Updated on 04.27.17

Happiness and Spending Less Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

Trent Hamm

Boredom. Sadness. Jealousy. Frustration. Anger. Loneliness. Hopelessness.

Those are emotional responses that I hear about all the time from readers who are struggling with adapting to spending less money. At first, they find it to be a fun adventure, but over time, that “honeymoon” wears off and negative feelings begin to set in.

I’ll be the first to say that those negative feelings can be hard to deal with. I’ve dealt with them myself many times. It’s easy to get so caught up in the things that you don’t have, especially when they came so easy for you in the recent past. When a behavior was just a normal part of your life not all that long ago, it was likely because that behavior brought something positive into your life (even if it was balanced out by negative elements), and those negative emotions are the natural response to losing those positives.

Here’s the hook: Having those feelings is fine, but getting lost in them and giving up because of them is not.

Happiness and keeping your spending under control aren’t mutually exclusive states, even if it feels tough right now. Here are some practical things you can do right now to help bring those two things together.

Explore tons of new experiences.

Fill up your calendar with things you’ve never done before that you can dabble in without much expense. Go to a community game night and play a new board game. Go to a farmers market. Go to a religious service. Bake a loaf of bread. Listen to a podcast. Grab three balls and teach yourself how to juggle. Learn how to change the oil in your car. Introduce yourself to all of your neighbors. Go to a meetup. Go to a free community concert. Go to a free community theater event. Participate in a community theater event. Join a fantasy sports league. Go to the library and check out an interesting book to read. Teach yourself how to knit (this will cost about $3 in supplies). Take a ton of digital photographs of every beautiful place or thing you can think of and share them online. Visit a free museum. Learn about a topic that interests you. Make some origami. Make a YouTube video on a topic that excites you. Learn calligraphy with a ballpoint pen. Learn the basics of drawing. Practice jumping rope. Experiment with different bodyweight exercises. I can list this stuff all day long.

Remember, boredom is a choice. If you’re bored, it’s because you’re choosing to be bored. The world around you offers more avenues for exploration and experiences than a human ever has time to dig into in their life. If you choose to sit at home on the couch and be bored, that’s on you, not on your spending habits.

Start a gratitude journal.

Each day, spend a few minutes thinking about five things you’re grateful for in your life as it is right now. What things do you already have that you appreciate? You can do this with a pen and any old notebook, or you can make an electronic journal using Evernote.

Here, I’ll start you off. Here are five things I’m grateful for today.

1. I’m grateful for the warm weather today, because I can just go outside whenever I like in a t-shirt and jeans and feel perfectly comfortable. I love the freedom of being able to just walk out my front door and go!

2. I’m grateful for my wife’s preparedness and how she thinks of things and prepares for them even when I miss them completely. She packed the backpack of our youngest child with a few items I hadn’t even thought about.

3. I’m grateful for my mother’s gentle cheeriness. She always manages to find that right amount of joyfulness when I talk to her that raises my mood without being annoyingly over-the-top cheerful.

4. I’m grateful for having some extra time today to fill however I want. Things clicked nicely into place to give me a nice window of unexpected free time.

5. I’m grateful for my daughter’s singing voice when she really concentrates on singing well. She’s got a very impressive vocal range with a low end that’s startlingly low for a girl of her age, and when she uses it well, it’s gorgeous.

All of those things are essentially “free” things that make my life better, and spending just a moment or two reflecting on them makes me realize that my life is quite abundant without spending a dime. In fact, if you make gratitude journaling a consistent thing, you’ll eventually wind up with the feeling that your life is incredibly abundant even without that extra spending you once indulged in.

Volunteer to help those less fortunate.

Quite often, we allow ourselves to be lulled into a state of believing that we have a bad lot in life, that the deck is stacked against us and that everyone has it better than we do. That type of thinking can quickly swirl into a backlash against spending self-control.

The most useful strategy for fighting against that cycle of thinking is to intentionally expose yourself to people who are substantially less fortunate than you, as it becomes a clear reminder of all of the fortune you actually do have in your life.

If you spend your time volunteering to help people who are struggling with physical, emotional, financial, professional, and other types of severe challenges in your life, it can make you aware very quickly that your life is incredibly blessed by not having those challenges facing you. Understanding all of the wonderful advantages you already have in life is an incredibly powerful way to put negative emotions about spending to have even more into check. You already have an abundance of goodness in your life, so why sacrifice your future to try to toss even more stuff onto a bountiful plate?

Use your financial progress as a point of personal pride by setting up a progress chart.

Whenever I’m feeling negative about making better day-to-day life choices, I often find that my positive feelings about those choices are greatly helped by actually seeing the progress I’ve made. For me, this takes the form of a simple line that plots my net worth over time, a line that’s steadily pointing upwards.

When I look at that line, a line that starts several years ago at a point well below zero and goes steadily upward to a net worth far beyond what I honestly believed I would achieve in life when I started, I feel a blossoming of pride in my gut. My efforts really are worth it. They really have changed things. When I look at that starting point, I find myself remembering the worry and pain of my situation when I started this journey and how I’ve effectively melted away the sources of those worries.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished – not in the beat-my-chest-about-it-all-day-long kind of way, but in the warm way that fills my chest up and fuels me throughout the day.

Try doing the same. Make yourself a chart that tracks your financial progress. Make sure to include your low point, that starting point that was so bad you felt compelled to change. When you feel down about things, look at that progress you’ve made and feel proud of it. You should feel proud!

Come up with some low-cost social activities for you and your friends and invite them to participate.

Have a potluck dinner party. Meet to play Frisbee at the park. Have a board game night or a card game night. Spend a day together doing a home improvement project at one friend’s house, then spend another day doing one at another friend’s house, and so on. Volunteer together for a political or social cause you both care about. Go to the beach together. Go on a hike together. Go to a museum together. Start a book club and request a bunch of copies of that book from the library. Make some homemade foods together (like a giant batch of home-brewed beer). Make a ton of meals in advance together for each of you to pop in the freezer.

There are tons and tons and tons of ways to do social things without cracking open your wallet. Loneliness brought on by a sense that you have to spend money to hang out with people is the result of a lack of imagination or a lack of a will to suggest anything, not by the false idea that saving money has to be anti-social.

Use the abundance of stuff in your closets.

If you’re like me, you have items from a bunch of different hobbies stowed away in your closet. Dig them out and dig into those hobbies.

In just the last few months, I dug out a few pieces of home exercise equipment and started using them regularly. I dug out a calligraphy set and made some calligraphy with my daughter and oldest son (my youngest one preferred to make “ink stains on the table” rather than calligraphy). I found some paints and some miniatures and spent a rainy afternoon painting them with my children and my wife. I found some old piano books, gave them to my daughter, and went through a few of the songs with her. I found a harmonica and dusted off my rusty skills.

Almost all of us have items in our closets that are keys to unlocking some of our deepest interests. They just got stuck in the closet in a moment of hurry and then life got in the way. Dig them out. Explore them again. You may find more joy than you think.

Don’t consume substances that contribute to melancholy.

For many people, alcohol can fill them with a sense of melancholy and sadness; for others, alcohol just amplifies whatever they’re feeling anyway, so it can amplify sadness. Many other substances have similar effects on one’s mood; they can make an already sad mood even worse and can amplify problems.

Your best bet is to avoid all of that stuff if that’s how it affects you. If drinking makes you feel sad, particularly if you find yourself drinking alone, just stop. Take a break from it. Don’t let a substance drag you down into a pool of melancholy.

It can be hard to break an addiction. Focus on taking one day at a time. Surround yourself with supportive people who aren’t also tied into that addiction. Look for new things in life. It won’t be easy, but it is possible. I’ve watched loved ones break substance habits and addictions; I know you can do it.

Get eight hours of sleep a night.

The science is becoming more and more clear that the further a person deviates from eight hours of sleep, the more likely they are to have adverse health and psychological effects. It can be really, really tempting sometimes to sleep less than eight hours per night – I know it’s true for me – and for some, more than eight hours of sleep is a temptation, but you should be shooting for a long-term average of eight hours of sleep per night.

Some common effects of not getting enough sleep in the short term include mood swings, irritability, lack of clarity of thought, dissatisfaction, and lack of productivity. Many people who consistently get less sleep than necessary essentially fold their personality around these effects and thus don’t see the negatives, but they’re virtually always there.

If you find yourself really struggling with negative feelings regarding your spending choices, get some sleep. Try to push your weekly average toward eight hours per night and see how that makes you feel. Remember, if the options are watching another hour of Netflix or getting another hour of sleep, sleep is almost always the better choice.

Get outside.

There are simply a ton of benefits to spending time outside each day. We live in a world that encourages staying indoors most of the time, but our bodies and minds are designed to spend significant time outdoors. The various biological and chemical effects of being outdoors have profound positive effects on a person’s mindset and health.

If you’re not sure where to start, start by going on a nature walk at a park. Just stroll through the woods at your own pace. If you feel like you need to be doing something, listen to a podcast or an audiobook, but there’s a lot of value in just tossing distractions and enjoying the moment. There’s quite a lot of evidence of the mental and physical health benefits of so-called “forest bathing”.

Going outside is completely free. It raises your mood. It clears your mind. It helps improve your health. It puts your focus on things that don’t involve spending money. It’s just an all-around win.

Get some exercise.

Almost everything that I just wrote about going outside also applies to exercise. It’s something you can do for free. It’s something that has proven physical and mental health benefits. It’s something you can do to take your mind off of spending. It’s just a win in every dimension.

You don’t have to rush out there and start killing yourself, either. Take it easy. Go on a walk. Do what my son likes to do, which is turn on music he likes and do a martial arts form to the rhythm. Pick up some weights.

I want to pause here for a moment and note that the last three items – getting more sleep, going outside, and getting some exercise – are all strategies for which there are proven mental and physical health benefits. Of course, this begs the question of how exactly that ties into being happier with spending less. The answer is simple: all three of those activities are free activities that have demonstrable positive effect in terms of lifting your overall mood and sense of well being. No matter what is going on in your life, better sleep, more outdoor time, and more exercise will put you in a better mindset. You’ll be less likely to fall into mental states that are governed by negative emotions, and thus you are less likely to harbor negative feelings about the changes in your spending.

In simplest terms, if you do things that are known to improve your overall mood and sense of well-being, you’re less likely to be pulled down into negative moods by your spending choices.

Talk to a trusted friend.

My final tactic is to simply spend some time talking to a friend that you deeply trust. It might be a sibling or a close lifelong friend or a parent or an adult child with which you have a strong relationship. You just need to identify someone in your life who cares deeply for you, even with your flaws, that you deeply trust.

Just talk to that person. Let the conversation flow freely. Talk about whatever’s on your mind and your heart. Listen to what they have to say, and ask questions to learn more about their challenges and ideas. Let the conversation go on and on until you’re both in a pleasant place of being talked out, then hug or shake hands and go on your merry way.

Why do this? First of all, such deep social contact is an incredible mood lifter. Strong relationships are also a powerful reminder of the abundance that we already have in life. Furthermore, these kinds of conversations often serve the valuable purpose of relieving some of the mental and emotional burdens we’re carrying, which can make it easier to handle other challenges in our lives.

As you progress through the challenges of changing your financial life for the better, remember that there are always positive actions you can take today to keep yourself on a good financial track, even when you’re not feeling happy about the immediate state of things in your life. You can overcome those melancholic moments without simply throwing money at the problem.

Good luck.

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