What Do You Want Out of Financial Success?

Most people who find their way to The Simple Dollar have one key thing in common: they want to achieve some level of financial success that they don’t currently have in their life.

For some, just keeping their head above water without continuing to rack up overdrafts and finance charges is all they want. Others want to get rid of a few debts. Still, others might want freedom from debt entirely or to retire comfortably or even early.

All of us are drawn together by that common thread: we want more out of our money than we’re currently getting.

Here’s an interesting question, though. What exactly is that “more” that you want out of your money?

When you think about the financial success that you want, what exactly does it change in your life? What does your life look like if you achieve the financial success you’re striving for?

I encourage you to spend a bit of time thinking about that question. For now, I’ll just share my own answer.

When I think about what my life looks like if I achieve my current financial goals, I envision myself in a few years, living in an empty nest with my wife. We have a lot of time to spend together doing things we both care about, along with plenty of space to enjoy our own individual hobbies. I envision us with little stress and our only worries about the future have little to do with money.

Now, let’s take a different approach. Rather than thinking solely about finances, what exactly can I do to make that picture of what I want to achieve a reality? I’m not talking about finances, but about everything. What do I need to do to make that picture happen?

Well, when I look closer, one thing I can’t help but notice is that it involves more leisure time than I have right now. I have a lot of hobbies. I love playing tabletop games. I love making fermented foods and complex meals for my family. I love playing long complex strategy computer games. I love going on long hikes and even like dabbling in multi-day backpacking trips. I love reading books and getting swept into their stories. I love spending time with friends, often doing many of these things together.

Yet, I often don’t have time to delve into those hobbies as much as I like. My work eats up a lot of time, as does parenting, being a good husband, taking care of our home (with five people, two dogs, and a few other pets here, it takes a lot of work) and community responsibilities and many other little things.

The truth is that this is a busy time in my life. It almost can’t be avoided. I am actively raising children, need to devote plenty of time to work and I have aging parents. I’m a homeowner who doesn’t want the house to fall down around my ears, have a lot of friendships I want to maintain and I have a marriage that I want to keep super strong. That doesn’t leave as much time for hobbies as I had when I was younger.

However, if I look deeper, I notice that some of those stresses will naturally go away in the next couple of decades. My parents will likely pass away. My children will grow up and become independent, needing much less of my time. With only two people living here, our house will be much easier to keep.

The simple passage of a few years will open up a lot of time for hobbies and other interests that I currently don’t have.

I notice, in that picture, that my children have become independent adults. Part of the reason this picture of my future is so joyous is that my children have grown up and started in their independent adult lives. I truly want nothing more for them than to be independent adults who are happy with their lives — if I’m a part of it, that’s great, but it’s more important to me that they are happy with what their lives are and what the future holds for them.

Part of this picture, then, rests on me doing an effective job as a parent. I recognize that it’s not all up to me — their own individual natures play a huge role, as do teachers, friends, mentors and influencers. I have to do what I am able to do to maximize their chances of having successful, happy, and independent lives, even while understanding that it’s not all up to me.

How can I be a good parent, in the sense that a good parent is making my children emotionally and intellectually prepared for happy independent adulthood? That’s something else on my plate.

Another thing I notice is that it centers around a very strong relationship with my wife. Sarah and I have been best friends and romantic partners for more than 20 years, and I don’t want that to ever change. I want to grow old with her by my side, with many many more adventures along the way.

For that to happen, I need to be a good partner in our marriage. This means genuine quality time with her, paying attention to her and what she actually needs in a partner even as it changes as she grows and changes as a person. That can’t be bought.

I need to be a good partner today, and a good partner tomorrow as well, if I want that vision to happen.

Yet another thing I notice is that it centers on low stress and anxiety. This picture of the future looks so wonderful because I can sense that I’m at peace, without stress and anxiety hovering over all of it.

Achieving some level of financial success is definitely part of it, but the truth is that I haven’t felt money stress in a number of years. Raising my children to adulthood and maintaining a good marriage will help, too, as will eventually stepping away from writing demands and deadlines.

However, part of it is simply getting better at dealing with my own stress and anxiety. Doing things like taking walks and meditating each day have done wonders for my own stress and anxiety levels, and those things are things I need to maintain in my life because they’re more powerful when they’re daily or near-daily habits.

Simply keeping my own stress and anxiety in check goes a long way toward making that picture of the future a reality.

Healthy finances are definitely a part of that picture, but there are other elements that are at least as important. I’ve mentioned several, but there are others as well, such as physical health and good friendships.

Finances definitely play a role here. Healthy finances will enable me to walk away from working for money with confidence much earlier than I otherwise would have. Healthy finances certainly help keep stress low, too, and they enable lots of little parts of other things, like good parenting and being in a healthy marriage.

But money isn’t nearly all of it. In fact, most of that picture is achieved without the financial arm; it just helps a lot.

Looking at that picture reminds me that the future I am building toward with good finances is supported by a lot of pillars, and it will only really come true if most of those pillars are strong. They don’t all have to be perfect, but many do. I view this vision like building a chair — I’m building six or seven legs for that chair and I will need at least four of them to be strong in able for the chair to work. For this vision to work, I need several of those elements to click into place.

Rather than starting with the problem and working forward, start with the solution and work backward.

As I noted above, almost all of us — myself included — adopted personal finance success because we wanted some sort of change in our life. That change varies a lot from person to person — the change I want right now is what I describe above, which involves retiring early with my wife.

What exactly is it that you want for yourself? What are you hoping to achieve with the personal finance changes you’re making in your life? It’s the question I asked earlier, and I hope you’ve come up with a good answer by now.

Whatever your answer is, focus on that instead of the financial path to get there for a moment and ask yourself this: what are all of the things that need to happen for this to come true?

Finances are likely to be one part of it, but what are the other things? Start by considering all of the differences between where you are right now in life and what you’re envisioning for that future when you’ve achieved your financial goal. What are all of those differences? Also, consider what important things have stayed the same. What are the meaningful things you’ve maintained?

As you think about this, you’re likely going to come up with a list of several things that will stretch across a number of areas in your life. Some of them will represent things you want to change. Others will represent things very important to you that you want to maintain.

With just that one simple thought experiment, you’ve probably touched upon almost every single thing that’s really important to you in your life. Every thread that connects where you’re at now to where you want to be is something that’s truly important to you, and each of those threads represents either keeping that thing strong or changing it in some way that’s really important to you.

For me, I came up with a lot of threads.

I want to maintain my marriage and keep it strong.

I want to guide my children into successful independent adulthood.

I want to be physically healthy.

I want more free time.

I want less stress and anxiety.

And then came the realization that the financial success I want is really mostly there to support those things.

Financial success means Sarah and I don’t fight about money, helping us keep a strong marriage.

Financial success helps me guide my children into successful, independent adulthood.

Financial success helps keep my anxiety low and keeps money stress and career stress at bay.

Financial success enables earlier retirement, which will give me a ton of additional free time.

Through that, I see the truth of things: financial success isn’t itself the goal, but rather it is a key support for what makes up the life I want.

In other words, when I envision what I hope financial success will give me, it’s not actually a fat bank account that I envision. Rather, I envision a life that’s made up of a lot of elements, many of which are strongly supported or made possible by good personal finance success.

I don’t want financial success so I can have a fat bank account; rather, I want a great marriage, independent children, low anxiety, low stress and lots of free time — financial success is essential in getting those things.

To be clear, I don’t have to be financially successful to be a good husband or a good parent or to have a lot of free time or to have low stress and anxiety. Rather, financial success makes those things much easier to achieve all at the same time.

Financial success on its own is not the path to the life I want, but rather it enables all of the pieces that make up that life.

Thus, when I spend money on things that don’t help further any of those things, it feels incredibly wasteful. How does having a cable package help me with any of those things? How does an impulsive buy at a store help me with any of those things? How does buying name brand household products instead of store brands help me with any of those things? It doesn’t. It’s fleeting.

The life you want likely has little to do with not having debts or having money in the bank; rather, those financial goals make those things possible.

When you envision that great life that you hope finances will make possible, it’s not the hefty bank account that you’re thinking about. Rather, you’re thinking about relationships and life changes that are mostly made easier by greater financial responsibility.

Being smart with your money helps all of those elements at the same time. On the other hand, using your money for things that don’t support any of those elements is incredibly empty spending.

The thing all of us want out of financial success is a better life. That better life is almost always made up of a lot of elements, none of which directly have to do with an account balance.

Rather than thinking about account balances, think instead about how you’re using your money. Are you using it in ways that are supporting the elements that make up the life you want? Or are you using it in ways that are just fleeting pleasures and do little or nothing for that life you want?

The more you see what the life you want is really made up of, the easier it becomes to cut away the things that don’t have anything to do with that picture.

The first step is easy. What do you want out of financial success? Fill in that picture and consider what it is made up of. You’ll find quickly that, although finances aren’t really a direct meaningful part of the equation, they’re vital in supporting a lot of those elements and making that life you want, and the more you reflect on that, the more powerful it seems to put aside money to help with those things and the worse it seems to spend money in ways that doesn’t help with those things.

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.