Investment from the Inside Out

When we talk about investments on a personal finance site, we’re usually discussing things that you can buy for a certain amount of money that will, in theory, provide a return on that money. Stocks, bonds, real estate, porkbelly futures – you get the idea.

Such investments are a valuable thing to know about, of course, but it just scratches the surface of investing. You actually invest all the time, whether you realize it or not.

I prefer the broader definition of investing: an act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result. That worthwhile result doesn’t have to be money at all – it can be a good relationship or an improvement in your health or anything else.

To me, a successful life is one in which you are constantly investing for the future as part of your daily routine. Here are 10 examples of investments that go beyond index funds and corn futures.

Exercising Regularly

Exercise is an example of investing time and energy in order to produce improved health, strength, energy, and body shape. Obviously, human exercise is a very broad topic with lots of different options that provide different health benefits and appeal to different people, from weightlifting to cardio exercising (and many other options) and from low-impact things to high-impact things.

For example, you might spend an hour each day going on a brisk walk in your neighborhood. When the weather isn’t sub-zero (as it is right now), this is something I really enjoy doing. It provides some low-impact exercise and gets your blood flowing. You can select your pace as you go, speeding up for a while and slowing down when you need a rest.

On the other hand, you might also adopt a true workout routine at home three times a week or so. There’s an infinite array of home workout routines out there, including ones that only require your body weight. You can also take classes at your local gym or fitness center or define your own routines there. Naturally, this takes some additional research and (likely) some effort trying out different things to see what works for you.

You might also simply adopt some hobbies that integrate some level of vigorous exercise, such as hiking in the woods or playing basketball. During the spring, I love hiking around in the woods, as I enjoy hunting for morel mushrooms. In my younger days, I played basketball in a recreational league which was incredibly fun and provided a social outlet along with the exercise.

Taking a Class

Taking a class is an example of investing time and mental energy in order to acquire new ideas and skills. The process also helps you with mastering the process of learning, which is itself a valuable skill in the information age.

You could use this as the start of working toward a professional degree or certification, which could earn you more money and can be quite fun if you really enjoy your field. Many fields offer professional certifications and almost every field offers higher academic degrees that can improve your career standing and career opportunities directly.

You might also simply take a class in an area you’re interested in for personal reasons. I do this regularly and, in fact, it’s something of a resolution of mine this year to dig even deeper into taking classes. I simply like digging into topics that interest me. You can do this for free online, as there are many college level classes with full lectures online, or you can actually sign up for a class at your local college or an online university.

Another option is to take a class to build a skill in an area that you’ve always been interested in that may or may not ever have professional application. I’m also doing this this year, as I’m taking some classes in advanced Photoshop techniques (I know how to use it well, but I’m not a wizard) and some more basic classes in Adobe Illustrator and InDesign. I’m far from a graphic designer, but I find value in learning the skills of the trade. I may just find some opportunities to use these skills down the road.

Building a New Friendship

Building a new friendship is an example of investing time in order to build a richer social network as well as a friend you can rely on. I find, again and again, that having strong friendships with people I have things in common with provides value in almost every dimension of my life – social, professional, personal, spiritual, emotional, and physical. Friendships make my life better, but it takes work to find good friends and build strong friendships with them.

One way to do this is to set aside time to get involved in a community group you’re interested in. If there’s a topic or an activity you’re passionate about, get involved with community organizations related to that topic. I’m involved with two different community groups for board gaming, for example, and have planted seeds for friendships within both of them.

Another option is to start fostering a stronger connection with someone you already know. Invite that person (or that couple or that family) over for dinner. Find things to do socially with this person. If the person needs help with something, offer it with no expectation of anything in return. You’ll be surprised what blossoms.

Making Meals in Advance

Making meals in advance is an example of investing time now in order to save more time later on. It can also save you money because you can take advantage of bulk buying on the ingredients because you’re making several similar or identical meals at once. Since it takes less time to make four identical meals at the same time than it does to make them separately, time is saved, too.

One good strategy here is to simply make a bunch of casseroles and freeze them. I often make four tuna noodle casseroles at the same time, boiling all of the needed noodles at once and opening all of the tuna at once while the noodles are cooking. We’ll have one for dinner that night, then the others hit the freezer to be thawed and cooked at a later date for a very easy dinner (put it in the refrigerator a day early, then bake it in the oven for 45 minutes when the time is appropriate by taking it straight from the refrigerator to the oven).

You can also make a giant batch of a soup or stew, separate it into smaller batches, and freeze them, too. Again, we’ll just eat our dinner out of that giant batch of soup and then we’ll freeze the rest in gallon Ziploc bags. A big vat of soup will make four or five bags for storage. When it comes time to use them, all you have to do is thaw and heat it up. It’s so easy.

Another strategy is to make easy soup or simple meal kits that make it very easy to fix a meal. If your soup is based solely on dried ingredients or only require one or two fresh items, it’s perfect to mix up in a jar or a bag for later use. This French market soup is a great example of this type of soup – just pull out the mix, let it soak overnight, and then very easily cook it by raising it to a boil for a while. We just use frozen diced onions and a can of tomatoes along with the mix.

Maintaining Your Home and Vehicle

Home and vehicle maintenance is an example of investing time and energy now in order to save a lot of time, some money, and some energy later on. Maintaining your possessions extends their lifespan, which means lower replacement costs and avoids time spent dealing with a breakdown and time spent shopping for a replacement.

A good first step in this department is to simply follow the maintenance recommendations in your car’s owner manual. Every car provides a clear maintenance schedule that tells you, based on your mileage, what maintenance needs to be done. Most of the maintenance tasks are actually quite easy – you can do them yourself at home, in fact.

You might also want to do simple things for your car like washing it or airing up your tires to the maximum recommended pressure. Washing your car extends the life of the body, keeping paint peeling and rusting at bay, while airing up your tires helps extend the life of your tires while also improving your fuel efficiency.

Around the house, you can do things like changing your air handling filter or re-sealing your windows. These little steps help extend the life of your heating and cooling systems and your windows, putting replacement further off into the future while also improving their efficiency today.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is an example of investing time now in order to produce energy and focus later on. This article from the Mayo Clinic sums up some of the common tactics for good sleep, as well as the many benefits, both short term and long term.

My preferred strategy here is to simply go to sleep earlier in the evening. Doing so makes the alarm clock a lot less painful in the morning and, in fact, sometimes I rise naturally on my own. I usually feel quite rested in the mornings, though if you had told me ten years ago that I would often go to bed at nine in the evening, I wouldn’t have believed you.

If you’re in a family with children, sleeping in is something that rarely happens, so Sarah and I often alternate mornings of sleeping in without an alarm clock. Sometimes I’ll get up with the kids, sometimes Sarah will. It usually has more to do with who’s had a more challenging week, as this most often happens on Saturday mornings.

Another strategy is to combine this with vigorous mental and physical exercise so that you’re worn out at the end of the day. I don’t sleep well if I haven’t had a busy day, but if the day has been a full one, I rest well and awaken refreshed. Our bodies and minds are made to be active.

Spending Time with Family

Spending time with your family is an example of investing time now for lasting social and emotional benefits later on. A continued tight relationship with your parents and your children and your siblings can provide lasting support throughout your life in almost every dimension.

One method is to have some “electronics free” hours at home. Have a basket where everyone can drop their cell phones and tablets, then find some non-electronic things to do together. Make supper together. Play games together. Work on a home improvement project together.

Another tactic is to plan for a family dinner as many nights of the week as possible. We make a great effort to have family dinners as often as possible, and it was something that both Sarah and I did as we were growing up. We still have a tight bond with our parents and every night at the dinner table we can feel that bond with our children growing.

A final tip: have a family “game night” and/or “movie night” on a given weeknight. Around here, Friday nights are movie night and, often, Wednesday evening is game night. More than anything, it’s a good reason to just spend some time together as a family.

Developing a Personal Organization System

Developing a personal organizational system is an example of investing time and mental energy now to save a lot of time and energy later on. It can take some real time to get a good system in place, but the benefits are worth it – you’re never at a loss for what to do next and you’re never distracted by trying to remember stuff when you’re trying to focus.

Some people, including myself, like the Getting Things Done system. This takes a ton of effort up front, but once it’s working, it’s almost addictive. It’s simply a system where you don’t store anything in your head, but instead put it in a place where you can trust that you will find it again when you need it.

If I weren’t invested in GTD, I’d probably switch over to the bullet journal system. It’s much simpler than GTD with many of the same benefits. It’s less structured, though, so unless you’re good at organizing your thoughts, it can end up being chaotic.

Some people like to use software packages like Todoist or Remember the Milk. These are great tools for providing structure for all of the things you need to take care of, but each system has its quirks that you’ll have to learn.

Building a Professional Network

Building a professional network is an example of investing time (and a little energy) now in order to gain professional and personal opportunities and assistance later on. Even now, I tap my professional network from the career path I walked away from in 2008 – it was just that strong.

One good strategy is to spend a little time each day getting in touch with professional associates you haven’t talked to in a while. Send an email or a message on Facebook or LinkedIn asking what that person is up to. What kind of projects are they working on? Don’t talk about yourself – ask about them.

Another good strategy is to introduce people to each other if you think they’ll have things in common. If you know two unconnected people who might have some valuable things to share, introduce them, either face-to-face or electronically. I have hosted dinner parties in the past with the sole purpose of introducing people to each other.

A final good tactic is to look for opportunities for team-based work with new people and get them actively involved. Collaborative tasks in the workplace can sometimes get a bad rap when there’s unequal distribution of work, but sometimes people are just unsure of their role. Dive in and help everyone find something that they can really contribute. This is leadership 101 stuff, but non-pushy leaders who simply try to connect people with sensible tasks are awesome and can build incredible professional relationships.

Having a Weekly Review

Spending time each week reviewing your week (or each day reviewing your day) is an example of investing time (and a little energy) to recoup a lot of time and energy during subsequent weeks. It gives me a chance to look at the good and the bad in my life and figure out what that’s telling me about where I’m going.

I like to spend an hour going over the things that went well and the things that went poorly in the past week. I try to make a list of ten of each of those things. I’ll literally pull out my pocket notebook and make lists of ten things that went well and ten things that didn’t, writing it down on paper rather than just thinking about it. This really helps organize my thoughts.

For each thing that went well, I try to figure out what made that good thing click and how I can use that in my life in the future. Why did this go well? Was it because I gave it a lot of time and energy? Is it because I invested in it up front? Is it just luck, and if so, how can I set myself up for more “luck” in the future?

For each thing that didn’t go well, I look for ways to figure out why it went wrong and how to fix it in the future. For example, if I didn’t exercise during that week, why didn’t I exercise? Is there a problem with my schedule? Do I not like the exercise routine? What needs to be changed to make this work in my life? These kinds of little “fixes” makes challenging things possible when I might have just given up on them otherwise.

Have an “Investment Day” or “Investment Weekend”

One great way to “kickstart” these ideas is to have an “investment day” or an “investment weekend” where you devote your entire day (or whole weekend) to things that are “investments” for the future. You could just get a great night of sleep, make a bunch of meals in advance, work on getting yourself set up with an organizational system, get some thorough exercise, start an online class, and go to a community event or two to meet some new people – and then follow up with the ones that seem like they’re going to provide the returns that you want in your life.

I actually try to spend an hour or two every day on these kinds of investments. Because I’m making that choice right now, even though there may be other options that might be more purely fun right now, I’m building a future that’s a lot better than I would have had otherwise.

If you’re not into this kind of personal investment, just set aside a day to explore it. Find out for yourself how time and energy investments right now can turn into more time and energy (and many other valuable things) down the road. Then, over time, start adding bits and pieces to your life.

You’ll be incredibly glad you did.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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