Memories Are Made of This

A little over a year ago, I began trying a new idea in my personal journal. Each day, I wrote down the five best things that happened to me that day.

I started this as a way to reflect on the positive things in my life and, psychologically, it’s been a very positive thing. I can browse through those lists and realize how good my life is, even when times feel kind of tough. Each day, I sit down and reflect on all of the good things that happened in my life. In the end, it’s really raised my mood and helped me to reflect on the wonderful aspects of my life.

Once I crossed the one year mark with this, I decided to take a tally of the things I had written down. How many involved my kids? How many involved my wife?

And perhaps most interestingly to you, how many of the entries involved spending money?

Here are the results (rounded to the nearest percentage).

61% of the entries had nothing whatsoever to do with spending money. They involved things like going to the park, playing in the yard with my kids, holding my wife, having a nice conversation with someone, or so on.

Another 35% of the entries had only the most tangential relationship to spending money. Preparing a meal, for example – I did have to buy the food to prepare it. Playing a board game with my wife or my friends – the board game did have to be purchased at some point.

Only about 3% of the entries had to do directly with consumer activities. Many of these were good feelings about finding a bargain or about talking myself out of buying entirely.

The good moments in my life are the ones where I don’t spend money. The happiness comes from spending time with my family and with my friends. It comes from writing and from learning new things and from pushing my mind. It comes from conversation and companionship. It comes from intellectual growth and reading.

It doesn’t come from trips to bookstores or to the coffee shop. It doesn’t come from browsing the shelves at the local electronics shop. It doesn’t come from ordering some stuff online. Those things might give me a burst of good feeling, but when I think of them even just a bit later – at the end of the day – I usually feel a mix of good and bad, since I feel some regret at the money spent.

Instead, the purely good feelings come from the free things in life. The hug from my daughter when she runs in the house. A giant high-five from my son. A wink from my wife. A delicious made-from-scratch dinner. A game of Ticket to Ride after the kids are asleep. A kiss.

If you doubt the truth of this, try it yourself. Give it one week. Here’s what I challenge you to do.

For one week, don’t spend any money at all on non-essentials. Just one week. Give up those little mood boosters. Don’t stop by the bookstore or the clothes shop. Do none of it – for just one week.

Every night that week, reflect on your day and make a list of the best five things that happened. Just keep them in a little notebook.

At the end of the week, review your seven lists and think back over your week. Are you missing out on any major happiness in your life by trimming your spending? Sure, you might be actually missing a thing or two, but you’ll likely be surprised how happy your life is without spending money.

And the benefits are tremendous. If you radically trim your non-essential spending, it suddenly becomes much easier to build an emergency fund. It becomes much easier to become debt free. It becomes much easier to save for the big dreams you’ve always had, like starting a business or building a house exactly like what you want. It becomes much easier to retire early. It becomes much easier to support the social causes you care about.

The great things in your life don’t come from spending money with reckless abandon.

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