Updated on 01.22.08

Personal Finance and the Fundamental Choice

Trent Hamm

A few days ago, I reviewed in detail the excellent book The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz. In that book, Fritz posits that most of the time, our lives take the path of least resistance around and through the obstacles of life, both those dealt to us by others and those within our own mind.

An extension of that is the idea of a fundamental choice, as opposed to a primary or a secondary choice. A fundamental choice is one that actually affects the definition of who you are as a person – the others are merely suggestions on how to act. For example, a fundamental choice would be to define yourself as a frugal person, whereas a primary choice might be to choose to try to make frugal choices, and a secondary choice would be an individual frugal decision.

For a lot of people, this seems like mere wordplay, but there’s something deeper at work here. A person who makes the fundamental choice to be a frugal person is a person whose default choice is the frugal one. A primary choice to be frugal doesn’t change that – you’re merely deciding against your default choice whenever you can think about it.

I’ve long believed that success in personal finance is like a switch in the head – at some point, you flip that switch and feel much better about things. The “switch” has always made intuitive sense to me, and now I know why – it’s the same thing as the “fundamental choice” that Fritz talks about in his book.

I am a frugal person. I used to not be a frugal person – on the occasions when I would do something thrifty, it would be because of a primary or secondary choice. My default was to spend, spend, spend – and then spend some more.

At some point – perhaps right at the moment of my financial meltdown – I made the fundamental choice to be frugal. After that, the world simply looked different. My default choice in most matters is to not spend money – only in some specific cases (those where I allow primary and secondary choices to override things) do I allow myself to spend.

What caused that switch? Why did I make that fundamental choice, and how did I make it?

The biggest element was inspiration. I knew that, for the sake of my son’s future, I needed to make a deep change in how I looked at money. I think it was somehow made easier by the fact that I had recently made the fundamental choice to be a parent.

The other key part was support. My family, particularly my wife and parents, and my best friend are all financially stable people and are responsible spenders. I already had the support structure in place to make that change – I just had to carry through with it. I also found support in reading – when I made that fundamental choice, I buried myself in learning exactly how to do it, so that my specific secondary choices would be sensible ones.

Looking at my life now, I can scarcely believe that I ever spent my money that foolishly. It almost seems like a different person did all of that spending – and, in a way, that’s a true statement. I made a fundamental choice and, in some ways, it changed the fundamentals of who I am. It changed countless subsequent choices, not only concerning my spending, but about how I spent my time and who I spent it with. It changed how I saw myself, and how I saw the people around me – the peer pressure to spend began to fall away pretty quickly, for instance.

It’s amazing that sometimes you can find a powerful insight from the most unexpected of places. I found a great description of my own financial turnaround in a book about creativity.

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  1. BuzzillionsEmma says:

    ‘The Path of Least Resistence’ by Robert Fritz is indeed a great book http://www.buzzillions.com/prd-329496-precision-series-the-path-of-least-resistance-for-managers-reviews/?in_merch=1

    It has interesting new insights on what is holding leaders and groups from making progress, both personal and institutional. Makes sense, step by step, in how to move forward.

  2. Heidi says:

    Nice post! I understand what you mean completely. Sometimes it’s difficult to write about philosophical stuff in a way that’s relatable, but Trent, you do it very well.

    The fundamental choice is applicable to lots of things – for some it’s religion, for example. For me, I’m in the process of flipping the switch to becoming a healthy person. I am working on being the kind of person who feels incomplete if I don’t do at least a half hour of physical activity every day.

    I am not sure if I will ever be fundamentally a frugal person, but I do hope that there is a time where I always make good choices with my money.

  3. EmilyHarperMama says:


    Sorry, I’m a lurker, but I had to comment here- hope you don’t mind. I’m surprised that with your frugal and ethic-conscious ways you guys are still using disposable diapers. We started out on reusable cloth and would never go back. They’ve made some incredible leaps and bounds in cloth diaper technology in recent years. Worth a look! And for the record, you don’t have to switch whole hog. We still use disposables for traveling and when I forget to do that *extra* load of laundry during the week.

    Just a thought :)

  4. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The diaper comment seems random, but I’ll answer it: when we had our first child, we lived in a very small apartment without a washer and dryer, making cloth diapering a very significant challenge. We also calculated that with just one child, disposables are slightly cheaper – the cloth savings don’t kick in until child #2. When our second child came, we had a house but were very, very unsure that we would have a third child, so we stuck with disposables. We’re still pretty unsure about more children.

  5. TheJeffe says:

    I have always been a frugal person. but as the days go by in my new marriage I find that my wife is not as frugal as I am. Sometimes this gets us into an argument. It would be great to have a post about how to encourage the switch of frugality to switch in a love ones head. I can’t afford to have a financial melt down before we flip the switch!

  6. Lorraine says:


    It always seems a bit pointless to post an agreement – but I agree! I think an important thing for me when the ‘switch’ went on was it gave me permission and freedom to turn from the ‘dark side’ and more pertinently, not ‘care’ how odd others found my ‘new ways’. But the most important thing of all?? Modelling behaviour for my children that will last them a lifetime and allow them to be confident from the inside out, not fodder for marketing gurus and less susceptible to a world of rank consumerism.

    And that is some gift.


  7. Shan-Oh says:

    Hi Trent, just wanted to say thank you, for all the great articles and ideas. Don’t know if it helps you or motivates you at all, but I wanted to let you know you’ve touched my life, all the way up here in Alaska :) Keep it coming, I check your site every day over my frugally made at home cup of coffee!

  8. Darrell says:

    Great post! We too had that moment of epiphany in which we had to turn away from no longer caring and began making decisions to reduce our debt. It is far from an easy road, but a very necessary one.

  9. You know, it can take up to three years (or more) to develop a new habit, depending on how deeply entrenched your were in your old ways.


    Unless there is a shocking, usually emotional event or inspiration that comes along. I’ve known people who tried to lose weight and get fit for years, to no avail. Then, after a mild heart attack or a blunt statement from their doctor about dying young, they suddenly “flip the switch.” People say that “everything changed” at that moment. No, no “thing” changed, “YOU” changed. Until people really change on the inside, their outside world won’t change at all. Positive changes come from the inside.

    Great post, Trent.

  10. jana says:

    very nicely put – and i agree with heidiwho said you can talk about quite philosophical things in a very easy understandable way.

    intreresting you said it fels like you were a different person nefore the switch”

  11. Susan says:

    I like this post. I think making that fundamental choice is necessary anytime you’re looking to change yourself. After years of being miserable at my job, I finally had enough and decided to do something about it and not stop until I found it. That epiphany moment is necessary to find the drive to change. Without it, you’re sort of stuck and hoping for something to change.

  12. JT says:

    Another great post. The funny thing was, when the switch went off in my head, I found that some people around me didn’t get it. They still wanted me to go out and spend money the same way I always had. I found that the best part of that switch going off really didn’t have as much to do with money as it did finding out what was really important to you in your life. Some “friends” that I used to hang with aren’t friends anymore. I guess that means the friendships weren’t really based on anything meaningful, so it doesn’t bother me much. I do think about how much my life has changed since the simple flip of a switch. Now everything I choose to do and the people I do it with are because I really value and prioritize them…a much more meaningful way to go through your life.

  13. Mike Stankavich says:

    Trent, this is a great post. I believe that making and committing to this sort of fundamental value choice helps you to immediately deflect those little temptations that come up in your stream of consciousness. Having a clearly identified and committed value decision to refer to is a great enabler of Covey’s principle of integrity in the moment of choice.

    I found this principle to be very helpful when I quit smoking. Approaching quitting with attitudes such as “trying to quit”, “cutting down” and the like just didn’t work for me. I came to realize that I was visualizing myself as a deprived smoker. When I was able to flip the switch in my head from smoker to non-smoker, that made all the difference for me. Whenever I would think of having a cigarette, I would immediately respond to that thought with the thought that I am a non-smoker, which went a long way toward defusing that desire for a cigarette. I know that doesn’t address the physical addiction, but in my case, the physical desire to smoke was secondary to the psychological addiction.

  14. tubaman-z says:

    Once you are able to determine a set of foundational principles that define who you are, it sets aside a whole bunch of choices/issues and gives you much more ability to focus. My church had been considering whether, given our growth, we should relocate to a larger campus with everything that entails, or stay in place and support growth through multiplication (church plants). We chose the latter – which was very freeing and has enabled a much stronger focus. I’ve had the same transformational experience a number of times in my life. In my case the foundational principles haven’t changed as much as they have been refined situationally (getting married – 21 years now, starting a career, having a child, my faith). To some extent I’ve always been a frugal person, but when I actually recognized and understood that aspect of who I am it allowed me to move forward with more confidence in my financial decisions. It’s less of an internal struggle and a lot more fun!

    Great blog Trent!

  15. Gayle says:

    Once you are able to determine a set of foundational principles that define who you are, it sets aside a whole bunch of choices/issues and gives you much more ability to focus.

    Well said tubaman.

  16. Paul Bauer says:

    Great Post Trent,

    Read Fritz’s book several years ago and loved its clarity.

    Our fundamental choice affects nearly everything we do and build the intent that creates results in our lives (and others).

    To Your Dreams And To Your Abundance,

    Paul Bauer

  17. Colin Joss says:

    What a heavy article. I’ve to read it 3 times before I can understand it, but it does make me thinking again to review my fundamental choices.


    Colin Joss
    East Lothian, Haddington
    United Kingdom

  18. AnKa says:

    This makes so much sense! I bet it applied to dieting/changing your eating habits as well. I wish I could make that fundamental switch already :)

  19. Lisa Spinelli says:

    Thanks for the reflective insite. You sound like someone who is very introspective. I have been asking these same sorts of questions in the context not just of frugality, but of my responsibility as a human being to other human beings (and animals, too). Like, can I afford to pay a little more for the free range chicken eggs? Tough questions when one is trying to be frugal.

  20. daydreamr says:

    Choosing to live a frugal life is very much like following a religion. The fundamental values one adopts/incorporates into their lives is like a code of ethics. There are times when you must compromise the frugal choices. Sometimes it’s a choice that is more frugal in the long run. Other times, it’s a lesson that can be learned from.

    As a frugal person, I am trying to teach my BF some principals of frugal living or at least how to make better choices. He just recieved a lump sum (a couple grand) and it’s burning a hole in his pocket. He keeps asking my opinion about various things he could buy…mostly luxurious items, upgrades of things he has that work perfectly fine.

    I’m trying to show him by example but he’s gonna have to flip that switch, make that choice. If it were me, I’d take @ least 1/2 the money and put it away. Probably more. I’d also sit down and take an honest look @ what I really need, say a new winter coat, boots, and new socks. Set a limit of what I will spend and, put the rest in the vault.

    Having a fundamental frugal attitude, I think it would be hard to live the rest of my life with someone who is stuck in their ways-spending $ on all the wants. One thing that bugs me the most is the daily coffee and take out. I think it would actually be better to spend a lump sum on a frivolous item and have something to show for than an empty pocket and a pot-belly.

    Great post. Any suggestions on how to turn a chronic spender into a tight wad???

  21. Colin Joss says:


    A small suggestion for you, based on my past successful effort to click on my fundamental choice into workable frugality..

    If your BF likes simplicity, then you can start telling the benefit of that.. in addition to the love for simplicity, you could try to motivate for money.. Something like uncle scrooges of donald duck, prefer to swim in his unspent coins instead to buying him self a new hat.

  22. Colin Joss says:


    I just remember on my youth, so I really need to remind you that experience is still the best teacher. You don’t have to crash financially, but increasing financial pressures with some wisdom to follow, can also deliver same result, so you shouldn’t worry to much about it.

    Colin Joss
    East Lothian, Haddington
    United Kingdom

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