Handling Unhappiness Without Breaking the Bank

Most of the time, I’m pretty happy with my life. I have a great wife and wonderful children. I have a burgeoning social network and plenty of hobbies that fulfill me. I like the area where I live. I’m pretty happy in most regards.

Still, there are times where some aspect of my life will leave me unhappy and, if that’s left unchecked, it will often leave me feeling less happy about everything in my life. It’s natural melancholy that I think a lot of people feel from time to time.

The problem is that the modern response to that feeling for a lot of people is “retail therapy,” and retail therapy rarely helps. Retail therapy simply means that you take a “break” from your problems by spending money on things that will bring short term pleasure, both from the act of purchasing and from the actual item you buy.

I used to rely on retail therapy, but it became pretty clear over the years that it was kind of a dead end. It never really made the problems in my life go away. Sure, I didn’t notice them for a little while, but they always came back. It also ended up making my financial problems worse than before.

Instead, I’ve worked over the years to find other solutions to my periods of unhappiness. Below, I’m going to touch on six things that have brought me down with periods of unhappiness in my adult life, along with actual tactics I took to solve them that didn’t involve throwing money at the problem and didn’t involve retail therapy. Instead, they made my life better.

I don’t have enough time for the things I want to do.

This is the single biggest source for my periods of unhappiness in my adult life. There are long stretches where I’ll find myself simply having more things that I need and that I really want to do than I possibly have time for. This means that things I care about simply fall off the table – and it hurts. Here’s how I fix it.

Figure out which activity is least important to you and cut back on your commitment there. Like many adults, I find myself juggling a lot of roles at the same time. Right now, I have my writing responsibilities for The Simple Dollar, I’m trying to finish writing a novel, I put effort into being a good father, I put effort into being a good husband, I’m the president of a local civic organization that is far busier than I expected, I’m an active member of at least two other organizations… the list goes on and on. I’m not even mentioning time for my personal interests and hobbies.

Sometimes, I simply pile on too much and there just isn’t room for everything. When that happens, I simply think about what I’m involved with and then start breaking away from the least important of those options. I don’t just run in and quit, especially when others may be relying on me in that role, but I start looking for ways to step back from that responsibility.

Remember, I’m choosing the least important responsibility in my eyes. The things that are always at the top of the list are my wife, my kids, and my primary means of earning income. Everything else fills in space below that, so when I de-commit from something, that something comes from the less important group of options.

Set in stone some time each week for the things you want to devote time to and add that time block to your calendar. If there’s something really important to you, consciously set aside time for that thing and block it off on your calendar. Make it a priority and push things to the side that are less important to you.

I’ll give you a clear example of this. I really enjoy playing strategic board games that require serious thought in an environment where I can socialize with the other players between rounds and between games. There have been times where this has simply been squeezed out of my life, and I’ve been really bothered by that. Lately, though, I’ve simply marked off a chunk of time on the weekend to go to a board game club nearby and play with the people there. It’s on my schedule and is a routine part of my life because I blocked off the time for it.

That time, of course, comes at the expense of lesser interests and hobbies. I no longer go golfing – it doesn’t inspire me as much as it once did, so I haven’t gone in years. I stepped back from youth soccer coaching once it was clear that they had plenty of volunteers, though I still give my children pointers in our backyard games. I found room for things that mattered to me and I blocked off time for them.

Ask those you care about for help in some areas until things get better. Like it or not, there are times where responsibilities swell up and devour your free time and energy. A great example of this in our home is the week of parent-teacher conferences, which often overlaps with the first week of soccer season. A single week adds ten hours or so of evening commitments to the previous week and can make things very tricky.

When those things happen, ask for help. I ask my wife for help for countless things. I ask neighbors for help with things like watching the kids for a little while. I ask parents for help with several different kinds of things. I ask friends for help with small errands so I’m not wasting my time driving to the nearest city when they’re already going. You get the idea.

Naturally, I repay all of these people when times aren’t as tough, but when I’m in a pinch, I never hesitate to ask them for a helping hand. Taking away some of the demands, even for a little while, gives me the room I need to push through the most demanding periods.

I don’t like the place where I live.

Maybe you’re unhappy with your apartment or your house. Maybe you just don’t like your neighborhood. Maybe your commute is too far, or you’re too far from the people you care about. Whatever it is, your current location is bringing you down. Here’s what you need to do to fix that without resorting to retail therapy as a short-term fix.

Do not accept the mindset that you have to live where you currently live. You do not have to live where you live. Pretty much the only housing requirement for most people is that you live within a reasonable commuting distance of your workplace. Sure, there are limitations based on cost, but if you’re willing to shop around and be patient, you can always find a better deal.

If you’re feeling unhappy with where you live, start shopping for a new place right now. Don’t hesitate. Channel all of your housing frustration into this search for a new place.

Figure out what you like about where you currently live and what you’re willing to trade to get rid of the things you don’t like. Every housing solution has some positives and some negatives. For example, our current house is almost completely surrounded by other houses – I wish for more privacy. I also wish I had better access to woodlands and hiking trails near my home and that the floor plan was a bit different. What would I be willing to give up to have those things?

Likely, there were some reasons that compelled you to move to your current location. Which of those are you willing to give up? Maybe you had to take this current apartment quickly because of a job opportunity, so availability was a huge factor. You can easily give that up because you have the opportunity to conduct a longer search. Maybe the location made sense when you were dating someone, but you’ve moved on, so location is far less important now.

The things that were important when you moved in are likely not as important now and that’s why you’ve soured on the place. When you look for a new place, focus on what’s actually important to you now.

Constantly search for housing that meets those current needs. There are many, many ways to search for housing, both online and off. Devote some time to actually looking for places that meet your requirements better than your current place.

During 2006 and 2007, as my wife and I were searching for a different place to live that would meet our changing requirements a little better (a second child, for one), we spent a lot of time looking for a house that would be a better match for our current needs and desires than our apartment.

The actual process lifted our moods quite a bit, as we spent a lot of time researching houses and apartments and going to open houses and the like. It didn’t involve spending money, but it certainly did help.

I feel worn out all the time.

There have been periods where I have felt utterly exhausted over the past several years, and those periods have always led to a steep decline in my mood and a temptation to spend money for the “excitement” of it to lift me out of my malaise for a little while. Even more, I’ve learned over time that when I feel tired, I make poor buying decisions, so I usually try to avoid any sort of financial transactions when I feel tired. Here are three strategies that helped.

Visit a doctor if you can or a free clinic if you can’t. Often, a sense of fatigue or feeling “off” isn’t due to a major medical issue, but something as simple as a vitamin or mineral deficiency. You might be low on vitamin B or vitamin D or iron and not even be aware of it.

The easiest way to take care of that is to visit a doctor, who will almost always order a series of blood tests to check for the most common sources of fatigue. Quite often, they’re simple things that you can easily handle yourself with a small dietary change.

For example, I have been very low on both vitamin D and vitamin B-12 in the past. Simply altering my diet a little and taking some supplements made a world of difference to my fatigue and energy levels. Sarah, on the other hand, has been very low on iron a few times and has used iron supplements for similar results.

Add exercise to your daily routine. This seems counter-intuitive, but it really works. Exercise does take a lot of energy, but it causes a large cascade of biochemical changes in your body that end up making you feel more energetic over the next day or two. Exercise consistently and the change becomes stronger and longer lasting.

This is part of why I get the “winter blues” – most of my exercising during the spring, summer, and fall happens outside and I don’t exercise nearly enough in the winter. It explains (in part) why I feel much more energetic in March and April than I do in January and February.

There’s no need to go out there and kill yourself. Just go take a brisk walk around your neighborhood each day for twenty or thirty minutes. That’s more than enough to get things headed in a better direction.

Go to sleep earlier. When you have a lot of demands on your plate, it’s often common for people to stay up later and later to squeeze in a few more tasks or to simply enjoy a little bit of extra down time. The problem is that less sleep results in a sense of being tired, particularly over a long period of days.

The solution is obvious: go to bed earlier. This often means that you have to choose some number of tasks to simply not complete, which can be difficult, but if you’re having to make truly difficult choices here, then you’ve got too much packed into your life and this should serve as a wake-up call of sorts that you need to de-commit from a thing or two.

I do this sometimes, where I’ll have a period of several days where I stay up too late and, eventually, I start feeling tired during the days, particularly in the late mornings and afternoons. When that happens, I start forcing myself to go to bed earlier each night and, after a few more days, I feel human again.

I don’t have as many friends as I would like.

I work from home, which means that I don’t have a whole lot of social interaction during the day with coworkers. Most of my social interaction with other people happens during the evenings and on weekends. On the other hand, Sarah has a very social job, so she usually relishes some “quiet time” in the evenings. If I don’t balance things well, I can sometimes wind up feeling somewhat socially isolated, and online shopping can sometimes be a response. Here are three strategies I use to overcome that.

Find social events in your area that match areas of personal interest. No matter what your areas of interest are, if you live in a reasonably well-populated area, you can probably find a social event or two (or a group or two) that match personal interests of your own.

There are several ways to find these groups. One way is to visit Meetup.com and see what activities are happening in your area. Another strategy is to check your community calendar (usually found on your city’s website) or your community library. Another method is to stop by shops in your area that cater to your interests and ask around.

The final step is the most important: go. Put aside the time needed to attend such events and actually go out the door and become a part of them. Talk to people. It’s easy at events like these because the people there are already sharing a common interest, so you already have something to talk about.

Join a volunteer group. A volunteer group is a great option if you don’t have any groups in your area that match your personal interests. Volunteering is a great way to connect with a wide variety of people while also learning all kinds of useful skills, from plumbing and carpentry to large-scale cooking and electrical work.

One great way to start is through Habitat for Humanity, which involves people getting together to use donated materials to build a house for someone in need. People there will help you learn the basic skills you need to help and you’ll be a part of making something that can really change a person’s life.

I personally enjoy volunteering for my town’s parks and recreation department. I’ve coached youth soccer teams, which has been very fulfilling and helped me to connect with a few parents in my area, as well as a few other volunteer opportunities.

Seek out people online in your area that share your interests. This can lead directly to strong one-on-one and small group connections and meetups in public places.

How do you do this? Most hobbies have websites where you can find people who are also interested in that hobby. For example, if you’re interested in board games, there’s BGG. These sites often will help you find others based on location, after which you can chat with them safely online and, if things go well, plan to do things together in public places.

I’ve met several friends due to sites like BGG, and a few of these have developed into strong lasting friendships. These connections started with nothing more than a shared interest.

I don’t like my job.

If you’re feeling unhappy with major aspects of your current job, whether it’s the people, the bureaucracy, or the actual tasks themselves, it’s easy to fall into a malaise where big spending in the evenings and the weekends works as a “numbing” effect. The best solution, though, is to move on to something else, which isn’t as hard as it sounds. I already covered some of these tactics earlier this week in my article on protecting yourself from an unexpected job loss, but they also hold true for pushing your career into new directions.

Bolster your resume with real projects and education. Look at your resume as a ticket to get out of your current job. What can you do at your current job to make your resume actually shine?

The best thing you can do is take on complex projects that simultaneously show off professional skills and leadership ability. If you can claim ownership over an impressive sounding project, it can be a golden part of your resume, one that becomes invaluable when you’re shopping for more work. Focus your energy on knocking a big project out of the park so you can add it to your resume and talk about it in a strong positive light when interviewing.

A similar phenomenon occurs with regards to education. Additional coursework, certification, and degrees are great additions to your resume, and many employers will pay for that additional education. Ask your employer if they offer educational opportunities, then grab that brass ring.

Start building a side gig in an area you care about. What do you really care about? Is it politics? Is it a hobby or personal interest of yours? Now, what can you do to turn that into something that earns a little bit of money?

There are a lot of ways of doing this. If you’re good at building or fixing things, there are always opportunities to earn a few dollars by making things or doing repair work. If you have another passion, you can earn money by sharing your domain knowledge through things like websites or Youtube or Kindle books.

You just need to choose an area that excites you enough that you’ll fill up your spare time with it. If you don’t have that kind of initiative, you won’t be able to make it work.

Build lots of connections within your field. Professional connections are golden. They provide you with advice and ideas within your profession when you need them. They provide people to socialize with. They also can provide great assistance when you’re considering changing jobs, helping you get your foot in the door or sometimes even dropping a job opportunity on your lap.

There are many ways to build a professional network. If there are any social or civic groups involving your profession, get involved there. Get involved in LinkedIn and especially Twitter and get involved in conversations. Start a professionally-oriented blog. Go to professional meetings and conventions and conferences, especially when your employer foots the bill.

Just as important, keep in touch with the people you meet. Collect their business cards and email addresses and Twitter handles and follow up. Touch base with your stronger contacts once a month (at least). As those connections strengthen, they become more and more valuable and provide more and more of a springboard to move to a new (and better) professional situation.

I feel overwhelmed with responsibility.

I think every adult with a demanding career and a family and personal interests and a social circle eventually begins to feel overwhelmed with responsibilities. When your calendar starts to feel overburdened, so do you, and sometimes it can feel like too much even when your calendar seems empty. There are times when the responsibilities I have for my children, my job, my marriage, my friends, and my community commitments can feel like too much and I just want to be free of all responsibility for a while. This can really drag me down and cause me to use “retail therapy.” I’m better off fixing the problem, and here are three approaches to make that happen.

Ask for help, especially in the short term. Often, my responsibilities tend to “peak” at certain times, where my children and my wife and my work and my community responsibilities need my attention all at the same time. That can feel very overwhelming, but it eventually does pass.

The key is to know how to get through those “peak” times, and the best way I’ve found is to simply ask for help from those you trust the most. Talk to your spouse. Talk to your closest friends. Talk to your siblings or your parents. Talk to people you trust at work. Talk to your neighbors. Ask for just a little bit of help in the short term. Let them cover a detail or two so that the sum of all of the things you’re responsible for becomes tolerable.

Sarah and I do this for each other all the time. I’ve often stepped up to the plate to take things off of her mind, and she’s done the same for me. When the weight of responsibility becomes too much, having someone else shoulder a little of it for a while can make all of the difference in the world.

Find ways to step away from some of your responsibilities. If the feeling of being overburdened persists, you need to find a way to step back from a responsibility or two. You’re not useful if you can’t give your full focus to the things in your life.

The thing to remember is that people don’t mind if you step away in a responsible fashion. Give plenty of notice, help your replacement if needed, and make sure the tasks you were charged with are well handled, and people won’t be upset as you step away.

I’ve had to step away from community commitments in the past. I felt guilty for doing so, but by doing it slowly and making sure that everything I needed to do was finished up, it went fine and no one was hurt by it. I’m still friends with people even after stepping away.

Wall off some time for purely personal activities. During a particularly stressful week, I can feel like I’m going to explode. The thing that helps more than anything during those peak stressful moments is the realization that I have some enjoyable activities coming up later in the week.

I wall off part of Sunday to meet with my board gaming club. During stressful moments, I really look forward to that period because it’s a point during the week where I can really de-stress without any responsibilities. Even better, it’s a period of de-stressing that doesn’t involve spending money.

Having that block on my calendar feels good. I can look at it and think, “If I just make it to Sunday, I can kick back with those people for a few hours and have some fun without any stress.” I don’t need a batch of “retail therapy;” instead, I have anticipation of that fun block of time on Sunday.

Final Thoughts

All of us experience periods of unhappiness in our lives, and “retail therapy” can be one way of coping. The problem is that “retail therapy” often causes more problems than it solves, as it rarely eliminates the sources of stress and actually contributes to financial stress.

A much better approach is to find tactics to solve those areas of stress directly. Not only does this help you eliminate stress by getting rid of the problem, it also feels good to simply spend time addressing the actual source of the stress.

Eliminate a source of unhappiness, and you eliminate a big obstacle on your road to financial success.

Good luck!

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