Making All The Right Moves, Yet Still Unhappy

After my recent article about personal finance and happiness, I received the following email from a reader named “Constance”:

I’ve always been pretty responsible with my money and lived a frugal life, especially over the last few years with my husband in school full-time. But what would you say to someone like me who doesn’t find joy when saving money, but rather, I feel like I can never save enough? Mone y is still a constant source of worry.

We only have about a month’s worth of expenses in an emergency fund, and it’s been hard to keep it up. We have a house to maintain, tuition, books, etc. When things like the brakes go, I tend to put it on the credit card because I’m afraid a real emergency will come and we’ll need the meager emergency fund.

I feel like we have cut back on everything possible – trying to get the most of our cars, no cable TV, very limited eating out, clipping coupons, shopping at multiple stores to get the best deals, walking instead of driving where possible, only getting each other token gifts at Christmas and birthdays — you get the idea.

Money is always on my mind, probably to the point of obsession and it’s frustrating to know we’re doing everything in our power and it’s not enough. I feel like we’re just barely keeping our heads above water. While I’ve tried keeping our credit card debt to a minimum, it still hovers around $1500 with the unforeseen expenses like new brakes.

Any advice or insight you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

First of all, it’s easy to tell by this story that the financial difficulty is a relatively short term thing. Your husband is in school right now full time, which means that rather than being an income provider, he is currently being an income drag in order to put himself in a position to earn much more later (or to at least be much more fulfilled at work). This situation will pass and in a few years, you’ll look back at right now and realize the sacrifices were worth it.

The problem is getting through the now, though, and here’s my advice.

Tips for Getting Through Tough Times

1. Be creative

For example, you mention “only getting each other token gifts at Christmas and birthdays.” If this weren’t important to you, I would suspect you would cut this out as well, but why not get each other a gift like a ten pack of CFLs? My wife and I have given each other similar gifts over the last year – it gives us a chance to open gifts, and we both understand the sentiment of both love (we’re in this boat together) and true utility behind it. Most people wouldn’t think of CFLs as a nice gift, but in your situation (and in our recently-escaped situation), gifts like these that truly speak to your situation and the boat you both share can be truly romantic.

2. Produce your own food

You mention having your own home – start a vegetable garden in the back. Even if you just grow three tomato plants (which are pretty easy to care for), you’ll have an absolute flood of tomatoes each year. Learn how to freeze whole tomatoes and also to make tomato sauce and you’ve just given yourself a pile of free food for the next year. It reduces the cost of making a delicious pasta dinner to a few cups of flour and a few eggs.

3. Treat your emergency fund like an actual emergency fund

The brakes going out on your car was an emergency – you should have tapped your fund for that, then focused on rebuilding the fund after the brakes were repaired. If you’re not spending an emergency fund out of fear of another emergency, it’s not actually being used as a tool, but as an emotional crutch. If you have more than a thousand in your emergency fund right now, use the excess to get rid of the credit card debt immediately and focus on paying it down instead of building more emergency fund. If you don’t do that, the debt will continue to weigh on you, both emotionally and financially.

4. Find ways to give yourself hope

One major undertone of what you wrote is a sense of hopelessness, that nothing’s ever going to get better than it is right now. Your mind should realize that it will, but that often doesn’t help the heart. For me, what worked was finding constant motivation in the form of my son. Every time I looked at him as he’s grown from a baby to a toddler, I’ve realized that the future holds a lot of possibility if I make good choices now, because his life is all about that future. Perhaps you can draw the same from what your husband is studying – apparently, he’s making a career shift right now, so he must be moving into something he’s more passionate about. Draw from that passion – use it to realize that you are making great choices every day that enables this career shift. If you need to visualize a goal, imagine his graduation or the job he will get after that.

Good luck.

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