Updated on 12.03.08

Internal and External Signals

Trent Hamm

Semaphore by hermzz on Flickr!Over Thanksgiving and the following weekend, my wife and children and I went back to our home town to visit our families. There were many nice meals, some long and lazy afternoons spent together visiting and playing games, and lots of getting in touch with people we hadn’t seen in years.

One of the big things I notice is that my personal interests are quite a bit different than most of the interests of the people in my hometown. My circle of friends and people I interact with regularly has virtually no overlap with the people there, for starters, and the hobbies and activities we engage in are completely different.

I noticed this most clearly when I was visiting my brother’s home. He’s a skilled hunter of wild game of all kinds – incredibly knowledgeable about hunting techniques, quite patient in his tactics, and very willing to share what he knows (along with some good “fish tales”). The pride he takes in his hobby is almost palpable – his den has several mounted deer heads and a huge collection of other mementos from literally decades of hunting.

When I see his excitement and pride in his hobby, I’m almost tempted to participate myself. I can clearly see the joy he gets from hunting and the passion and fun he has with his hobby comes through so strongly that I’m half-tempted to go register for a license and give it a try next year.

But, as I learned several years ago when I gave it a shot, it’s just not my thing. I decked myself out in hunting gear, picked up all the equipment I needed, and spent a couple cold weekends in the woods, waiting for that big game opportunity. When it came, though, it simply didn’t give me the fulfillment and joy that I thought it would.

When I’m with my brother, I get a ton of positive external signals about the joy of hunting wild game, and when I begin to convince myself that I want to hunt, I’m letting those external signals drive my personal choices.

When I’m alone and have time to reflect, though, my own internal signals take over and I recognize that I actually don’t have a passion for that activity. There are many other things I could be doing with my time that would provide me with substantially more fulfillment than hunting, which would provide me mostly with just a bit of camaraderie.

As I reflect on this, I realize that this same exact phenomenon applies over and over again in my own life – and likely in your own life, too. When we let external signals take control of the situation, we make poor choices with our spending (and with other aspects of our life, for that matter).

Take, for example, the prevalence of SUVs on our block. Many of the families in our neighborhood have a SUV parked in their driveway. Whenever I see those families loading up neatly in the vehicle without the hassle of getting kids into poorly-fitting car seats (as is the case in our own vehicles), and I see the families happily driving off together, the thought of purchasing a SUV goes quickly up on my external yardstick of fulfillment.

But when I’m alone with my own family, either loaded up in the car together or doing something else entirely, I recognize the simple truth that owning a shiny new SUV wouldn’t bring me much fulfillment at all. To me, a car isn’t fulfilling – it’s merely a tool to transport people from one place to another.

Once I realized the distinct difference between external signals and internal signals when it came to my spending dollar, it became much easier to make good choices with my money. Purchases that were heavily reliant on external signals included gadgets, automobiles, golf equipment (I like to golf, but I don’t need the latest driver), and most of my collections. Once I realized that I was mostly buying these because others liked them (and all I was really getting was a bit of camaraderie from the purchase), it became much easier to simply say no to such purchases.

This not only frees up money for saving and planning ahead, but it also leaves more money for the things that actually do fulfill me. I feel fulfilled when I spend quality time with my family. I feel fulfilled by a well-prepared meal. I feel fulfilled by an interesting book. These activities make me feel good whether I’m alone or with others, whether I’m happy or sad. They send true signals of fulfillment throughout my life.

Today, spend some time distinguishing between what actually fulfills you and what things in your environment are sending you false signals. Ask yourself whether or not the things you’re thinking about spending money on are truly things you find value with – or whether the signals you’re getting that drive you to buy it are coming from someone or something else. You might be surprised to find how many things that you feel are completely your own are actually driven by others around you, in both obvious and subtle ways.

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  1. Mike says:

    Wow, I was just having a similar thought lately (except as relating to reading as opposed to spending).

    I read a lot of blogs about entrepreneurship, and I often come across new business models. When I hear somebody describing what they do, I often think “Hey that sounds cool! I should try that!” When somebody else is so genuinely excited about something, it often rubs off on me as well.

    But then after dabbling, I realize that it’s just not for me. I’m better off sticking with what I truly enjoy. (In my case, writing.)

  2. tinybird says:

    Wow what a timely article for me. I’ve been experiencing lately some big external influencing concerning my cube career path, which has led to much confusion and feeling lost on my part. Separating what we really want from what we feel in the moment during a conversation with someone else is very difficult to do without serious introspection.

    Thanks Trent for brining up things that apply to all of life & not just money.

  3. Sassy says:

    Ditto; perfect timing in light of some things I am considering right now. Thank you.

  4. Great post!

    You gave a much simpler way to explain this:
    no satisfaction not equal to dissatisfaction.

    Having a SUV may satisfied your life at the moment, but without the SUV does not mean you will be dissatisfied with your life. Right?

  5. Kevin says:

    Good variation on the “keeping up with the Jones” theme.

  6. Chris says:

    Great points Trent. Especially the way things are today. I think people often get needs confused with wants which are often brought about by other people who are appearing to be living “the good life”. Your SUV story is a great example.

  7. Another Elizabeth says:

    Excellent and practical article! Thank you

  8. cv says:

    I think another way to look at the question is to ask yourself whether you would still value the hobby or item in different circumstances or surrounded by different people. When I moved, I found myself spending less time watching certain tv shows and movies – I had a friendship that was based in large part on discussing pop culture, so I valued the shows more for the social aspect than for themselves – like you mention with hunting. When I moved, though, I still kept in touch with family, immediately got a new library card, and checked out the local farmer’s market, which helped me see that those are things that have real value to me.

  9. PF says:

    This is a really great post and very timely for me as well. I think that I’ll meditate on these concepts on my way home tonight….in my SUV I should add. :-)

    Actually, my SUV happens to be one of my possessions that does give me great pleasure….for example, last night when I had to plow through a wind-blown snowdrift just to get in my driveway. However, that’s why these articles are helpful: distinguishing between needs/wants and desires are so individual and have to come from within each one of us.

  10. Kathy says:

    Very thought provoking article. How often we chase after other people’s dreams instead of our own. This could be one of your best money saving articles.

  11. Tiphaine says:

    ever heard of St Ignatius de Loyola? ;)

  12. Jackie says:

    In trying to live more frugally, this is something I struggle with the most. I do way too much comparing of what I have to what others have, which is another variation of the external question.

  13. michelle says:

    I can definately relate to this because it is not so much saying I want what they have, it is more subtle than that and you don’t even realize how you are influenced by the people around you. For instance, my boyfriend is totally into photography and had all the latest gear that he carries with him everywhere. I’ve always been really into art and liked taking photos, so I immediately got into it too. 6 months later I found myself buying an expensive camera, extra lenses and all the accessories. Now 2 years later, I have barely used the thing, in fact I am asking for a plain old cheap digital camera for Christmas. I still like phototgraphy, but apparently I wasn;t into it enough to lug around this heavy thing, keep up with new technology and spend hours with it. I wish I would have realized that I’m not really that into it before buying all this stuff.

  14. Anne says:

    Fantastic post Trent! I think this is one of your best. I think “keeping up with the Jones” is different from what you’re saying here. If you’re just keeping up you’re not necessarily even getting that many external signals. It could be as bland as, “oh, well everyone has that so I’d better buy it” without much emotion attached to the sentiment. Really, I don’t think everyone really gets that excited about granite counter tops; it’s an “oh, everyone has it? Sure, put them in” upgrade. I think that what you’re describing is much more insidious because in the moment the emotions are valid; but just for that moment. This is definitely something I need to work on.

  15. val says:

    Enjoying your articles. You also have a great relatable style of writing. This article is SO true and surely very much needed in today’s society. I think you hit the nail on the head with where our motivations for “stuff” often comes from.

    Praying for your full recovery from your illness.

  16. KJ says:

    Trent – you are my hero.

  17. An excellent excellent post.
    I never quite thought about it this way, this is how peer pressure works ( in adults).
    I recently felt something similar when we didn’t plan any trip over the long weekend (we dont celebrate thanksgiving). Since I’m not so much into tourism, I was quite ok with our choice…until…a close friend called and told that he and his family were going for a 3 day trip. His call made me introspect whether I was missing out on something by not going places whether I made the right choice…and so on. Suddenly I started feeling bad about staying home. After reading your post, I realize that it must have been his excitement for his trip that got me.

  18. Faith says:

    I promise you that you are FAR safer in your car than your neighbors are in their SUVs. I work with traumatic injury and I’m routinely stunned at how much physical damage is inflicted on the drivers and passengers of SUVs, and how frequently.

    I’ve found external influences, for me, are often well-managed by the “wait 48 hours” rule. That if I really want something 48 hours later, maybe it’s time to consider getting it – but usually, my interest (or at least its intensity) has faded by then.

  19. Camie says:

    This struck a cord with me as well. Living in a large metropolitan city makes this struggle even greater, because one is bombarded with external signals in such vast quantities constantly. From cars, to clothes to personal appearance details (manicures, pedicures, massages, eyebrow shaping, choice of hairstyles, length of skirt, body size, body shape), to job titles, hangout spots, familiarity with popular culture icons, etc. the list is endless. I was actually told once that I was narrow-minded because I don’t like reality shows. Huh, imagine that, being considered less interesting for not watching more TV. Only in America.

  20. beth says:

    This also relates to something I still struggle with, the external influence of what you were raised to believe you were ‘supposed to do’ with your life. You know, that cube job that dad told you to get to provide a steady income for your kids, or the aunt who always asks when you’re going to get married, or that look you get from your mom when you tell her you’re going to quit your job and buy a Eurail pass. It’s the same external force, only closer to home.

  21. Eve says:

    I am not a car person.I drive a 2000 sienna van that hauls 3 kids and their friends, plus a labrador retriever( there is a lot of dog hair) I have no car payment, by back windshield wiper is missing , and lord and behold i have coffee stains between the fronts seats. my point is we have so many laughs in my car and i always get from point a to point b. I know that my kids will remember moms van and they will know what fun is and i hope that one day they will not settle on a higher end car with no crazy/fun memories that we are having now. life is to short live laugh and love

  22. Jessica says:

    Again Trent this is an excellent article. Someone said in the comments that its really stuff like that that makes you shine and they were right. I’ll be buying your book (when it comes out in Canada on the 17th) but I think that articles like this is really where it’s at for me.

    A friend of mine once asked me why I do so much reading on Personal Finance because it’s all the same concepts repeated over and over (and over). The reason I keep reading is because sometimes I need to hear the same thing over and over. The reason I love TSD so much is that you manage to find new twists. You explain something that I already inately know but don’t apply to my life.

    I know how influencable I am, then I step back and I get disappointed that I can’t do that. For example with Steve Pavlina’s big raw diet/juice feasts. Reading his articles, reading about the benefits makes me want to go raw. Then I realize that I just don’t want to make the time, or spend the money on an endeavor like that.

    But what it did do was to encourage me to take baby steps towards eating more fruits and veggies. So I think that you can learn from other people’s actions (the exterior motivators). In the SUV case, you might take an aspect that you admire, say the seats, and take that away when you start looking for your next “new to me” car.

  23. anna says:

    What you are saying is very important. However what Michelle said reminded me of when I was younger. My centers of interest were not yet fully formed and the external influences encouraged me to explore different scenarios.

    Of course I sometimes fell into the trap as well and overspent on activities that I didn’t follow through on. At the same time, I was exposed to certain things that I would otherwise not have encountered on my own, and I am very grateful for that.

    My brother is a great example. He tagged along with some friends scuba diving one day. Suddenly it became his passion in life!

  24. LC says:

    Regarding the SUVs — why have a car at all? Think of all the money one could save with the second biggest expense gone forever! Most of us live close to public transportation. Maybe one is nice for trips and hauling the kids, but once they are grown, who needs one? It is freedom for a young person, and status for a grown up, but at what price? Not worth it. A person could be so much better off without that big expense.

  25. Matt says:

    @LC…. please speak for yourself, not for “most of us.”… I live 35 miles from work. There isn’t really any public transportation within 10 miles of us. I’m pretty sure I need a car. There’s a local grocery store about 1+ mile away, but I’m not walking in subzero degrees to get a gallon of milk, and I’m not biking on icy sidewalks.

    If you live in D.C., New York or other large city where you’re near a subway, or busstop, etc… good for you. But your post is ignorant. Sorry.

  26. Mark B. says:

    What about external forces that point the opposite direction? For example, I live in the Detroit area, which is absolutely devestated right now, and will only get worse if the government turns their back to us and lets the Big 3 fail.

    The external forces in our area say that we are doomed and that leads to 1 of 2 behaviors. 1) Many people feel that they are so deep in the hole financially that they are just spending more and more and at some point plan to walk away from their houses, etc. 2) Others are in super-frugal mode of saving every penny, and forgoing all fun, recreational activities. However, you can see this taking a toll in depression, etc.

  27. On the SUV thing, I can certainly identify especially as we begin to think about having a family.

    For example, both of the vehicles in our household are paid off and we do not have a car payment, however when we tell people we are thinking of having children they immediately begin to think about all of the “things” we need, including a big, “safe”, SUV. I kind of chuckle and think our sedan and small wagon are just fine. If I’m in a negative mood, I’ll start to tell folks that SUVs:

    – have longer braking distances
    – handle very poorly when compared to a sedan
    – do not accelerate well
    – are very heavy and guzzle gas
    – feel less connected with the road
    – etc.

    Great post!

    Vince Scordo

    http://www.scordo.com/blog/blog – a practical living blog

  28. J says:

    Good article, Trent. I’ve definitely felt a lot of the same things and had to stop and think sometimes. But I’ve also had fun “being in Rome” sometimes, stepping out of my life and trying something new.

    And as for SUV envy, I’ve owned both a SUV and a minivan. If you have a family to transport, the minivan runs circles around the SUV in every way imaginable for moving families around.

    @LC — you need to realize that your peer group is most likely not “most of us”.

  29. Kevin says:

    LC – you should really visit the Midwest sometime, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful land in the USA.

    Believe me, I’d love to take public transportation, but my commute would go from a little under 30 min to close to 1 1/2 hours. I’ll take my car, thanks and keep the extra two hours of my life to spend with my son.

  30. Matt B. says:


    This is a great post as it touches home with me on many fronts. It articulates very well the trap many of us fall into not only with our spending, but also with our relationships and general outlook on life. I have a brother-in-law who is similarly enamored with hunting in all forms. When I visit him, I too see his “joy” and excitment with the whole hunting experience and my initial reaction is to jump right in with him when he says “you should come along sometime”. Luckily, over the years I’ve learned (the hard way) that all decisions that involve a fairly sizable investment of time and/or money need a cooling-off period or, as I like to say, a time of “objective analysis”. Often I find that when I remove myself from the over-stimulated environment and “rub my eyes” for a few moments, logic and reason win-out. Thanks for the post.

  31. Love this post. As Dr Wayne Dyer would say, “When you change the way you look at “things”- the “things” you look at change!
    Life energy, life hours- i enjoy your comments so much!

  32. Sally says:

    Re: The SUV. I had an SUV – loved it. However it was paid off and started costing too much $$ in repairs – so I got a “better on gas CAR” – external signal. I had that for a year or so and got reareneded and it was totalled. So what did I do? I got another SUV! The price had come down substantially! For me – it was a internal signal – that’s what works for me! :)

  33. Sheri says:

    Thank you so much for having posted this article. Its message is simple yet very powerful and immensely helpful. I was also touched by Kathy’s comment, #8, because it really made me stop and think. I’ve wasted more time and energy than I care to admit chasing other people’s dreams…

  34. asithi says:

    I think it is the enthusiasm and positive vibe I get from my friends and family that sometimes make me want to try new things. I am usually open to finding other hobbies that I might like. However, there are certain things I know that do not align with my core values such as shopping every weekend. I only see friends that like shopping occasionally.

    As for SUV, we love ours. My husband worked in construction for a while and he was able to load all kinds of equipment in it. And when we do on road trips, there is often plenty of room for others to join us. Though sometimes I feel a little embarrassed driving around town when there is only two of us because it makes me feel like a yuppie.

  35. Kim says:

    That pressure can work in the opposite way as well. I am often restrained from doing things I really want to do because I hear in my head the disapproving comments of friends and family. “How can you afford that?” For instance, we really love our local NFL team, but have only been to two games ever. I feel the need to explain each time we have gone how the tickets were given to me or how we won them in an auction. Each of us make our own choices about how we spend money, but I am reminded that I need to determine how I spend my money independent of the external input. My husband and I should be the one’s deciding what is importatnt to us, not family or friends. I wonder how many fun things I have prevented my husband from doing so that we wouldn’t be criticized. Hmmm.

  36. April says:

    I loved this article! I love when people are excited about things – it’s very contagious – so even if I’m not all that interested in something I want to share in their excitement by participating and that often means money. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it like this before so this is great to have in mind next time I want to pick up paintball or some other silly thing. Thanks!

  37. Rich says:

    Note: search for “narrow car seats” and you’ll find that there are seats out there that are quite a bit narrower than the average. I haven’t yet bought one of the more narrow ones, but I’ll have to say that every inch counts on those things. Look into it next time you’re looking for one.

  38. Catherine in Miami says:

    Trent, I love your Web site. If only I had read this article a year ago!

    Influenced by the “gotta own real estate to build your net worth” ethic, I left a lovely small rental home to buy a condo, figuring this was the right time to enter the market. I got a great deal ($12K under appraisal).

    There’s only one problem…I hate it. I hate condo living, I miss having a yard (in Florida, you live outdoors most of the year), I left treasured friends and neighbors in my old community…you get the picture.

    And, in an economic climate of job loss, insecurity and foreclosures, the five-member condo board has just decided to increase the maintenance fee by $100 per month to create reserves for new pool furniture and gym equipment (there’s nothing wrong with what we have now).

    I feel that my financial life is no longer under my control and, while I’m looking forward to my federal income tax break, I wonder if the quality of life deficit is worth it.

    Had I read this article before I bought, I would have realized that the standard advice…”own real estate so you can build your net worth” is an external influence. Internally, I was just fine with my little rented cottage, but I felt I was somehow slacking, not being smart about my finances, not getting with the program of home ownership.

    Now, I can’t wait to get out of here, and I know it’s going to cost me. So much for listening to conventional wisdom.

  39. Noblejoker says:

    This is an excellent article (well all except the hunting references)

    We have been considering a new car purchase and I recognise in myself the exact external/internal conflict you describe with regards what type of car to buy

    Thanks for helping me learn something about myself today!

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