Finding Meaning in a Financially Challenging Life

For a period of time in the early 2000s, I had very, very little money to live on. It was during my final years in college and I had chosen to cut my student loans to the barest minimum I could while still keeping a roof over my head and food on the table. I packed as many credits into my studies as I possibly could and also worked at two different jobs and I lived in this tiny, tiny off-campus apartment. Most of my possessions could fit into a single plastic tub, with the exception of a really old computer that sat on a plywood desk that I salvaged out of a dumpster.

My one single treat during those days was a cheeseburger at Wendy’s about once a week. The rest of the time, I ate free food on campus where I could find it or else ate ramen noodles (cooked on a hot plate using a beat-up old pot) or bananas at that tiny apartment.

I was still quite far from finishing my degree program. Most of my days were filled with going to class, studying at the library, going to another class, going to work, going to another class, studying some more, going to some meeting on campus where I might be able to scavenge some pizza, then heading home. On the weekends, I mostly met with study groups, went on a free “date” with my girlfriend (who later became my wife), and read books from the library or rode around on my bicycle when I had free time.

I didn’t have a car because I couldn’t afford one. I had to meticulously budget in order to afford a bus pass.

At one point, I literally cried with joy when I found out that the local grocery store was having a 12 for $1 sale on ramen noodles, which meant that I actually had something for each meal for the next week. Without that, I would have been skipping meals.

The biggest memory I have from that time – and it’s something that’s reflected in the journals I kept during that timeframe – was that I walked through life very robotically, almost like a zombie. I didn’t have much hope that things would improve for at least a year or two. I was making it through college by the barest of margins and it felt like the end was nowhere in sight. I had classes, I had work, I had studies, I had sleep, and that was about it aside from a few free hours on the weekends, and then the cycle repeated itself.

In short, I felt utterly hopeless. While there was this far off dream of a better life, things really didn’t seem like they were going to get better any time soon.

What changed? How did I get through this?

The truth of the matter is that my boss at one of those jobs really cared for me a lot. He was always asking how I was doing. He’d sometimes give me food, including one time where he went and bought me a sack full of burgers from a restaurant and pretty much demanded that I eat them.

More than that, though, he listened, and he gave me some of the best advice that I ever received.

He told me of his experiences during his younger years, how he went through several years of barely scraping by without a whole lot of hope for the future, and he told me some of the things he did to get through it.

The number one thing? Find some meaning. Don’t just wander through all of this mechanically without any real hope that things will change. If you do that, nothing will change and you’ll keep doing this until something inevitably breaks.

He offered me some suggestions on how to do that. I followed up on some of them and, later, figured out others that worked for me.

And I made it. I began to feel positive about my life again. My grades responded, too, putting me on the dean’s list for the first time. I graduated and found a great job and found myself on a much better path.

I made it through that hard period, and the key reason that I was able to do so was that I actively sought out meaning in my day-to-day existence. I realized that I wasn’t just here to scrape by.

So, how do you find meaning in a financially challenging life, when it feels like you’re always going to be scraping by and there’s no real hope for the future? Here are twelve things that I learned from this experience, twelve things that I still keep near and dear to my heart even after building a very strong financial life for myself.

Figure Out What Truly Matters to You

This seems like a “nebulous,” “feel good” question, but it’s actually very specific. Why, exactly, are you continuing in this routine? What is your reason for not just walking away from all of it?

If you can’t come up with a reason, why not just walk away?

Most likely, if you give that question some time, you’re going to come up with a few reasons why you keep going, whether you see them immediately or not. Perhaps it is a matter of personal pride. Maybe you have people that you love who depend on you. Maybe there is a long term goal in the distance, but it seems very far away.

Use those reasons as the start of building something positive for yourself. Every day, when you wake up, remind yourself of the reasons you’re doing this.

Think of your daughter’s happy laugh and how you have the chance, this very day, to help her have a less worried childhood.

Think of the big goal that you’re working toward, and think of today as a measurable percentage of your march toward that goal. If you have three years to go, today alone is 0.1% of your goal – and tomorrow when you wake up, that day will be a little bit more than that.

Whatever the real reasons are behind your journey, put them front and center in your mind. Don’t be afraid to feel good about those reasons. Draw joy from them, motivation from them.

Every single day, the thing that inspires me the most to keep chugging through my to-do lists is my wife and my children. I will do whatever I can to give them a happy life. Seeing my children able to play without a care in the world… that’s something that many children don’t have, and it’s something I can give them with my steady effort.

What’s your reason for doing this? Bring it out, into the open, and let it inspire and motivate you.

Use Prayer or Meditation as a “Mental Cleansing” Tool

One of the things I learned early on when I was trying to break out of that “zombie routine” of just working and going to classes and sleeping without any meaning is that I was basically so surrounded on all sides by personal stress and worry that I often didn’t even really see it. I was just kind of resigned to it.

Any technique you can grab ahold of to break through that layer of constant stress is going to be a useful one. For me personally, meditation and prayer were the keys to breaking through.

The practice that really worked for me – and still works – is so simple. I just spend some time sitting in a quiet place and I make a conscious effort to clear my mind of everything. If a thought tries to invade, I consciously banish it. I’ll do this for twenty or thirty minutes, but when I first started, doing it for even five minutes was hard.

What I found is that this technique is insanely effective as a kind of “mental cleanse.” It left me feeling less stressed and more capable of dealing with that stress. Rather than feeling just locked in place, I felt prepared to try to do something about my situation, and that feeling made a huge difference in terms of taking on many of the other strategies listed here.

Expose Yourself to New and Challenging Ideas Every Single Day

This might seem like a strange strategy, but bear with me for a minute.

For me, a big part of that “zombie routine” was simply feeling very alone in the world. I felt very much swept away by currents outside of my control and my understanding, as though my life was set up and automated by some outside forces that I didn’t understand.

Over time, I made a conscious effort to try to understand those forces. I spent months studying economics in my spare time, then I studied a lot of philosophy. I turned off the television and read some challenging books, ones that really made me think.

And, gradually, my situation began to make more sense to me. I began to realize that much of what was happening in my life was a result of my own personal choices, in many different ways. Not only did I choose to follow this path, I also chose how I reacted to life situations. The more I learned about the world around me, the more in control of my own life I began to feel.

Which brings me to my next strategy…

Learn About and Practice Stoicism Rather Than Hedonism

So, let’s define these two terms, first of all.

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure and sensual self-indulgence. It’s about choosing the thing in the moment that provides the most pleasure. Most of American culture is focused on hedonism.

Stoicism, on the other hand, is the idea that most of our pain and suffering (from non-medical reasons) is due to errors in our own judgment and that we are capable of fixing those errors ourselves, leading to a better life.

By default, most people practice some form of hedonism. They think about what the most enjoyable thing in the moment happens to be and they usually do it. When they do choose something else that isn’t the most pleasurable thing, they hate it – it’s why people hate their jobs and why people end up feeling like they’re stuck in a rut.

Stoicism, on the other hand, is all about reflecting on why you feel this way about things and trying to reserve emotional judgment. Rather than just hating something, figure out why you hate it. Rather than just desiring some particular pleasure, figure out why you desire it.

The more you do this, the more sensible the uncontrollable things in your life become and the easier it becomes to handle them and even find joy in them.

Hedonism never brings that lasting sense of understanding and contentment. If you come home, flop on the couch, and turn on your laptop or your television to “lose yourself” for a while, that’s pure hedonism and it will never bring lasting joy, just momentary pleasure. The first step on this journey is to figure out why you do that. Why do you flip on the television? What is it that you’re seeking that you’re not finding in other parts of your life? That’s the first step in a very long journey that will bring you to a much deeper peace with the world.

Use Every Free Community and Public Resource You Can

People who find themselves walking a very narrow tightrope in life often can’t afford even the slightest mis-step. If something small goes wrong, like a car problem or losing a shift at work, things can collapse immediately.

The thing is, society actually helps people in that situation a lot. There are tons and tons of organizations and people that really want to help those who are in this situation, doing the “zombie walk” that I described above.

Food pantries. Clothing pantries. SNAP. The list is very very long once you start digging.

These services can provide you with free food, help with your rent and utilities, and so on.

Many people don’t take advantage of this out of a sense of pride, but here’s the thing: you are the exact person that people want to help. People want to give you these things so that you can get out of your rut. Not taking it is like walking away from a gift someone has thoughtfully given you.

Take advantage of these services. Give yourself some breathing room in your financial situation, and then use that breathing room to build an emergency fund and pay a few bills. If you use it well, a bit of financial breathing room brings about a little more and a little more and a little more until your life dramatically changes, and often all you need is that helping hand to get started.

Focus on the Moment – And What You Can Take Out of It – As Much as Possible

Almost every moment affords you some opportunity to prove yourself, some opportunity to learn, some opportunity to build a relationship, some opportunity to put yourself in a better position than you were in before.

If you’re in a classroom, for example, focus on learning. It’s an opportunity for intense learning that you won’t get elsewhere, so use it. Take advantage of the moment.

If you’re in a social situation, work on building a relationship with someone. It’s an opportunity for building connections with people, so take advantage of it.

If you’re at work, focus on learning new skills or performing your tasks as well as you can. It’s an opportunity to improve your skill set and impress your boss, so take advantage of it.

Every single moment is an opportunity. Focus on the moment at hand and what you can get out of it. The more you focus, the better off you’ll be.

Reflect on Your Abundance – And Share With Others

Even in the moments where I really felt locked into place with nowhere to run, where I was just walking through an endless cycle of days with seemingly no hope, I still had an abundance of good things in my life.

I had good health. I had an opportunity to work toward a college degree. I had a handful of people who really cared about me – my parents, my girlfriend, and a few mentors. I had a mind that was capable of learning things. I had the infinite little pleasures that a day can give, from the feel of sunlight on my arm to the feel of grass under my feet.

Even in my lowest moment, I had so much.

Rather than spending my time thinking about all of the things that I do not have, I’m much better off reflecting on the many, many, many things I do have. Doing so simply makes life more joyful and makes me feel more in control of things.

Focus on Improving Yourself Every Day

Every single day, devote some time to improving yourself so that, over time, you slowly become much more able to move out of your current position and into something better.

There are infinite ways to improve yourself. You can exercise. You can take an online class. You can work on a particular skill that you use in the workplace. You can build a new skill. You can read a challenging book related to something that you might need to tackle professionally.

All of those things serve to put you in a slightly better position at the end of each day than you were in at the start of that day. Sure, it might just be one more handhold in a long climb up a mountain, but with each step higher and higher, you can begin to really see the changes.

Make self-improvement part of your routine. You’ll never regret it.

Look at Jobs and Classes as Opportunities, Not Burdens

Your job is an opportunity, not a burden. You get paid for your time, sure, but every moment when you’re at that job is an opportunity to build a skill, to help a customer, to help a coworker, to build your own reputation in a positive way. The more you do that, the more likely it is that you’ll see a promotion in the future or be ready to move to another job that offers more opportunity and pay.

Your classes are opportunities, not burdens. They provide an opportunity to learn something about the world around you, something that will be useful even if you don’t directly see it. Classes directly related to your potential career are obviously useful, but so are the others as well as they teach you peripheral things that help you connect your core skills to others. They’re also opportunities to get to know peers and professors, too.

When you feel beaten down and stuck in a financially challenging situation, these things can feel like burdens, but they’re not. They’re opportunities. Try as hard as you can to see every moment at work and every moment in the classroom as an opportunity to make yourself better and make your life better.

Cut Out Your “Escape Hatches”

Everyone needs some downtime, but when people start to get locked into a routine that they feel as though they can’t escape from, they begin to fill every spare moment of their time with “escape hatches.” They spend spare moments looking at websites, watching Youtube videos, watching television, playing video games, or other things like that, things that mostly serve to help a person “escape” and not have to face the challenges of life.

Cut those escape hatches out of your life as much as possible. Use that time for anything that’s self-improving, whether it’s building a skill or building a personal relationship or improving your health.

“Escape hatches” are the most obvious form of hedonism in life. They’re a momentary minor pleasure, an escape from life that feels good at the moment, but just dumps you back where you started in even worse shape than before because you’ve just lost all of that time. Minimize your “escape hatches” and you’ll end up with a much better life in the long run.

Get Adequate Rest, But Rise When You Wake Up

Good sleep is an incredibly powerful tool for feeling good about your life. It helps you focus. It gives you energy. It recharges your batteries. A good night of rest each night is vital.

The catch is that many people do not listen to their body when it comes to sleep. The best way to sleep is to go to sleep when you actually feel tired. Don’t lounge in front of the television when you’re tired – go to bed, turn off the lights, and go to sleep.

In the morning, set an alarm as an emergency backup, but try to reach a point where you awaken on your own. The first time you’re awake enough to realize what’s happening, get up and get out of bed and start your day. Don’t lay there and doze or else you’re just going to mess with your body’s natural cycles in a way that is going to make the day more challenging.

Go to bed when you’re tired, and don’t use devices to distract you and keep you awake in bed. Wake up naturally and then get up without lounging around. You’ll approach the day in a much more positive and productive fashion.

Talk to Someone Who Will Really Listen

During my most financially challenging period, I was lucky to have five or so people in my life that I could talk to about my challenges – my parents, my girlfriend, and my mentors all had their ears open to me when I needed it.

Not only did they listen to my concerns about life, they also offered a great deal of useful advice (which provided the backbone for this article) as well as other forms of assistance, particularly in the case of my mentors, as I discussed at the start of this article.

In the end, though, it was the relief of being able to talk through my worries with someone who was actually listening that made all the difference.

If you don’t have this kind of relationship in your life, then one of the most valuable things you can be doing with your time is building up those kinds of relationships. You need mentors and truly close friends, as they make all of the difference in the world when you’re in a very challenging spot in life.

Final Thoughts

For me, these strategies worked in concert to help get me through the most financially challenging time in my life. Thanks to these strategies, I was eventually able to complete my studies, get a great job, and eventually build my own business and begin to walk the path to financial independence.

Was it easy? Absolutely not. Things like this are never easy. If they were easy, though, no one would ever find themselves in a challenging position.

You have the tools you need to break free of your financially challenging state. The key to all of it is to find meaning in your life and find enough breathing room to begin making changes, just a little at a time at first, but eventually bigger and bigger ones until you have the life you want.

Good luck!

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