What I Gave Up And What I Gained

There’s a strong perception out there that living on less than you earn translates into some kind of miserable existence where you don’t have any of the things you enjoy and you sit Scrooge-like in the corner of some decrepit room counting your coins. It’s not hard to see some variation of this in popular culture, which constantly portrays spending above and beyond your means as “cool” and being thrifty as either outright weird or only something that a few specific subgroups care much about.

I believed that for years. I believed that if I tried to commit to a life of spending less, it would be a miserable existence. I believed that if I tried to change financial direction, I would just be a Scrooge-like miser. I believed that anyone cool couldn’t possibly save money. I believed that I had to spend every dime I had to keep up appearances and to keep myself entertained. I believed that, sure, being financially responsible might gain me something in the long term, but in the short term, life would be pretty un-fun.

It turns out that none of those things were true. I gave up far less than I thought, and I gained far more than I thought, both in the short term and in the long term.

Let’s take a look.

I gave up one hobby — among quite a few — that I cared about, and had to change a couple of others.

The one hobby I gave up was golfing. I used to go golfing with a small group about once every other week for years. We’d get a golf cart, cruise around, hit some balls badly, talk some trash and go back to the clubhouse. It was fun, I’ll admit, but it was honestly just one hobby of mine, something I did about once every other week.

I had to somewhat change two other hobbies. I’ve always been a big reader, but I bought a lot of books, enough that they were overflowing our shelves. I simply scaled back my book purchasing and started focusing more on “collecting” a list of books I’ve read (I’ll get back to this in a bit). I was also an avid player and collector of Magic: The Gathering, a hobby I really got into in college and one that expanded in expense after graduating. Rather than just buying and buying more cards, I transformed this hobby into one that was focused on trading for value. Those things both remained a part of my life, just with some tweaks.

Those three changes — giving up golfing and tweaking two other hobbies — cut my hobby spending by something around 90% by my best estimates at the time.

I basically didn’t touch any of my other hobbies. I loved going on hikes, reading books, taking long walks, and I love them now, too. I still enjoy playing computer games and video games, though my tastes and style of play has changed due to my own changing interests — I’m now much more of a completionist and a deep-diver into specific games rather than getting games and playing them for a short while before moving on, and I don’t really enjoy playing games that rely on fast reflexes at all anymore.

I gained a few other hobbies.

In the process of learning how to be more frugal, as well as simply having children and exploring new things because of them, I picked up a few new hobbies along the way. My life didn’t become some kind of empty shell.

I became much more interested in board games and other tabletop games, kind of as an outgrowth of my Magic: The Gathering hobby. I started building a collection of these games and playing them with family and friends, mostly funded by trading Magic cards for them and trading games that didn’t click with me for other games. Trading games to acquire other ones so that I eventually have a shelf full of games that I deeply love is a big part of this hobby for me, though it’s secondary to actually playing the games. This also helps keep the cost low.

I’ve become very passionate about cooking and making food items. I love preparing dinner for my family and trying new things while balancing tastiness and healthiness. I love making food items like fermented pickles, sauerkraut, homemade bread and tortillas. I love the process, and the end result is usually something delicious for my family to eat that’s often less expensive than buying the equivalent at the store.

My entire family practices taekwondo together as a family activity. A local school tries to get whole families involved and offers a really nice family group rate, so we go to lots of classes and work on techniques at home together as we all progress toward improving our belt rank.

In the end, I actually have more active hobbies now than I ever have. Some of my other hobbies have actually declined in the amount of time I spend on them simply because I have so many things to choose from, and the time I used to spend on golf has been more than eaten up by other hobbies.

I learned that I don’t have to throw money at a hobby to deeply and passionately enjoy it.

I gave up a lot of forgettable incidental spending.

One big misconception about cutting back on your spending that people have is that you’re going to cut back on things you really care about. People always envision “cutting back” by thinking about things they love and about how “cutting back” on that thing will be miserable and un-fun.

Guess what? It is miserable and un-fun to cut back on things you care about.

The real trick is to figure out where you’re spending money on things you don’t care about or that you care little about in the big scheme of things and cut back hard on those things.

I cut back on trips to the convenience store near our apartment — in fact, I basically deleted those.

I cut back on stops at the coffee shop and gradually migrated to making cold brew coffee at home because I realized that I really liked a cup of good coffee in the morning but it didn’t have to be made by a barista and cost $7.

I switched to buying store brand versions of a lot of things at the grocery store rather than name brand versions.

I took on a lot of little projects around the apartment (and, later, the house) to make everything more energy efficient with little or no further effort.

I looked at how I did a lot of common tasks (like doing the laundry) and worked to make them as time and money efficient as possible.

None of these changes altered anything I really cared about. When I thought about spending that mattered to me then, or spending that matters to me now, none of these things are touched upon.

Perhaps some of these things — like the coffee shop visits — really matter a lot to you. Great. Don’t cut them. Look for the stuff that doesn’t matter much and cut that instead. Does buying name brand dishwashing detergent versus store brand really matter much to you?

I gained a more low-stress life.

When I first started changing my finances around, I didn’t really appreciate how much low-level stress our financial difficulty was adding to my life.

I felt additional professional stress because I knew that a job loss, even for a little while, would be apocalyptic. Even a late paycheck could be a problem.

I felt stress about my own future because I knew I was getting older but I wasn’t really preparing for my old age. This was small and subtle, but real.

I felt stress about my child’s future and my wife’s future, too. I knew, on some level, that I wasn’t taking care of my family.

I felt stress about checking the mail because I knew there were often bills in there that I didn’t want to face.

I felt stress about a lot of spending situations because I was always worried about a declined credit card or an overdraft.

I felt an enormous flood of stress every time something went even a little wrong because I was unsure how to pay for it.

I felt these stresses, but I didn’t really understand how much they added up or how many of them were directly tied to my finances.

As I began to get a better grip on my finances, every single one of those stresses began to melt and fade into the background. They gradually became less and less prevalent.

I gave up a lot of stuff I didn’t use.

One big step I took initially was to go through my closets and collections and do something of a Marie Kondo strategy in terms of processing all that stuff. I simply went through each thing and decided if I really loved that thing a lot or whether I didn’t, and if I didn’t, I sold it off.

I was under the impression that this would be a very painful thing to do. It really wasn’t. It mostly just required some honesty about my possessions. I just kept the stuff that was really meaningful to me, and that meant honestly thinking about what stuff mattered and what stuff didn’t. When I started realizing which things mattered and which things didn’t, this actually became really easy and not painful at all.

For me, the breakthrough came when I considered whether I had used each item in any significant way in the last year or so. If it had just sat on a shelf or in a closet for a year untouched, my actions were showing me that it really wasn’t very important to me. I might want to think it was important, but if I hadn’t touched it in a year, was it really that important?

For stuff that I was in doubt about, I put it in a box and wrote a date on top, a date several months in the future. Anything still in that box after that date could be sold off, no questions asked.

This served a few purposes.

First of all, it generated some quick cash to tackle my debts immediately. I took a lot of those items straight to Craigslist and eBay and converted them straight into cash, which I immediately used to pay off my highest interest debts.

Second, it showed me that I was in the habit of buying a lot of things that I didn’t really care about a month or two later. Those kinds of expenses are really, really wasteful. They don’t make your life any better in the long run, but spending that money so foolishly certainly does make your life worse. This was actually pretty useful in terms of positively affecting my spending habits going forward.

Third and finally, it freed up a lot of space in our apartment. It was getting pretty cramped with stuff and clearing out a lot of items made it feel a lot more livable. I didn’t realize how cramped things had become and how much time and energy I was spending moving stuff around and looking for items.

This “item purge” was a huge net positive when I initially expected it to be somewhat negative.

I gained a ton of professional freedom.

At the time of our financial turnaround, I had a job in a very different career path. I wrote software in a research environment that was intended to help researchers make sense of large quantities of data. This meant that I was doing some data mining myself as well as writing tools to help scientists that weren’t programmers perform specific data mining tasks on very large data sets.

I enjoyed the intellectual challenges of the job a lot, and I enjoyed the people I worked with, especially the small team I worked most closely with. Unfortunately, that was balanced with a lot of things I didn’t like. I spent a lot of time on paperwork and bureaucratic tasks. I was traveling a lot and I felt like I was missing my child grow up. I was also charged with a lot of work tasks that were way outside of my field of expertise and held responsible for things that I didn’t really understand and didn’t have time to learn about, but my neck was on the line if anything went wrong with those things.

As time went on, the interesting and joyful parts of my job became smaller and smaller and the parts that made me unhappy became larger and larger.

What made this worse is that I was financially handcuffed to this job. Our financial instability made it such that I couldn’t risk rocking the boat at work, or at least I felt like I couldn’t. Looking for a different job in the same field felt pretty risky, too.

All of this meant that I was very prone to unreasonable demands at work. I was thrown all kinds of responsibilities way outside of any sort of reasonable expectations of my expertise. I was asked to work unbilled hours on weekends. I traveled far more than I wanted to. If tools weren’t working, even if I had nothing to do with the reason, intense pressure was put on me to get them working immediately. The team size was downgraded at the same time that our production schedule was accelerated. I was actually asked to do work tasks while my wife was in labor with our first child.

This was not the life I wanted.

What I learned was that it was my own overspending habits that kept me handcuffed to that job. As I began to improve our financial state, build an emergency fund, get rid of debts, and stabilize, I felt a lot less handcuffed to that job. The sense of threat and foreboding that I had about almost everything I was doing there began to ebb away. I started refusing unreasonable things that I would have meekly accepted earlier.

Eventually, as I started writing about my experiences on The Simple Dollar, I began to realize that writing was a career option for me. It meant a pay cut, but it had a lot of other benefits. It was an option that was on the table for me.

At the same time, I also looked at a lot of other options within my data mining career path. I even started considering going back to school and studying a completely different field.

Those options weren’t really there before our financial turnaround. Because our financial state had improved so much, I felt free to walk away from that job and try something new, and I eventually decided that writing full time was the best path for me for a number of reasons (the schedule flexibility was a big part of it). That would never have been an option without a vast improvement in our financial flexibility.

I lost a few friends.

During the process of making these changes, I lost a few friends. It wasn’t due to some kind of blowup or disagreement. Rather, in each case, I found that the friendship was actually more about the shared activity than actual friendship.

The other people that I went golfing with disappeared out of my life in short order. I didn’t play golf anymore, so we didn’t have that common activity to share, so we just had much less in common. What little we did still have in common was replaceable. They found someone else to golf with. I bump into one of them occasionally and we get along fine. We catch each other up on our lives, then go on our merry way until we happen to bump into each other again. I haven’t seen the others in a decade.

I used to go out for drinks with a group after work and thought of several of them as friends, but when I started spending less time with that group, I was no longer involved in the group texts or anything else. It was a group of people to drink with, not friendships.

This might seem like the end of my social life, but it wasn’t. I actually retained a lot of friends and I ended up gaining quite a few more very strong friendships, but I’ll get back to that in a minute.

What I really learned is this: there are some people in your life that will hang out with you because you enjoy a shared activity of some kind, but if you don’t engage in that activity, they won’t engage with you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can feel like a lost friendship if you place too value on that connection.

If you change your social activities, you’re going to lose some people that you might think of as friends. That’s okay. Deeper friendships will last, and you’ll find new casual friends with whatever you switch to.

I gained more friendships than I’ve ever had in my life.

As I dropped out of those other social activities, I started filling my evenings with different ones. I consciously decided to explore what was going on in my community, so I started looking at things like Meetup, the community calendar, the local library’s calendar, the local news, and so on. I was simply looking for new things to try and events and groups going on in my community.

I tried out tons of things. Many didn’t click with me. Several did.

Through those activities, I have a more robust social life than I’ve probably ever had in my entire life. I know far more people in my local community than I’ve ever known before. I’ve also built a handful of really strong lasting friendships, the kind where we talk about things far beyond the group, do things together outside of the group that have nothing to do with the activity, and generally keep in touch with each other. Several friendships have lasted far past both of us ending our participation in the activities in question.

Making financial changes to my life forced me outside of my comfort zone a little. I had to try some new things, and my life was richly rewarded for doing so.

Simply spending less than I earned, week in and week out, month in and month out, was the key to all of this.

Literally every area of my life benefitted in the long run, and most benefitted in the short run, from turning my financial life around.

My physical and mental life benefitted from the pure reduction in stress. My hobbies and my social life benefitted from trying new things. My marriage improved because we basically eliminated money arguments. My parental life improved due to a reduction in stress and more time at home. My professional life improved due to the increased amount of professional freedom and the vast increase in professional options.

What did I really give up for that? I stopped spending money on things I didn’t really value very much. I lost a few people that weren’t central to my social life. I sold off some stuff I didn’t use. I dropped a couple of hobbies that were quickly replaced by other things.

To me, that’s a no brainer trade, even from a short term perspective. It didn’t take long for most of those benefits to start appearing, and they grew rapidly.

It’s time to turn things around. Make some changes, look for new things to do instead of lamenting what’s lost, and go with it.

You’ll never look back.

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.