Some Hard Questions

What do I really need in life?

What do I need to have a life that’s enjoyable?

What do I need to get out of bed in the morning, to feel something positive inside of me?

What things am I spending money on that are just giving me bursts of pleasure but not bringing me lasting sources of positive feelings in my life?

What things am I spending money on that I actually don’t care about much at all?

What could I be building if I wasn’t spending that money on things that don’t really matter to me?

I find myself asking these questions about my own life quite often, and they’re hard questions to answer.

My actual needs in life are few. Basic food. Water. Basic clothing. Shelter. I’d probably include some form of human connection in there, because over time most of us (myself included) break down without that. Something to occupy my mind, because, again, without that, I’d probably break down over time.

Everything else is really just a want, not a need.

So, why do I want those extra things? Almost universally, I want those extra things because I believe they will bring me pleasure or happiness or to avoid discomfort. I eat tasty food because it brings me pleasure. I eat healthy food to avoid discomfort (now and in the future). I have a nice house because it brings me pleasure – it’s more shelter than I need. I can go on and on and on like this.

Now, there are some things in life that really do provide lasting pleasure for us. They’re worth it in terms of the resources we exchange for them. For example, I think a modest home for a family falls into that category; below a certain size, it’s uncomfortable, but above a certain size, there’s a lot of wasted space.

However, when I’m honest with myself, the things that get me to jump out of bed in the morning are rarely related to things I’ve bought. Almost always, I get out of bed because I’m excited about the things I’m going to do and (often) the people I’m going to do them with, and those things often do not involve spending money.

Specific things that get me out of bed feeling excited for the day include:

* Doing something with my family, or taking care of them in some meaningful way.

* Doing something that gets me into a flow state, which means that it’s an activity I get so absorbed into in an active mental and physical way that I lose track of time, such as writing or martial arts practice or playing a challenging board game with friends or getting absorbed in a challenging book.

* An adventure of some kind, like a hike or a visit from an old friend or a dinner party or a planned day of geocaching or a day with my wife or a day with my kids.

* Having a bunch of good writing ideas

* Having some personal projects that I’m about to reach a milestone with or about to complete

Here’s the big thing to notice: None of those things costs any significant amount of money. None. The things that really make me feel excited and full of zest for life almost always have very little cost involved.

The truth is that most of the money I spend is spent on things that bring me rather fleeting bursts of pleasure, pleasure that fades and rarely turns into anything lasting. Often, I’ll spend money on things that dole out those fleeting bursts of pleasure, like my cell phone or my Netflix subscription, but they’re never going to be things that cause me to jump out of bed in the morning.

The key idea I’ve been trying to live by for the last few years is this: Does this expense add in a meaningful way to anything that’s really important in my life and brings me consistent, lasting joy, the kind that gets me out of bed in the morning? If I can’t give a strong “yes” as an answer, I’m not going to spend money on it.

Don’t we need those little bursts of pleasure, though? Sure, but you can get those for free, or extremely cheap. I get them when I go outside on a warm day or when I drink some ice water with just a little lemon in it. I get them when I hold my wife close to me or when I laugh with my children. I get them when I play a great board game with a friend or when I have a couple of hours to get lost in a good book.

The temptation to chase those pleasure bursts is strong, though. I won’t deny that the temptation to just throw money at something that’s going to bring me a burst of pleasure right away and then fades quickly is a big one. Things that give regular little hits of pleasure are particularly tempting. Social media. Television. Little “treats.” Sweets. The list goes on and on.

My challenge is to remember that the things that genuinely support and protect the sources of lasting, meaningful happiness – the things that get me out of bed in the morning – are where my money and resources should be spent. That means securing a strong retirement. That means working hard all through the week so I can have some big blocks of free time on the weekend. That means minimizing the things that aren’t really important to me so I have time and money for the things that are.

This isn’t something that you just decide one day and that’s that. This is a constant series of decisions, choosing to turn away from spending money and resources on things that aren’t meaningful in your life and choosing instead to spend money and resources on things that are meaningful, that are the very things that get you to spring out of bed in the morning.

It all starts with one simple question. What are the things you live for, the things that get you out of bed in the morning, the things that drive you forward and you’re driven to do? Those are the things your money should be centered around, not the little bursts of pleasure that fade away, not the things that just provide a steady dose of little pleasures that never add up to anything.

My goal is simple: I want to build a life where every day is filled with things that get me out of bed in the morning. That means thinking about how I spend my money and how I spend my time and cutting out those uses that don’t lead to that kind of life.

Some things to think about:

Does the brand of laundry soap I use ever change how I feel about getting out of bed in the morning? If no, then why buy anything other than the most inexpensive one that gets my clothes clean.

Does social media ever change how I feel about getting out of bed in the morning in a positive way? If no, then why should I use it?

Does a really good cup of coffee change how I feel about getting out of bed in the morning? Actually, this one’s a maybe, so it makes sense to seek out the best cup of coffee for the price and for the effort for me, and that’s cold brew coffee made in the fridge.

I just keep asking those kinds of questions, and you should, too. Use the money you make and the time you have to build a life that gets you excited to get out of bed each morning. Don’t spend money or time on anything that doesn’t. That’s what it’s all about. In the end, that’s what almost all of the advice on The Simple Dollar is all about – tactics for getting you there.

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.