Using a Gratitude Journal as a Personal Motivator to Save Money and Enjoy Life

A few weeks ago, a nice reader named Nicole introduced me to the concept of a gratitude journal:

Have you ever written about a gratitude journal? It’s something I’ve started doing and it’s really helped me figure out what is important in my life. It’s easy. Each day you just write down the five things you’re thankful for. I do it before bed or sometimes I’ll jot down things during the day.

I decided to give it a try for a few weeks to see how it went for me. Each day, I simply made a list of the five things I’m thankful for that day. Here’s an example from last Sunday:

1. My daughter’s ornery one-eye-closed grin with chocolate ice cream all over her face.
2. Watching the Daytona 500 with my dad, even though I don’t like NASCAR. We don’t spend much time together and I like it when we do.
3. My son running into the living room, giving me a hug, and running out again giggling.
4. Overhearing my mom telling my dad that she loved him.
5. Reading about 70 pages in a really good book while my kids napped.

I have a collection of about twenty five of these entries now, and many of them read like the above. They usually involve my family, enjoying some quiet time alone, a writing success, or a period of feeling really good (like an after-exercise rush).More importantly, though, virtually none of the items I’ve listed in nearly a month revolve around spending money. The high points of my day usually don’t revolve around any sort of financial exchange at all.

What about the days when I do spend money on something unnecessary? When I reflect back on those events at the end of the day, I rarely think about the spending event. Instead, I’ll often think of some little piece of that event, one that could have been cut out and placed in a less expensive context.

Take my memory that I noted above about my daughter with ice cream on her face. That moment was the result of a visit to Cold Stone Creamery, where we spent quite a bit on ice cream for the six of us (my parents, my wife, my two kids, and myself). Yet, we could have quite easily gone home and eaten much less expensive ice cream and had virtually the same memory. If we wanted some “luxury” ice cream, I could have just made a batch in the ice cream maker during the afternoon, making a stunning batch for just a few nickels on the dollar.

What about that good book? Sure, I could have spent a lot on that book that I was enjoying, but the truth is that the book was essentially free via PaperBackSwap.

What about that entertainment center that my father and I watched the Daytona 500 on? We watched it on our rather old television – no expensive high definition flat panel is needed here. Having a flat panel wouldn’t have changed that moment a bit.

The value here isn’t the stuff, it’s the moment. A moment alone. A moment with my daughter. A moment with my son. A moment with my parents. A moment with my dad.

These moments are the spice of my life, and it doesn’t matter whether I have the latest gadget or if I live in a dump. Either way, I would still enjoy these moments.

So what should I spend my money on? For me, the motivation to spend money revolves around the ability to build a moat around those moments. What can I do with my dollars so that my daughter always has the lightheartedness to bust out one of her big smiles? What can I do with my time that makes my parents’ retirement a little bit easier (calling them and communicating a lot goes a long way there)? What can I do to preserve the health of my marriage over the long haul (and, trust me, buying trinkets might be nice, but it’s no substitute for communication and relationship building)?

In the end, my idea of sound personal finance is about protecting those moments that I’m grateful for. What moments are you thankful for?

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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