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What to Do When Your Financial Improvements Are Making You Unhappy With Your Life
For me, one of the most powerful side effects of turning my financial life around was that it made me feel genuinely, though modestly, happier in my day to day life. As we were paying off debts and starting to really save for our future, it felt as if this background layer of stress was slowly removed from my life. I didn’t notice that stress when it was there – it just felt like what I thought of as the stress of normal adult life – but as my finances got better, that stress ever so slowly melted away, leaving me feeling calmer and happier and more in control of things.
The actual changes I made in my life were a mixed bag. Some of them involved discovering new ways of doing things that I actually preferred to the old way regardless of finances, so those were positives. Some of the changes gave me a feeling of indifference. Other changes were negatives – some minor enough to be overcome by the savings, while others made me feel unhappy.
There was another challenge on top of all of that, something I alluded to last week when I wrote about the arrival fallacy. I thought that achieving big financial changes in my life would bring about big changes in my level of happiness, and when that didn’t happen, I felt pretty disillusioned.
It took me a while to really come to terms with all of this and to realize that my life genuinely was in a better place, with better daily opportunities and a lot of positives as a result of all of the changes I made.
Yet, I know from my own experiences, the experiences of people in my life, and the experiences of many readers that financial change doesn’t always bring happiness, not even with reflection, and sometimes financial changes can actually make things feel worse.
From what I have seen, this sense of unhappiness from financial change breaks down into six different categories, each with different solutions that work. Individuals sometimes fall into more than one of these categories at the same time. There are almost assuredly more categories than these six, but these are the ones that pop up consistently and clearly enough to identify.
Let’s dig in.
You’re Expecting Too Much Happiness From Your Changes
You’ve made all of these changes in your life and you’re starting to achieve goals… but you don’t feel that sense of bliss that you’re sure you would feel once you started reaching your goals. Isn’t this supposed to feel great? Aren’t I supposed to feel sustained happiness? Quite often, not getting the happiness you expect feels like a genuine letdown and it can cause something genuinely good in your life to make you feel quite bad.
For me, this was the biggest issue to overcome when I was reaching my own financial goals, as I mentioned earlier in this article and in last week’s article about the arrival fallacy. I thought that when I achieved my first big financial goal – paying off all my debts – I would achieve some sort of instantaneous lasting happiness, and when that didn’t happen, I felt genuinely unhappy for a while. I had this burst of joy from the success, but it quickly fizzled and I was left with my same old life and my same old self.
That’s the arrival fallacy in a nutshell. You expect that when you arrive – when you’ve achieved your goal, gotten your dream job, paid off your debts, whatever it might be – you’ll be happy from that moment forward, but when you get there, you realize that, sure, things are a little better, but you’re still you. There’s no happiness transformation. There’s no lasting bliss.
And it feels a lot like unhappiness.
I eventually came to realize that one of the big keys for getting around this was that the journey to a goal is usually more meaningful than the goal itself. It’s those little changes that you develop in your life as you move toward a goal are the pieces that matter. That’s where the “better life” really comes from, not from some mythical moment of joyous transformation when you reach your goal.
For me, there are two things that really help with this issue.
First, always have goals and ambitions in different areas of life. I’m always working toward something, so even when I achieve a particular goal, there’s always the road ahead. I have personal goals and professional goals and leisure goals and relationship goals.
Second, appreciate the journey to the goal and the changes you’re making along the way. You simply can’t achieve a major goal in life without changing yourself in some identifiable way, so look for and appreciate that change in yourself. Reaching your goal is nice, but it’s that permanent change in yourself for the better that results in a better life, even if it’s just the tiniest bit better than before. You don’t suddenly receive this change at a miraculous moment when you’ve achieved this goal; rather, it slowly emerges along the path, often so slowly that you don’t notice the change unless you’re looking to appreciate it. You build a skill or you adopt a better way to handle a part of your ordinary life or you add a new routine to your life that becomes so natural that it blends into the landscape. All of those things are positive things that we build along the way.
You’re Cutting the Wrong Things
In the excitement of making changes in your life, you cut a bunch of spending all at once, and now there are several things that you feel are really missing from your life. Maybe you miss something like a morning coffee that was part of your routine but now feels like an empty hole. Maybe you miss buying a new book once every other week. Maybe you miss going out for Thai food on Wednesdays with your partner.
Whatever those little changes might be, they’re nagging and wearing away at you like a pebble in your shoe. It doesn’t feel good, and your mind keeps thinking thoughts like “if it’s going to be this miserable, it’s not worth it.”
Again, this is a pretty familiar feeling on the path to financial improvement. In the early stages, when we haven’t yet acquired a strong sense of the things that are important to us, we’re often prone to cutting too much in order to achieve our goals as quickly as possible. However, as with any goal that requires life change and giving things up, eventually the honeymoon period fades and we begin to really notice some of the things that are missing – and we’re not always happy with all of the changes.
The solution’s easy: Just bring back some of the specific things you missed while not bringing back things that don’t matter to you. The reality is that a lot of cost-cutting changes are completely transparent in your life. You probably don’t notice or even think about most of them, like substituting store brand peanut butter or switching to store brand laundry detergent. Keep those changes – they’re great. As for the ones that you notice and miss and are bothering you, don’t hesitate to bring some or even all of them back into your life. Rather than feeling bad because you never get to have something you want, instead feel free to have them whenever you want and take a little bit of pride when you make the choice in the moment to skip that splurge today or choose a lower cost option instead. Don’t make something you love into a “never” thing or you will rebel against the changes and undo a lot of progress.
Another technique that works well for me is to bring back splurges and treats as a rare or exceptional thing rather than an everyday thing. I used to stop for a daily coffee before work (back when I worked in an office environment) and, while I enjoyed it, it had become completely routine. The experience didn’t feel special any more. For a while, I completely abandoned my morning coffee routine, instead drinking coffee I made at home or found at work, but after a while, I missed stopping for that really good morning coffee. What I ended up figuring out is that the best balance, for me, was only stopping every once in a while, like every other week or once a month. That way, the stop felt special, like it was a genuine treat that I looked forward to and really savored. If I stopped every day, it lost that special something and became a very expensive ordinary thing. If I never stopped, I missed it.
What I did was make the home coffee or office coffee into the normal routine – that was what I did every day by default. If I felt an itch for a coffee shop stop, I’d think back and ask myself if I stopped recently – if I recognized that I just stopped in last week, I’d tell myself I could wait. If I couldn’t remember a really recent visit, I’d decide that I would stop on Friday morning as an end-of-the-week treat, and I’d look forward to it during the week. And then, on Friday, I’d stop at that coffee shop I liked, and because it was an infrequent occasion, it felt special. I really savored the smells and the taste of the coffee and the crunch of the bagel I had with it, and it would feel really enjoyable and amazing and even a bit memorable.
If you’re missing a treat, bring it back, but make it an irregular thing, so that there’s a bit of anticipation and specialness to the treat. There’s nothing more costly than an expensive daily routine that you don’t fully appreciate.
You’re Building Toward the Wrong Things
Many people start down a path of financial change because of the external advice they hear. That advice usually sings the virtues of paying off your credit cards and paying off your other debts and building an emergency fund and saving for retirement and building to financial independence and so on. All of that is good advice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s missing a key element.
That key element is some deep thought about your own life, your own goals, and your own dreams.
Quite often, when people start following the usual personal finance advice without thinking about their own goals and dreams and life, they reach a point where it all seems meaningless. They’re working hard to achieve something that doesn’t have any meaning or real-life resonance for them. Sure, they’re moving toward a destination, but sometimes it’s not a destination for what you want out of life.
Without that meaning, it’s easy to feel nothing but the sacrifice, and that can easily drag you down into unhappiness.
The best remedy for this is to spend some time thinking seriously about what you want out of life. What are your goals? What are your dreams? What do you want your life to look like in ten years? Obviously, life can change in terms of the specifics, but I actually find making a specific vision of the future to be really enlightening because it reveals the kinds of things that I want going forward. My tastes might change over time, but the shift is usually gradual and the big themes usually don’t change.
Once you have a big picture of what you want out of life, figure out what you need to be doing financially to get there. You’ll find that many life goals thrive on paying off high interest debt, and when you connect paying off debt to the big things you want out of life, that goal starts to come to life in a very new and meaningful way. Many goals revolve around having enough money in the bank to facilitate a career change. Some involve having money in the bank to buy a house.
The whole point of financial success is to do the big things you want to do in life, not to just follow a checklist. Sometimes that might mean a house or early retirement. Sometimes that might just mean a low-paying but low-stress job that you can just walk away from with ease. Sometimes that might mean retiring early. It can mean lots of things to lots of people, but the key to feeling good about the efforts of financial success is to tie it to your dream, not a checklist, and not someone else’s dream.
The Destination Is Too Far Off
Sometimes, when people adopt a long-term goal, it can feel rather abstract. While you might be able to visualize the steps of how to get from where you are to where you want to go, the destination seems so far off that it feels like you’ll never get there, even though you’ve already put in a lot of effort. That can feel very disheartening.
The truth is that almost every big goal has this period in the middle that feels like a slog. You’re pushing along, day in and day out, and it feels like the destination isn’t getting any closer, like walking toward a mountain on the horizon. You can walk all day toward a mountain on the horizon and it never feels like it’s getting any closer.
The trick here is to start looking at your individual steps rather than staring ahead at the mountain in the distance. In other words, your focus should be on building a day-in-day-out routine in your life that inevitably marches toward that big goal.
For financial goals, that usually means automation. You want to make as much of your financial progress as automatic as you possibly can. This means making automatic contributions to retirement accounts. This means making automatic contributions to 529 college savings plans. This means making automatic transfers into your savings account (for an emergency fund or other short term savings purposes). The more you automate, the more you find that you’re just naturally moving toward your big goals almost without effort, leaving you instead to focus on other goals in other areas of life.
A great long-term financial goal is one that’s so automatic that you barely even have to think about it. It’s an automatic big retirement contribution or an automatic extra mortgage payment, and you’re just living life on the rest of your money.
- Read more: Making Financial Goals Inevitable
You’re Focusing on the Wrong Life Issues Entirely
Surprisingly often, people get a sense that there’s something wrong in their life, look around for the first thing that seems like it’s not where it should be, and then throw themselves into fixing that thing. Quite often, it’s not the right thing.
People will throw themselves into fixing their finances or getting their health in better shape when it’s actually their marriage that’s in trouble. People will dig deep into things like time management or better sleep habits when it’s actually their job that’s the real source of their stress. Trust me, I’ve done it myself, and I’ve seen it many, many times from others.
The solution for this problem is introspection. Whenever you’re about to take on some major life changes, you should spend some significant time doing some introspection and make sure that you’re fully on board with what the changes are and that you’re addressing the things that really need fixing in your life.
For me, the most effective tool for introspection is my journaling practice. I do a “morning pages” practice, where each morning I set a timer and for 30 minutes, I just write down whatever comes to mind on paper. I find that a few mental tactics are kind of useful during this. One, whenever I say that I’m unhappy with something or express some other negative feeling or opinion, I ask myself why I feel that way, and I write down that answer, no matter how awkward, and then I ask myself “why” about that one, and repeat it several times. I usually wind up at the core of what the problem is. Another good tactic I use is to simply write down the details of a recent moment in my life that I want to think over and make sure that I did it right or whether I could do it better. I work over interactions with other people, buying decisions, and lots of other things.
Over time, this practice tells you a ton about yourself. You start to figure out what’s actually going well in your life, what isn’t going well, and what you might want to think about doing going forward. This type of journaling informs almost all of my goals and future plans for my life. Quite often, I end up addressing things that I didn’t even suspect when I started.
You Should Consider Your Health
A final thing to consider is your overall physical and mental health. If you’re feeling unhappy with your life in the wake of making financial changes, it may not be the financial changes that are the root of your unhappiness. Many other things can potentially be at the root of the problem. Let’s discuss three of them.
First of all, poor physical health and diet can be a source of overarching unhappiness. Are you getting enough quality sleep? Are you eating a healthy diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables? Are you getting at least some form of exercise frequently? There’s nothing wrong with scheduling a general checkup with your doctor if you’re feeling gloomy and down about the state of your life, just to get your bloodwork done and your levels checked.
Second, stress can be a factor that pulls people down. If they have a lot of responsibility and find themselves juggling many things without a break, the stress can cause a lot of negative responses. Are you feeling stressed out a lot? Do you feel like you never have a break or never have time for things you enjoy? Do you feel like all of your energy and time is committed to others? In these situations, it’s easy to find things to blame for the overall stress of overcommitment, but the real solution is to cut down your commitments a little. When you do that, everything feels less stressful and contentment is easier to find.
Finally, mental health can also be a source of unhappiness. Are you worrying about things a lot? Does your mood swing abruptly? Do you find yourself not wanting to do things you’ve always enjoyed, like spending time with your friends? Do you find that you’re experiencing persistent, deep sadness? Those can be signs of a treatable mental health condition. Again, a good step is to talk to your doctor about these feelings.
Sometimes, the unhappiness due to a financial change has very little at all to do with that change.
Feeling unhappy about your financial changes is a pretty common response to those changes, believe it or not. I’ve felt it, my friends have felt it, and many readers have felt it, too. The challenge is that such unhappiness has a lot of sources, and although the natural response might be to undo all of your financial changes, there’s a good chance that the real solution to your feelings of unhappiness isn’t to undo your changes or progress.
Spend some time really thinking about and assessing what is pulling you down and then taking some proactive steps to solve that more specific problem before giving up on financial change. You might just find that the financial change is actually benefiting you overall and the specific element of your life that’s causing your unhappiness can be fixed without tearing down your progress.
Read more by Trent Hamm:
- Depriving Yourself Doesn’t Work
- Finding the Line Between Frugality and Deprivation