaningful text asking how they are. Write someone a note and actually mail it to them. Invite someone you know to do something simple with you, like meet for lunch or for coffee. Make meaningful contact with someone a few times a day, and make sure one of them is with a person with whom you might be experiencing a slip in relationship.
If you’re worried about some aspect of your life, devote time to that aspect and address the problem with whatever means you have rather than just worrying about it. Don’t just fret over a life problem. Figure out what it is that’s worrying you, then address it with the means you can control and accept that there are just some things you can’t control. If you can’t control it and you’ve planned adequately for a bad outcome’s impact on your life, there is no reason to worry about it.
Frugality: Five Lessons from Becky
These are the most important lessons I’ve learned from “Becky” – in other words, the most effective “bang for the buck” strategies in terms of spending less money.
Choose inexpensive housing that allows you to avoid owning a car. If at all possible, try to find relatively inexpensive housing in an area where you can get away with owning fewer cars. If you can commute without a car, that’s a great personal finance move as it means that you probably don’t need a car at all as mass transit and a bicycle can take care of your transportation needs. This will save you literally hundreds a month.
If you must own a car, buy a lower end reliable one and drive it until problems start to mount, then replace it with a late model used reliable one. Reliable lower end brands include Toyota (both of our cars right now are Toyotas), Honda, Nissan, and Subaru. Aim to buy those as “late model used,” meaning a used car that was manufactured between three and six years ago. Follow the maintenance schedule and drive that car until real problems begin to appear, then repeat the cycle. That’s pretty much the least expensive method there is for keeping a reliable car in the driveway.
Prepare your food and beverages at home as much as possible. Eating outside the home is almost universally more expensive than eating at home, and it adds up dramatically with every meal eaten and beverage consumed. Aim to make as much of your food at home as you possibly can. Here’s a great meal planning guide for busy families, for starters. A slow cooker can make a world of difference.
Shop around carefully for any major expense or anything that will become a monthly bill, and shop around again at the end of any contract period. Whenever you’re considering adding a recurring bill to your life or you’re about to renew an agreement for a recurring bill, consider whether you actually need that service. If you do, spend some time shopping around and getting quotes. This is maybe an hour’s worth of effort per bill per year, but each round can save you hundreds of dollars.
Establish an emergency fund and some sort of retirement savings and automate both of them. An emergency fund is simply a pool of cash you can tap if things go haywire; it’s typically stored in a savings account somewhere. A retirement savings account includes your retirement plan at work (if you have one) as well as an independent account anyone can open, like a Roth IRA. Aim to have both, and set them up to be funded automatically so you don’t have to think about it. The emergency fund is there for you when things go wrong in your life; your retirement money is there for you when you grow old.
Career Success: Five Lessons from Chris
These are the most important lessons I’ve learned from “Chris” – in other words, the most effective “bang for the buck” strategies in terms of improving your long term income.
Don’t waste downtime at work. If you’re sitting at work twiddling your thumbs, you’re making a career mistake. You should be filling that time with something that will lead to earning more money. That might mean working on other projects. That might mean taking steps to benefit your own side gig. That might mean networking with your professional peers. Don’t waste that downtime, though. Use it.
Build a good relationship with your supervisor that includes meaningful review and planning. Make sure you know your supervisor well and he or she knows you well. Take performance reviews seriously and try to come up with a plan with your supervisor that will lead to promotion or at least a pay raise. If you don’t have regular performance reviews at work, schedule one and work with your supervisor to come up with such a plan.
Identify what’s needed for the next career step you want to take and do those things as much as you can at work. Where do you want to go next in your career? Figure that out, then ask: what do you need to do to go from where you’re at to that next step? Make a plan, then use your spare time at work to execute that plan. Furthermore, try to find every way you can within your work to move forward on that plan. Aim for work tasks that set you up well for that next step – tasks that are real resume-builders.
Don’t engage in negative workplace gossip or backstabbing. Negative workplace talk and actions does nothing more than burn bridges and cuts off potential paths to the career you want. It might feel good to vent, but it can seriously cost you, often in ways that you never see. Whenever you talk behind someone’s back, it’s likely someone else is talking behind your back about you and you’re also likely eroding the implicit trust and confidence of at least some of the people you’re talking to. It’s not worth it. Avoid doing it and try to avoid even being a part of it.
Take advantage of any situation at work that will help get your name out there or connect you with more people in your field. If there’s an opportunity at work to connect with people in your field, particularly those outside your office, take it. Take on opportunities to go to professional meetings and use those as springboards to build relationships. Whenever you have a chance to speak publicly or present your work, jump on it. It can be scary, but there’s no better way to get yourself out there, and getting yourself and your work out there opens doors of all kinds.
It’s okay to be Adam. Having a low stress life and a great life balance with plenty of time to strengthen your relationships and enjoy the things you enjoy most in life is a great life goal. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn the most valuable strategies from Becky and Chris and apply them in your life.
It’s okay to be Becky. Finding ways to minimize your spending so that you don’t have to chase career ambitions and professional stress while still achieving financial success is a great life goal. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn the most valuable strategies from Adam and Chris and apply them in your life.
It’s okay to be Chris. Aiming to have a successful and personally meaningful career that earns a high income that can provide a level of unparalleled financial protection is a great goal. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn the most valuable strategies from Adam and Beck and apply them in your life.
We’re all wired differently, with different aims and goals and ambitions in life and different things that we value. What makes the difference between having a good life and having a great life is that we learn from others and borrow the strategies they find most effective and actually apply them in our own life.
That’s true whether you identify with Adam or with Becky or with Chris.