What Spending a $10,000 Windfall Can Teach You About Your Everyday Finances

Recently, I had the pleasure of reading the excellent personal finance book All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Wealth by Laura Vanderkam. Early on in the book (starting on page 30 in the hardcover edition), Laura offers up a pretty interesting little thought experiment.

To paraphrase her idea, she simply asks this single simple question: What exactly would you do if you had $10,000 to spend on whatever you wanted? Let’s assume that you can’t save that money for some reason, so saying that you’ll save it for the future or for some specific big goal isn’t a valid answer. You have to spend it on something in your life. How would you spend it?

Once I got some of my initial goofy answers out of the way (no, I’m not going to spend $10,000 on things like collectible cards or Kindle books), I actually found the question pretty compelling. How would I spend that money?

Here are 10 answers that I came up with in my own life.

10 Ways I’d Spend $10,000

I’d remodel our kitchen to add more cabinet space. Right now, our kitchen cabinets and drawers feel almost overstuffed… and I don’t think we have an excessive number of items in there. We just simply have a fairly limited amount of cabinet space in our kitchen. I’d love to do a kitchen remodel to extend the cabinets a bit higher, add cabinets over the counter, and perhaps extend some of the cabinets outward. It’s a pretty hefty project with some real expense, but when it’s done we’d have nice cabinets in there with plenty of space.

I’d take a family trip to Alaska and camp near Denali. This is my number one place in America that I would love to visit and explore. With a big budget like this, my whole family could easily make the trek up there with camping gear in tow and camp out in Denali National Park for a week or so. I’d want to do it in the summer, but come equipped with cold weather clothes. It’s pretty much my dream vacation within the United States.

I’d do some major landscaping work in our backyard. While this wouldn’t eat up our full $10,000 (at least, I don’t think it would), I would like to make some major landscaping changes to our backyard. I’d expand our gardens with bigger box gardens, plant some more trees, and add some additional gardens around the edge of the house. This would be a great summer project.

I’d buy a nice guitar and buy a few years of weekly guitar lessons from a good instructor. Several years ago, I took piano lessons for several months. The biggest challenge with that is that I did not really have a good place to practice as we did not have a piano at home. Lately, I’ve become more interested in learning how to play the guitar, as I have an old acoustic one in my closet that I attempt to fumble around with sometimes. I’d like to get a better one that stays in tune for more than 15 minutes and learn how to play it.

I’d send my children to a few great summer camps that cater to their specific interests. While I like to think that we provide our children with a lot of interesting and fulfilling things during the summer, that still cannot compare to what they might get out of a camp geared to their specific interests. My oldest child would enjoy both a soccer camp and an engineering themed camp. My middle child would flip over an art camp. My youngest one is perhaps a bit young, but I’m willing to bet he’d love a performing arts camp in the future and perhaps an engineering oriented one like his older brother. We could afford to send them to a few great camps like these, where they could explore their interests with a bunch of kids their age who share those interests.

I’d launch a science fiction short story award. I’ve always had a giant soft spot for short stories, particularly of the science fiction variety. I love reading big collections of short stories because they offer such incredible imagination and powerful ideas served up in bite-sized chunks. I’d also love to be able to encourage new writers of that genre, so one thing I would consider doing is launching an annual science fiction short story prize with a $1,000 award. I could fund the first several years of the award from my initial $10,000 and use the rest to set up a website and promote the award.

I’d refurbish and upgrade our camping gear. While we have a lot of camping gear, much of it is in pretty poor shape. I’d love to get rid of some of our musty hole-filled old sleeping bags with nice new light ones and replace a lot of our other gear as well with newer items. There are many items that are simply cheap solutions that perhaps don’t work as well as they could. Simply upgrading and replacing all of our camping equipment from top to bottom would make our family camping trips a lot more enjoyable, and since camping is a pretty significant part of each summer for our family, that holds a lot of appeal.

I’d support a number of political candidates I believe in with nice individual donations. While I don’t talk much about politics here on The Simple Dollar, I have some strongly held personal political beliefs. I tend to believe that politics works best on the local level, so using that money to donate to the campaigns of candidates I believe in at the level of the state legislature would be an amazing way to use that money to really have an impact on Iowa’s future. A few well-placed donations can easily swing an Iowa House race, after all.

I’d hire someone to take care of some basic household tasks for an extended period. While I don’t mind doing household tasks, part of me realizes that I’m effectively trading time that I could do something meaningful with my family or something personally meaningful for time spent doing things like washing and folding laundry. I could see myself using that money to simply hire a laundry service for our clothes to save on the trouble of doing that laundry, or perhaps hiring a general housekeeping service to take care of nagging household tasks.

I’d donate some of that money to our local food and clothing pantries. When I think about charitable giving, I think on the local level, much like I do with political giving. The charities in my area that deserves the most attention, in my opinion, are the local food and clothing pantries, which do amazing work in terms of keeping food in the bellies and clothes on the backs of many people in our community.

Common Threads

I could go on and on listing different ideas I have for how I could spend that $10,000, but the ideas listed above are 10 great examples. When I look through that list, though, I can’t help but notice that the items demonstrate a few common threads.

Many items center on my family. Quite a few items on this list center around having wonderful experiences that involve my family, either in terms of family experiences together or in terms of providing great experiences for my children. It’s pretty clear from this list that my family is very important to me and takes up a central role on my mind and heart.

I put great value on my own creative work and supporting the creative work of others. Finding ways to express yourself and also finding ways to share that expression with others is definitely a theme in the ideas I came up with. Many people have beautiful things to share and it never hurts to have more platforms for the sharing of the best and most beautiful ideas.

I value having free time. I truly love having time that I can set aside for my own personal interests or for spending time with my family. Having free time that’s clearly boxed out without any intrusions is something that is deeply important to me and many of my ideas support that, from having family adventures in remote places to simply paying people to take care of simple tasks.

I want better – not bigger – living space. For me, bigger is not necessarily better when it comes to a home. What matters is that the space is economically used and reflects the needs and the desires of the people living there. We spend a lot of time in our home and in the yard, so finding ways to improve our living space offers real benefits for all of us.

I want a better community to live in. The people and things in our community have a lot to do with the quality of life that we enjoy here. Happy, healthy, and secure neighbors and happy, healthy, and secure families nearby add up to a more joyful experience for everyone in our community. The better the community is for everyone, the better it will be for us. That joy reflects back when you see happier and more secure neighbors, well maintained resources, and an abundance of community activities and events. Truly, the best way to have those things is to give of yourself.

Addressing Those Common Threads Without $10,000

Of course, when I pull out those common threads that I find running through my potential ideas for spending $10,000, I can’t help but see that those things can actually be addressed to some significant extent without having all of that cash in hand.

I can look for creative and low-cost family adventures. Perhaps I can’t take my family to Denali or buy a bunch of new camping gear, but I certainly plan some interesting family adventures throughout the summer and even during the school year. We don’t need $10,000 to explore a state park, go geocaching, or collect rocks. We just need each other.

Give more time to creative expression and appreciation. Our world is full of great creative works. Often, what those things yearn for more than anything else is an audience. While I might not be able to do something like sponsoring a prize for short stories, I can certainly participate in the arts by being in the audience at community art festivals and performances. I can make it a point to go to things like the Des Moines Arts Festival and take my family as well.

Work on personal time management and work ethic. I yearn for more free time, but when I’m honest with myself, I do waste a lot of time thanks to distraction and inefficient ways of doing things. I can improve this by finding ways to sharpen my work ethic, as well as trying out new time management strategies. When I find ways that work, I permanently add them to my life; otherwise, I keep seeking ways to become more and more efficient with the time I spend on the things I have to do so that I have more time available to spend on the things I want to do.

Make our house clean and nice, for ourselves and for guests. My home is a place where I spend an awful lot of my waking time. There are many ways I’d love to improve it, but some of the best ways simply involve devoting a little more time and care to things. Simply doing things like keeping the place clean, picking up items that are out of place, figuring out smarter storage, and keeping in mind that a guest might pop in at any time can really help make our house a wonderful place to be without spending $10,000 on a full kitchen refurbishment.

Volunteer for local charities. While many local charities and causes could use my money, they could also use my time as well. I might not have $10,000 to give to a local candidate, but I do have a few hours a week that I can give to do some of the less pleasant tasks of campaigning, such as basic clerical work, IT support, or even phone banking. Similarly, I can devote a little more time to the charitable causes in our community, helping them with the task of distributing money and goods to those who need it.

Doing these things gives me some of the real value of that $10,000 without actually having that $10,000 to spend. The thing to keep in mind is that when I think about ways to spend that money, what I’m really doing is thinking about the things in my life that I value. I don’t have to spend money to accentuate those things that I value.

Turning The Tables

While this has been a great thought experiment for myself, what happens if we turn the tables on you? I challenge you to take on this thought experiment and see what conclusions it leads you to draw about your own life.

For starters, make a list of 10 (or more) things you might do with an extra $10,000. What exactly would you do if $10,000 plopped in your lap and you had to spend it – you can’t just save it for the future or pay down debts or something like that. What would you spend that money on?

Try to come up with at least 10 things, but 10 can be just the start. Jot down as many items as you can come up with. Keep the list smart – write down only ones that you would seriously consider. While it might be cute to imagine spending $10,000 on Bazooka Joe bubble gum, it’s not something the vast majority of us would seriously consider in any real way.

Take this seriously. Give it a little time. Don’t be afraid to start a list, leave it to sit for a few days, then come back to it with new or revised ideas.

Next, figure out four (or more) common threads that run through those things you might choose. What do these ideas for spending $10,000 have in common with each other? You’re probably not going to be able to find themes that hit all of the ideas you came up with, but you can probably notice some things in common across two or three or four of the items you wrote down.

Keep looking through the list and try to find ways in which multiple items on your list are similar. The more you find that make sense, the better.

Once you’ve done that, simply look for ways to address those common threads in your life without a pile of money. Almost any common thread you find across the ways you’d spend money point to other things you can do with your life that don’t involve spending money at all.

The real secret here is that these common threads are actually deeply tied to your strong personal values. Those common threads describe in a deep way the person you truly are, and when you find ways to devote more of your time and energy – not just money – to those things, the more fulfilled you’re going to become in life.

Use this list of free ways to address your desires as a checklist for ways to spend your time and effort in the near future. You’ll likely find, just as I did, that spending your time and energy in those ways is deeply fulfilling. That’s because you’re truly expressing many of the values you hold dear.

Final Thoughts

For me, these types of exercises really point me toward smarter ways of using my money and my time. It is abundantly clear that you’re going to get far more value out of your money and out of your time is if you use those resources on things that matter deeply to you, and you’re going to get less and less value out of that money and that time when you use it on other less vital things.

Exercises like this really do a great job of pointing you toward the things that really matter the most to you. With a list like this – ten or more ways you’d spend $10,000 – you can quickly see the things that actually matter to you and you can also see, by exclusion, which things don’t matter to you as much.

This begs the question: If you’re not really interested in devoting a big windfall to something in your life, do you really care much about that aspect of your life?

The natural conclusion, then, is to spend more time and energy on the things you really do care about and scale back the time and energy spent on things you don’t care about as much. That’s a brilliantly simple recipe for a happier life, and if you’re happy with the way that you’re spending your time and energy, you’re far less compelled to spend your money seeking that happiness.

So, what is it that truly matters to you? A simple question like this one – how would you spend $10,000? – can lead you right to some very useful answers if you apply them in a smart way.

Good luck!

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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.