Updated on 10.21.09

Memories Are Made of This

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Joanna says:

    Love this post, Trent. I’ve heard of gratitude journals before, but it’s a really cool way to analyze it.

  2. Vicky says:

    This is great. I’ve kept a personal journal over the past 6 years – but it’s mostly filled with negativity and rants and bout things that make me angry.

    It might be a good idea to try out writing out the good things and spending no money. I will give this a try over the next week, thanks for the suggestion!

  3. Johanna says:

    I don’t think the enjoyment is supposed to come from spending the money, but rather, from using the things you spent it on. For example, if your memorable experience is a restaurant meal (as many of mine are), the enjoyable part is eating the food, not paying the bill.

  4. Cara says:

    I think some of my moments of most enjoyment do come from activities that cost some money – for example, few things in the world make me happier than skiing and traveling. Both can be quite expensive. I’m sure in the big picture, though, these would only represent a small percentage of my overall happiness points- because I can’t spend every day on the mountain or on a beach in Thailand!

  5. Chelsea says:

    So true. Heaven for me will involve two activities: playing cards with my parents and brother and singing while my husband plays the guitar.

    This post actually comes at a relevant time for me. I moved to a new city and a new job so my husband could get his PhD. I spent most of the last year feeling out of place and like I was in kind of a “life limbo”. However, we had our annual work chili potluck last Wednesday, and it was then that it hit me that I really do enjoy my job and I am very happy with my life here. I’m sure I’ve known it for awhile, but it took an occasion for it to become obvious to me.

  6. It’s true what they say – the best things in life are free! Hearing someone laugh with happiness, seeing someone’s face light up when you do something nice for him/her, having a great discussion and learning from another person’s opinion or perspective – those are all such speial and memorable experiences because of the genuine connection you are making with that person. It’s a deeper kind of happiness than just buying an item on sale or buying whatever item catches you eye at the moment.

  7. Patty says:

    As I expected from you – you have found the what is truly important in life! Congratulations.

    when I read your writting, I know I can still come away with something new or a new slant.


  8. Johanna says:

    To elaborate on what I said earlier: If the very act of spending is what’s enjoyable, that sounds to me like a compulsive shopping problem of some degree. But just because it’s not that doesn’t mean that you’d be just as happy if you stopped spending money. It’s that category of using things that you spent money on – it’s 35% of Trent’s breakdown, and I’ll bet that for some people (like me) it would be much higher than that.

    In fact, it seems to me that at least some of the things in Trent’s 61% had some connection to spending money. How did he get to the park? What did he play with in the yard? (How much did he pay for the yard?) Do he and his wife have a comfy bed with nice pillows and sheets that contributed at all to their enjoyment there? Did he travel someplace to have that nice conversation in person? Or did he have it over the phone, or over the computer?

    Spending money on nonessentials isn’t everything, and it isn’t even the main thing. But it’s not evil.

  9. Susan says:

    I think this is a good idea. I’m going to try this out over the next week and will let you know what I think after 7 days.

  10. st says:

    There’s an app for that. ;-)

    Anyone interested in recording 5 memories each day should check out Memiary.com. You can record your thoughts via the website or iPhone app, and then you can generate lists, reports, and even books of your memories I think. It features tags, so you could use it to record, say, diet or exercise things. You can even generate an RSS feed from your memories that others can subscribe to.

  11. KC says:

    What a great idea. I am going to try this one out starting tomorrow. I am not much of a journal keeper but it’s something I am keen to get into more.

  12. David says:

    First, great post—I could have told you that the higher percentageof things on your list had nothing to do with money. That’s why the best things in life really are free!!

    Second, what a great concept–the writing down of the five best things (for some, hopefully there were FIVE good things that did happen!)

    It made me think that for any of tus still deep in debt and on our way out, this particular exercise may prove to be extra helpful. Write down 3 or 4 good “money” things tha thappened to you today. If you’ve gotten yourself on some kid of program or system, then there should be at least this much going on on a daily basis.

    The road out of debt is tough–maybe this exercise cpould help keep people on track!

  13. Antything we buy can be lost of broken. Memories are forever!

  14. Kate says:

    I grew up in a family where there didn’t seem to be a concious effort to make good memories–everything just ran together. We were not encouraged to talk about good things that happened…in fact, the focus was more on what was wrong or on not being allowed to talk at all. I feel that I did that, to some extent, with my own children (realizing now that what one grew up with is one’s “normality”)–although I think I realized that young children should be allowed to give voice to their fears, frustration, and happiness. I was talking to a young mother one day–she and her family had just gone on a daylong family outing and she said that she felt like it would be a good memory for her children’s “memory banks”. My children are grown so I began to focus on my own “memory bank”. When something good happened, I mentally “banked” it. I have journalled in the past but never thought about making a physical memory bank–right now it is all in my head.
    While many of the memories in my bank do come out of spending some money (i.e.–watching a snow fall from my hostel room in London), the majority come from things that happen in daily life (i.e. sitting in the woods with my husband and watching two pileated woodpeckers play “peek-a-boo” around a tree. I have become a more positive person since I have been making a concious effort to “bank” memories and because of that I spend less money. I’ve known all my adult life that money doesn’t buy happiness–but conciously focusing on recognizing what is good, definitely reinforced it.

  15. Paul says:

    I think this is another case where I am an exception to the rule. The best meals I remember are not the dinner parties with friends and family, but the times I would go out to eat alone and could ignore all the table manners and concentrate on shoveling it down. My fondest memory of school is not graduation, but the weekend when I spent 5 days locked in my dorm with the Dreamcast. I’ve made deeper connections with great books than with any people I’ve met. Think of me what you will, but I tell you with all the honesty I can muster that as far as I have considered, the best things in my life are material.

  16. Bavaria says:

    Thank you Trent for another wonderful post! It’s interesting to see your results and percentages. I will give it a try and calculate my numbers after a time. Should be revealing. Tracking behavior is generally a good thing. So often we are on ‘autopilot’ and don’t really pay attention to the habits we are forming regarding thoughts and actions. Cognitive therapy–I like it!;)

  17. Java Monster says:

    This is a good post–and thank you to #10 st for mentioning that website. I have it bookmarked now, but I think I’ll probably keep a little book with me so it’s more convenient.

    I think I may have my daughter do this, too (she’s 13) so she can compile all the good and awesome things she does. If she doesn’t do it, I may start a list for her, and my son.

  18. anne says:

    #15- paul

    those great books were written by people.

    so you really are still making connections w/ people!

  19. et says:

    assuming of course that you have enough money not to worry about money. If you are secure in your life and know that you will continue to live in your home for as long as you like, if you have enough food not to worry about the next meals, and you family is healthy and secure – then yes more money doesn’t make you happier.

    But try appreciating the things you did with a back drop of unemployment, homelessness or illness and you will see it really is about money

  20. ann says:

    We are teaching our 5 yr old dd about gratitude. We are not rich, but we are healthy, safe and (most of the time) can pay all of our bills.

    At bedtime, I ask her to tell me a few “fun things” or “good things” that happened today. Of course, most of them are experiences, not purchases. Maybe we all should do this every night.

  21. Most of my memories come from the spending of money, on the things that truly make an impact on my life.

    Hallett put the biggest smile on my face ever, for $165. We spent about $1,000 on our trip to Myrtle Beach, where I had a blast and made some awesome friends. All of it’s more enjoyable thanks to the $$$’s I’ve put into my car herself.

    While these things gave me way more value than the money invested, they wouldn’t have been possible without that money.

  22. reulte says:

    I like the idea of writing down each day the things that make me happy and will do that — whether or not I actually spend money.

  23. Kevin M says:

    I’ve been doing this mentally for awhile – thinking of the one best or special thing that happened to me each day. But writing a few down is a great idea. I’m going to start today.

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