Striving to have money in the bank, striving to have no debt, striving to reach a point where you can live off of what you have put aside in earlier years – those things are the exception rather than the rule in America. They go against the grain. Choosing to forego some momentary pleasures and to shoot for debt freedom is something that most people in America simply don’t do.
The numbers back me up on this. As I discussed about a month ago, 78% of Americans currently live paycheck to paycheck. Most Americans feel that they will always be in debt, and most Americans save less than $100 per month.
Choosing to pay off your debts, choosing to save money for the future, choosing to put yourself in a position where you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, those choices put you among a minority of Americans – a pretty small minority, actually.
Why do this? Why choose a different path? Why follow the road less traveled? I often talk about the “how,” but what about the why?
I spent some time thinking about why I choose to save rather than spend, why we live in a smaller house than we could afford, why our summer vacations are usually low-cost camping road trips, why I’m driving a 15-year-old car I bought off of Craigslist. Why choose those things, especially when I have the income and financial means to have a big house, a shiny car, and lots of travel?
It comes down to a mix of several factors. Let’s walk through them.
The most stressful period in my entire life, bar none, was the first few years of my marriage.
During those years, my wife and I spent a lot of money. We went on expensive trips. We went on expensive dates. We drove pretty new cars. We had the latest gadgets. We got involved in expensive hobbies.
How is that stressful, you might ask?
In order to be able to afford those things, we racked up a lot of credit card debt. We made minimum payments on our student loans. We made minimum payments on our car loans. We lived in a tiny apartment and never saved a dime for anything bigger. We didn’t even have an emergency fund of any kind.
Whenever I thought about the future at all, I would feel the stress of not being prepared for something big.
Whenever I went to check the mail, I was seized with the stress of knowing that there was unwanted bad news waiting for me.
Whenever I held my son, I couldn’t help but feel that I was failing that little baby.
All of those feelings were ones that I could hide behind a curtain of outward success. What people saw were the cars and the trips and the clothes.
What people didn’t see were the sleepless nights and the worry and the disagreements. They didn’t see the weight gain (well, maybe they did) or the frequent colds or the constant acid in my stomach. I managed to keep those hidden, inside of me, but they made my life a lot less joyless.
Of course, that hidden stress and lack of joy made it feel even more imperative that I keep up appearances and splurge in things that brought me short-term joy. Toward the end of this period in my life, I kept buying more and more and more things, seeking those bursts of pleasure from new things to erase the stress and internal strife that I felt, but it became less and less and less effective.
The thing is, once I really committed to spending less money, significantly less than I earned, all of that stress started to melt away. I didn’t worry about getting the mail any more. I didn’t worry about what the future was going to be like if anything went wrong – the sheer number of my worries fell through the floor. I stopped worrying about keeping up appearances through always having new stuff. All of that stuff went away.
I was simply left with a less stressful life. That lowered stress helped me to be a better parent, be a better husband, be healthier, and enjoy a lot of aspects of life a lot more. I sleep better at night and don’t completely fall apart in stressful situations, because those stress loads are easier to bear without the background stress of financial problems.
Stress isn’t my constant enemy any more.
When I first graduated from college and embarked on my career path, I deeply enjoyed it. I was involved in data mining in a research lab, where my job was essentially to mine many, many gigabytes of data for patterns and share those patterns with collaborators. I really enjoyed the work, and I worked for an employer who was very hands-off. As long as I provided what the collaborators needed and spent my free time doing interesting things that I could talk about in meetings, I basically had free reign.
Eventually, the grant that employed me wound down, but my work led to another job offer with a much different organization. On paper, I was doing the same work… but it wasn’t the same. There was an enormous amount of bureaucracy floating around.
I was lucky to work with people whose company I enjoyed, but as time went on, I felt I was spending more and more time dabbling in bureaucracy and maintaining things and living up to protocols that seemed pointless to me, and less and less time actually doing data mining.
I also began to spend more and more of my spare time working on work tasks that were far, far outside of what I was originally doing. I was fixing broken database installations, trying to figure out how to fend off cyberattacks, teaching people how to use email programs, and other such things that I not only didn’t enjoy, but dreaded.
My career had taken an unhappy turn. The thing was, I didn’t have a whole lot of leverage to do anything about it.
So I festered. I began to hate my job, even though I liked the occasional intellectual work I still did and I liked many of my coworkers (especially my two longest-lasting ones). I dreaded going into work.
The reality was that I couldn’t afford to make a major change. All I could really do is shop around for other positions and hope to snag one with a comparable salary. While there were options in my area, the community was so tight-knit that word got around if I were to interview anywhere, so it was very difficult.
It caused a lot of stress – yes, an additional layer of stress beyond the ones mentioned earlier – and it actually began to poison a lot of the aspects of my job that I still enjoyed. I just felt drained and unhappy.
My best option was some form of a career reboot, but it was a leap that I simply could not take while walking a financial tightrope. It was only after cleaning up my finances that I was able to reassess my career and feel secure enough to make a career switch without endangering my family.
The thing was, my career switch wasn’t really based on money. It was based on working conditions – did I enjoy what I was doing? – and on flexibility so I could spend plenty of time with my children as they grew up.
Because I chose financial stability, I was able to leave a job that I didn’t enjoy and switch to a new career that gave me flexibility and creative work that I enjoyed. I took a pay cut to do this, of course, but our financially stable situation made this relatively easy to do.
I would have never been able to do this without financial stability. Living paycheck to paycheck kept me handcuffed to an unhappy professional situation. Escaping that type of lifestyle freed me from that situation.
At the time, I didn’t really see it, but the money and career stress that I was carrying was not only affecting me as a person, but it was having an adverse effect on almost every relationship in my life.
It was hurting my marriage. Sarah and I had a lot of disagreements in that timeframe, which left me feeling unhappy about how our marriage was going to move forward.
It was hurting my ability to be a good parent to my infant son. I was already very stressed, so things like normal infant crying became even more difficult for me to handle and process. It is far easier to deal with an infant when you’re not burdened with stress in other areas of your life.
It was hurting old friendships, as I often found it difficult to communicate what was really going on with my life. As I’ve made clear, I began to feel like there was a facade that I had to keep up that wasn’t really representing how I truly felt, and I believed I had to maintain that facade for my various social relationships.
My poor financial choices and my paycheck-to-paycheck living was hurting my relationships with the people I cared about the most. I couldn’t be fully honest with them. Instead, I was often stressed out around everyone, something that was often apparent even as I tried to make it seem like everything was under control.
The solution, of course, was to start being honest about my financial state and start to really fix it. In a big way, that’s how The Simple Dollar started. It was a way for me to start to communicate and work through my struggles with finances and what I was changing to fix it.
My financial state was poisoning my relationships, and it was only through fixing my finances that I was able to start repairing some of the damage that I had done.
Whenever I look through my shelves and see an unread book, I feel disappointment. Whenever I look through my closet and find unused materials for a project, I feel sadness.
Those purchases represent money that was effectively wasted. I bought those items, put them aside, and simply did not use them. I could go to the store right now and buy those items without missing out on a thing, and I could have used that money in the interim for something positive.
I finally realized that an item left unused at home is a true waste of money. There’s nothing wrong with buying an item that you’re going to use in the near future, but when you buy items and simply put them aside with some vague intent of using them at some point in the future, you’re wasting money in almost every case.
When I see unused things, things that I don’t have an immediate plan for and haven’t used yet, what I feel more than anything is guilt. That’s not a happy feeling.
When you buy something that isn’t something you’re going to use in the near future, you’re making your financial state worse, and for what? The idea that you have something at home right now rather than having to go to the store and buy it should you ever decide you want to use it?
Even worse, I’ll often find that my interest in using the item has run cold if it sits there for a while. That object is now effectively lost money. Sure, I can sell it to recoup some of the loss, but then I’m investing extra time into that sale as well.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always perfect about this. I’ll sometimes buy things – board games in particular – that I don’t necessarily need. I’ll have unplayed games on my shelf and then still buy another new one.
I treat those missteps as teachable moments, things to reflect on. Why did I do that? What can I do to avoid repeating it?
Over the years, I’ve gotten much better at this. I’ve also sold off a lot of unused possessions and recouped a lot of money that I once invested in unused stuff.
More importantly, I’ve learned that I’m far better off doing things with the stuff that I have than thinking about stuff that I don’t have.
I’ve reoriented virtually all of my free time around doing things rather than collecting things. I watch movies rather than collecting DVDs, often renting them or checking them out from the library or watching them on Netflix. I read books rather than collecting them, mostly thanks to checking them out from the library. I play games rather than collecting them and trade off ones I don’t think I’ll play again.
The thing is, that simple change is actually pretty fulfilling even beyond the fact that it’s far less expensive. The truth is that most of my hobbies started off as being centered around doing something rather than buying stuff, but at some point, the wires became crossed. Rediscovering the joy of doing has been a tremendous positive change in my life, even without the positive financial considerations.
I once shared an excerpt from one of my journal entries from that time in my life. I’ll just quote it here:
Sometimes I feel like my life is completely without purpose and I’m just following some invisible pattern that someone else has put into place.
Today was a typical day. But every day is a typical day.
I woke up about 6:30 and said good bye to Sarah as she left. I watched the news for a while, got dressed, and headed off to work. I stopped at Gregory’s and ate a bagel and drank a cup of coffee while I read the paper. I drove to work. I got a few tasks done, surfed the web for a while, did a few more things. I went out to lunch at El Azteca and dropped $12 on a tasteless lunch. I sat at my desk most of the afternoon, thinking about the weekend and wishing I wasn’t a complete failure at writing. I stopped at the bookstore on the way home and bought three books. I went to the music store and got the new Basement Jaxx album that Charlie talked about. I listened to it on the way home and didn’t like it at all. I got home, tried to write a little bit while waiting for Sarah, hated everything. Deleted all of it. We went out to dinner. Now she’s watching a movie and I’m sitting here doing nothing.
I do all of these things almost every single day – but I feel like I’m going nowhere at all.
What I feel when I read this today is hopelessness. I see a person just aimlessly wandering through life, without any direction, without any light at the end of the tunnel. I see a person trying to find joy in stuff and not really finding it. I see a person feeling a huge amount of general dissatisfaction in life and not really understanding what the source of it is.
There are a lot of layers to unpack in that journal entry – and many others in the days and weeks preceding and following it – but, more than anything, it gives this sense of hopelessness, like a person running in a hamster wheel and never going anywhere and, even worse, not seeing any worthwhile place to go.
Fixing my finances was a big first step in fixing all of that. It gave me a goal to work toward, for one, but making progress on that goal also provided a stable platform for fixing other things going on in my life.
The changes gave me a ton of creative inspiration. They gave me the desire to try a lot of new things. They gave me a deeper enjoyment of the things that I had.
More than that, those changes gave me a sense that my life really could be better and the only real cost was to give up trivial things.
I saw that change in my finances. I continue to see that change in other areas of my life. If I give up something trivial and put something worthy in its place, my life becomes better.
Seeing that phenomenon actually work in my own life gives me great hope for the future. It shows me that if I have dreams, I actually can achieve them. I can make my life a better and brighter place.
Choosing financial responsibility turned on that light, when it wasn’t on before.
Making the hard choice to become financially responsible changed almost every dimension of my life. It drastically reduced my stress. It rescued my relationships with many of the best people in my life. It brought me to a much more joyful career. It mended my relationship with the things I owned and how I spent my free time. Perhaps best of all, it gave me hope for the future and showed me that I could have a better life if I worked for it.
When I talk about giving up some sort of treat, it’s not just walking away from something. It’s not about denying myself something. It’s about taking a step to build and extend the kind of life that I want for myself.
A great life does not come without sacrifices. There are always hard choices to be made in the moment. Do I buy this treat? Do I get out of bed to go on a jog? Do I eat this delicious slice of pizza? It’s so easy to take the path of least resistance.
But, at the same time, it’s really not that hard to choose the path that leads to a better life, either. If I don’t buy this treat, I still have countless things at home to enjoy. If I get out of bed to exercise in the morning, I still have a great day ahead of me. If I turn down that extra slice of pizza, I still have the company of friends around me. It’s still a great life, even in that moment.
Even more than that, though, making the slightly tougher choice represents one more building block in a much better life than the one I once had, or even the life I have now. It’s a life with more stability. It’s a life with more choices. It’s a life with fewer restrictions. It’s a life with more energy and more health.
That’s why, more often than not, I choose the financially responsible choice. That’s why Sarah and I eliminated all of our debts in two years, then bought a house and paid it off in four. That’s why we have a healthy amount of money in the bank and plan to walk away from work at about the same time our youngest walks out the door into adulthood.
It’s not just the how. It’s the why.