One thing I often do when I’m looking for inspiration or new angles for The Simple Dollar is simply go back and read my journals and other writing from before my financial turnaround.
Honestly, that stuff is often fairly painful to read. I can just see the huge financial mistakes I’m making, whether I discuss them directly or not. I see huge expenses barely even mentioned because, honestly, they didn’t bring me any deep joy or fuel any internal passion.
Instead, I see a lot of worry.
I see a lot of worry about what other people think about me. I see a lot of concern about whether I’m up to the task at work. I see a lot of tension about all kinds of things, from my own marriage to my relationships with my friends, from my career to my own happiness, from my quality as a community member to (later) my quality as a father.
Underlying all of it was a sense that I was not really doing any of these things well at all. I felt I was not good at my job. I felt like I wasn’t good as a husband. I felt I wasn’t a good friend. I felt like I wasn’t a good father. I wanted to be better at those things, but in the end, I didn’t feel like I was good at those things.
My solution? I didn’t have actual self-confidence, so I chose to “fake it until I could make it.”
I chose to act like the people around me that I perceived as successful.
What did that mean? It meant buying expensive clothes so that I dressed like the people who I felt were successful. It meant buying an expensive vehicle so that I had a vehicle like the people who I felt were successful. It meant buying gadgets (like the nascent smartphones of the day) so that I had the things in my pocket that I perceived a successful person having.
I tried to look successful and confident, and I threw a lot of money at doing so.
But it didn’t work.
Even worse, I felt really burnt out by the end of the day, so I would often throw myself into expensive hobbies and buy lots of stuff in order to make myself feel a burst of happiness.
The end result of all of that was a lot of money spent on stuff to either try to impress others and put up a false sense of confidence or to try to make myself feel better about what I perceived as myself not actually being good enough.
Both of those things were caused by one central issue. I lacked self-confidence.
I did not believe in myself with regards to many of the aspects of my life. I didn’t feel like I was “good enough.” So I tried to paint on an appearance of believing in myself by buying lots of things that made that image, and when I went home and felt like a fraud, I would spend money on frivolous things just to feel better.
Self-confidence – or the lack of it – was the central ingredient in both parts.
Over time, though, I began to realize a few things. These things started to really occur to me during the period when I was making my financial turnaround, so they really went hand in hand.
First, there were simply some things I was good at and other things I wasn’t good at. I am good at writing computer code. I am good at learning a lot of material pretty quickly. I am good at taking a big collection of ideas and organizing them into something that’s readable and doing that pretty quickly. I am good at making others laugh. I am good at connecting with children. I am good at self-deprecation and making others feel comfortable. I am good at being reliable.
On the other hand, I am not good at making small talk. I am not good at tolerating some behaviors. I am not good at keeping the house perfectly clean. I am not good at keeping my thoughts to myself at times. I am not good at perfectly remembering sequences of past events (and this has caused me real trouble in the past). I am not good at talking positively about things I don’t know about and thus don’t naturally feel positive about.
In other words, I’m good at some things and not good at other ones.
For a long time, it was hard for me to accept that. I wanted to be seen and perceived as being good at everything and so I put a lot of effort into methods for covering up the things I wasn’t good at. However, I didn’t perceive myself as actually being good at very many things.
So what did that lead to? Eventually, I realized that people are going to value me mostly for the things that I am good at. I am the guy who can code well and can lighten a room. I am the guy who makes their children laugh and the guy who picks up information quickly.
At the same time, no matter how much I “cover it up,” I can’t make the things I’m not good at disappear. The only way I can truly make them vanish is through a lot of self-improvement work. Anything other than that is paint, and paint eventually flakes off.
Because of that, I began to realize that it was kind of a fool’s errand to spend a lot of money trying to “hide” the things about myself that I didn’t like. People will see them anyway. Some people will judge me based on them regardless of what I do. Many more will judge me instead based on the good things, and some on the total package.
What does that add up to? I started to become happy with what I was good at, and I started worrying less about most of the stuff I wasn’t good at. I am good at some things, and that’s well worth being happy about. I don’t have to be good at everything as long as I’m good at some things.
Sure, there were – and still are – things that I want to improve, but having things you’re not good at and things that you want to improve doesn’t undo the things you are good at.
In short, I started building a little self-confidence. I began to feel good about the things I was good at and accept many of the things that I was not good at. I don’t need to be good at everything. I just need to be good at some things and be happy that I’m good at those things.
More importantly, when I genuinely begin to feel concerned about a negative aspect of myself, I start to do the necessary self-improvement to actually fix it. Simply covering it up doesn’t solve the problem and it really doesn’t even disguise it over the long term. The best solution is always to put in the real work to fix it and to genuinely improve yourself.
As I began to realize those things, several changes naturally happened in my life.
I began to feel far less incentive to spend money on certain things. A car became not a tool to impress people, but merely an object to get me from point A to point B. Thus, I didn’t need an expensive car. Clothes became not a tool to impress people, but merely something to keep myself warm and covered. Thus, I didn’t need many expensive clothes. Gadgets became not a tool to impress people, but merely a tool for communication. Thus, I didn’t need the latest and most expensive gadget (my smartphone is at least two generations old, for example). I didn’t need to buy name brands for most things at the store – they’re just names on a box, essentially meaningless.
I began to focus on genuine self-improvement. Obviously, the first big “improvement quest” I took on in my life was improving my finances. After that, my next big “improvement quest” was entrepreneurship. I’ve moved on to other personal improvement projects – many of them have involved deeply studying specific topics so that I understand them better – with the goal of making myself a better person and actually solving flaws I see in myself. I will never be perfect or anywhere close to it, but I can become better. The way to become better is to invest time and effort, not necessarily money.
The natural outcome of these two things combined had a really interesting effect. It made me quite frugal. I began to realize that the most valuable resources I have are my time and effort and natural skills, and buying stuff almost always just creates distraction that eats away at that time and effort. Not only that, the more money I spend, the less control I have over that time and effort, so that’s a big disincentive to spend money on things that do not bring me value.
Improving my self-confidence made me more naturally frugal, and the core to that improvement was recognizing that I do have some good traits (and some not-so-good traits), that people will value those traits, that spending money can’t truly hide those not-so-good traits, and that only time and effort can fix them.
Spending money doesn’t make you a better person. It doesn’t even make you appear to be a better person over the long haul. What it does do is cause you to lose more control over your time and effort, which makes it harder to actually build a better life for yourself.
Spend some time thinking about what you’re actually good at, and be proud of those things. Don’t worry so much about the things you’re not good at – and if one of them really bothers you, put in effort to genuinely make that better.