Updated on 09.19.14

Frugality, Freedom, and Hard Work

Trent Hamm

Tower Life Building by Corey Leopold on Flickr!I spend a lot of time brainstorming articles for The Simple Dollar. Quite often, I don’t even have an article in mind when I’m trying to come up with an idea. Instead, I just try to look for patterns in my own life – or in things I read. If I see a pattern, I try to dig into that pattern to see why it happens, and I’ll usually come up with something interesting.

Yesterday, in my personal journal, I made a list of the ten happiest times of my life. The moments were a mix of the obvious – the birth of my two children, my wedding day and honeymoon – and surprising – a short three day vacation in Wisconsin with my parents when I was a very self-conscious teenager who really needed to reconnect with mom and dad.

What did all of these moments have in common? The elements of those moments that really made them special were, actually, a lack of obligation within that moment. When my children were born, all I had to worry about was holding a beautiful baby in my arms – the exact moment that stuck out with each of their births was holding the baby while their mother rested and no one else was around. The best moments of the time around my wedding revolved around just being with my wife – my best memories of the honeymoon are stunningly simple ones, like eating lunch at a restaurant next door to our hotel. My childhood memory that I mentioned was one where I was able to feel like a kid again – no real responsibilities other than to spend time with mom and dad – for a few days even as I was beginning to grow up.

Looking back, though, I see that each of those great memories were essentially bubbles created by a lot of hard work around the periphery. My childhood’s memories were created by a lot of hard work by my parents, when they would work their tails off to create some very nice moments for me. In adulthood, those great moments were always led by a lot of hard work earning money – and, quite often, a lot of additional work afterwards.

These were the thoughts dancing in my head as I drifted off to sleep last night, and when I woke up this morning, I realized a few things.

Financial Lessons I Learned from My Happiest Memories

1. Money is merely a tool for me to live the life I want to lead

Right now, in most ways, I have the elements of my life that I want: a wonderful, loving wife who both supports and challenges me, two children who are as unique as snowflakes and teach me at least as much as I teach them, a pile of good books, a nice home, a selection of close friends that really matter to me. Those are the things that really matter in my life – but they all cost resources to support. I have to pay for the house. I have to feed the family. Money enables me to acquire these things, and I earn that money in exchange for my work.

2. I work hard to earn the money to enable that life

By work, I don’t just mean my active employment – I also mean my frugal choices as well. I write, even if I don’t feel like it. I manage our money carefully. I choose activities in my downtime that don’t cost a lot of money. With every little choice I make, I effectively earn more money.

3. The money I earn makes my life more secure

Over the last few years, I’ve slowly been able to eliminate debt and build up something of a safety net for my life. For the first time in many years, I don’t feel like I’m walking a tightrope, and now I’m working towards other things – securing a great childhood for my kids, planning for a great retirement with my wife, and enabling me to follow whatever dreams may come in the future.

People often claim that being frugal, working hard, and saving money means I have no life. I argue just the opposite – my ability to save these resources ensures that I do have a life. I’m building a life that contains exactly what I want the most, and it’s a life that doesn’t require me to walk a constant career tightrope in fear of losing my job and thus losing everything.

This is my path – my journey. I’m building up and securing the things I want out of life. Money is my tool – hard work and frugality are how I acquire it and sensible spending and good money management are how I keep it. In the end, I’m building the life I want. Perhaps frugality is not part of the life you want – but when you choose to throw a useful tool out the window, you also choose to limit the possibilities life has in store for you.

Spend some time this week thinking about the elements of your life that are most important to you – that bring you the most happiness. What are you doing in your life that makes these elements less secure? What can you do to make them more secure? If you want a powerful personal to-do list, that’s one sure way to make it.

Good luck.

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  1. This was a great article, and it makes me think how I can work harder to create more life for myself and my future family, by being motivated, and creating a business and finding other ways than just working a regular career path. The more rewarding ventures in life often come with hard work, as you said. That’s even biblical.

  2. Jean says:

    (I’m de-lurking…)
    This is a great article, and it has a lot of merit. My question to you would be (and perhaps I should know the answer, but I’m going to ask anyway) do you feel like you’re ‘sacrificing’ things NOW in order to plan for your future – security for your kids, a nice retirement, etc.?

  3. Kim says:

    I recently took 3 days off work to entertain some friends from out of town. It was the best vacation I’ve had in a long time, and I think it’s because I did the work necessary to actually relax while they were here. I have had longer vacations that were more stressful when I don’t get myself fully ready. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one!

  4. Sam says:

    You are right, it doesn’t take much money to be happy. I don’t have plans for big expensive things when I retire, just to be around the ones I love. I think it takes many people a lot of time to realize this. Great post.

  5. Sydney says:

    Excellent post, Trent. I emailed it to my daughter because you said things the way I would like to, but haven’t been able to, that express the positive aspects of frugality, and how it can open up more freedom and opportunity in the future. Thanks.

  6. Laurie says:

    Excellent post, Trent. When I was still working, I felt much like you do: the best moments were those where I had no immediate obligations (which usually happened when I was AWAY from home). Though it often seemed to me that most of my time was spent working to make money, learning to save and invest money, and making certain I didn’t slip off the straight and narrow financial path that leads to a reasonably well funded retirement (all of which I sometimes strongly resented), I’ll tell you this: it IS worth it.

    My husband and I have been retired for 5 years, with modest financial needs. We live and travel in an RV, and now the order of life is reversed – we spend most of our time free of obligations and responsibilities, and our money is working for us instead of the other way around. We visit with family and friends, make new friends, and volunteer. There is relaxation and delight to be found in every day.

    Living frugally is an important element of building the future you want. Another is the maintenance of good health – it is as powerful as putting money in the bank.

    Good luck on your path!

  7. BirdDog says:

    Great post, Trent!

  8. BonzoGal says:

    I think Amy Dacyzyn also said somewhat the same thing- you use frugality as a tool to get the things in life you REALLY want. These “things” include security, peace of mind, good times with family and friends, etc. You might delay a pleasure, but you end up with something stronger than mere pleasure: joy.

  9. Trevor - 14 Year Old Money Blogger says:

    Nice post. Shows money and your life. Don’t get too caught up into it.

  10. This would make a fantastic essay, or the basis of a book. I find myself constantly battling with the accumulation of money, vs actually spending it. Thankfully I’m marrying a great woman that knows how to make sure I enjoy money.

  11. Larry says:

    Nice essay….I receive your writings in my email each day…some I read more closely than others…this was a good one. In the past two years I have changed my own life in many ways. One of the areas I think allot about are making money – and the time spend doing just that. Now, in the past and in the future. How much of my life am I willing to put towards earning money…what do I miss and have missed in working 40 or more hours each week. I concluded there has to be a different way or a different model to follow. I struggle with just what that is….what is important…where to focus my time…the trade of working and or of following my interests whereever they lead me….and the balance of it all.

  12. Steve says:

    It’s posts like these that keep me coming back! Great post!

  13. Being that you are frugal, I think that you have an honest respect for your money and the time it takes to make that money.

    Good for you for sticking to your guns.

    Great post!

  14. Oskar says:

    Great post, thanks again for putting into words what many of us are thinking.

  15. Battra92 says:

    People sometimes wonder why I “stash my money away” when I am not (and most likely never will be) married. I have no kids and do not want them. I don’t own a house (heck, I’m not even living along) and I don’t see myself doing so in the near future. So why am I buying the cheap brands? Why don’t I ever go out for lunch? Why do I put off major purchases until I have the cash?

    Sometimes I do question this. I learned a lot of bad habits from friends and family who had to buy everything they wanted despite what tomorrow would bring. I look at how my grandmother will most likely be selling her house and moving into my parents’ house once I move out.

    I don’t want to be in that situation in the future so I’m stashing my money away for the future. I don’t know what the future is but I want to be prepared.

  16. Mary says:

    Right on! This is what I love most about your sight–you say what I’m thinking, but way better than I ever could. You rock.

  17. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    I try to balance being the accumulation of money and enjoying my life as well. It’s tempting to just save every penny and never allow yourself any indulgences, but, like other on this site, I have a wife that keeps me in line!

  18. Jimbo says:

    What’s going on with this blog’s posting schedule???

  19. Saver Queen says:

    I love your philosophy about money, Trent. I feel the same way. It’s about enabling what I really want in life. I love this saying: discipline is remembering what you really want. I want my money to enable me to pursue my dreams, goals, and create an environment in which I can feel safe, free, and happy.

  20. Cathy says:

    This is why I keep coming back to read your articles. We share similar philosophies. I live well below my means because what I can have now isn’t as important as my long term freedom.

  21. Urban Frugal says:

    Everyone who I have ever mentioned that “money is a tool” line to has always said it was because you have more money that I do. No, it’s not that I have more money, it is just that I make better choices about what I spend my money on. If I save up over the course of a year and buy a concert or theatre subscription that’s my choice. It may mean not going out to lunch every day or making coffee at home but those are choices I have made.

    This doesn’t mean that I am neglecting saving or other bills, just using my discretionary spending differently!

  22. Amanda says:

    Excellent post – I’d frame this one. It’s inspiring.

  23. Being frugal by no means implies that a person doesn’t have fun! I mean, some people do indeed think that they have to go out and spend a lot of money on “the best” just to have a good time. Sometimes, things are really only as expensive as a person makes them, and spending less on them just makes sense!

  24. Fred says:

    I found this article searching for Frugality and Freedom – looks like I found it about 18 months after it was originally posted. I’m glad I found it because it captures the essence of the life I’m trying to live. In my book, Frugality = Freedom. By living frugally, you are never chained to a job just to pull in the salary. You have the choice to work elsewhere for less.

    An interesting story to add to the discussion…

    When I was completing my evening MBA about 5 years ago, my finance teacher taught us a very important lesson that was outside the scope of financial modeling (the course I was in).

    During the day, this teacher served as a managing director in a large energy company. He said that when it came to staff, his philosophy was to hire the best talent he could, then pay them *higher* than market rates by about 5%. He worked them very hard, demanding many evenings and weekends, especially when the job heated up. But, he knew they couldn’t leave because he was already paying them beyond what they could find elsewhere — and he encouraged them to spend on things they would enjoy, cars, houses, restaurants, “the good life”, etc.

    I thought to myself at that moment: “Wow, I would HATE to work for this guy.” But the employees didn’t necessarily hate him. They might not have even known, or maybe they did and they thought the 5% was worth it. Whatever the case, these people were probably wage slaves–stuck in a job to afford a lifestyle to which they had become accustomed.

    Meanwhile, this teacher was telling the class that he lived a frugal life so that he had options to pursue other companies and take on more risk.

    I learned a lot from that teacher… Not only was he a GREAT finance teacher, this single lesson from his class re-shaped my thinking around frugality.

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