Updated on 03.27.09

Synergy in Life and Money

Trent Hamm

It’s amazing to me how often one part of my life is in opposition to other parts.

Last Thursday, for example, my wife stayed home with our daughter to take her to her eighteen month checkup at the doctor. I had a lot of work to do, so I went into my office, closed the door, and got to work.

After a few hours, though, I heard my daughter in the hallway. She was standing just outside the door and, quite loudly, she said “Daddy?”

My instinct, right then, was to run out in the hallway, sweep my daughter into my arms, and go play with her in the family room for an hour, reading her books and wrestling with her and playing “ring around the rosy” with her.

But right in front of me sat several work tasks, things I needed to get done. I had posts for this site that needed written. I had a contract revision that had to get printed, signed, and faxed. I had a freelance article that needed mailed. And I had fully intended to do some reading and research.

If I chose the work, I’d get the things done that I needed to do to pay the bills. I’d keep my readers happy and my publishers happy. I’d also have less on my plate to worry about for future work.

At the same time, my daughter would sadly wander away from the door, wondering why her daddy didn’t play with her. Likely she would forget it shortly, but if I make the work choice too often, it begins to establish a pattern in her mind.

On the other hand, I could let the work sit and go play with my daughter. That would be the most fun choice and it would reinforce the great bond I have not only with my daughter but with my wife. Later, though, I’d be faced with a mountain of work that would have to be dealt with – or I’d let someone seriously down.

I wound up choosing my daughter, but it wasn’t an easy choice and it left me staying up very late working on things – and left me exhausted the next day.

Why did I make that choice? I realized the reason I was working at home was so that I could spend that quality time with my family. I could have very easily made the wrong choice here, choosing work over family, but in the end, making that choice would have undone the synergy in my life.

I chose lower income and a more flexible schedule so that I could spend more time with my family. Thus, when I have a choice between work and family, the choice should be easy. Family wins. My life has synergy – everything points towards quality time with my family. Work serves to support that time, not to replace it.

Our purchases serve that purpose, too. Our biggest consideration for purchasing a car is reliability. Why? We minimize our concern about major automobile breakdowns, leading to less family disruption. Our long debate about a GPS purchase (why not just use a map?) came down to family issues as well – where’s the nearest bathroom? Where’s the nearest hospital? Where’s the nearest park? These are questions a typical map can’t answer – but they’re invaluable when you’re traveling with kids. (Since people will ask, we own a Garmin nuvi 760)

On the flip side of that coin, we also cut out a lot of unnecessary purchases to save for other things: college, retirement, a big emergency fund, and so on. We don’t buy many items for entertainment – instead, we use the library and PaperBackSwap and SwapADVD and SwapACD and SwapTree – plus our family time is entertaining. We eat at home almost exclusively because it gives us more control over healthy food choices – and it’s cheaper.

When we hit financial bottom, we didn’t have any sort of synergy to our lives. I’d go to work and work like mad, then immediately spend that earned money on frivolous things. I’d spend time with my wife and son some evenings, then choose activities that completely excluded them at other times. I’d think of long term goals, but I’d change them completely by the next day and never really work towards them.

Now, my life has synergy. Almost everything is centered around being a good parent and a good husband. Writing is my creative release, allowing me to throw out the ideas floating around in my head and giving me the mental freedom to focus on my family. The things I do that I consider “work” mostly serve to find ways to earn income from that writing to keep a roof over their heads.

Using that as a lens, it’s easy to figure out that spending less than I earn is a good move. It’s also easy to figure out the priorities when I do spend.

What’s harder is figuring out how to be the best parent I can be.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Kira =] says:

    Very good article, and it’s very satisfying when we have personal epiphanies like these.

    Not to mention it pulls at your heartstrings when your little girl calls for her Daddy. =]

  2. Being a parent and spouse is always a difficult task. I have many times had to put down the keyboard or pen and make the tough decision to invest in my family. Thanks for this article I think it can help all of us stay focused on the parts of life that are most important.

  3. Battra92 says:

    Is it wrong that I’d choose the work? I mean, you can’t raise you kids to think that you’ll be there all the time, right?

    Or am I reading this all wrong?

  4. The Financial Blogger says:

    Great post! I know exactly what you’re talking about x 2 little girls! There is always the issue of working harder to pay off the mortgage as soon as possible and to do the best financially for your children and so on…But, you can NEVER get that time back with your kids so take it while you can afford it and maybe work harder when they get to school age…

  5. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    Trent didn’t say that it’s wrong if you choose work. He went into great detail to say he didn’t want to consistently choose work to set a pattern in his daughters mind. Of course, we all have to choose work from time to time, he was just dictating his internal struggle with this one moment.

    I think the area most out of whack in my life is my physical health. I have the same internal struggles between getting motivated to go work out and staying to do work, write posts, and network with other bloggers.

    I do a great job of taking time for my daughter but almost always neglect my own health in the process. I’m trying to develop strategies to help myself break away and focus on that first.

    Thanks for the motivation Trent! I appreciate the fact that you can take time away from your work and still provide us with the great content on a daily basis!

  6. George says:

    Nice post and something that I think all working parents struggle with. I recently just turned down a new job that offered significant more pay but required me to physically move the family to a new city and would require more of my time. I currently work from home. I just valued my current quality time with family too much to put a price on that. Some may call me crazy but it is a matter of priorities. I don’t think it is wrong to choose work, it was just a better decision for me in this case – and it sounds like for you, too.

  7. paula d. says:

    Good for you Trent for knowing where your priorities are. AND you did get your work done, just at another time.

    Upside, time with your daughter. Downside, working at 11 pm.

  8. ChrisD says:

    At the same time, my daughter would sadly wander away from the door, wondering why her daddy didn’t play with her

    I do wonder if people worry too much about this. My understanding is that in hunter gatherer societies, kids would stay with their mothers/parents when they were young and needed to be carried, but after that they would hang out exclusively? extensively? with other kids. Moreover I think the idea parents are supposed to spend a lot of time playing with their kids is also quite modern, why can’t kids play with other kids or make their own entertainment? Naturally Trent’s daughter is still quite young and I think my argument applies more to older children. And of course Trent WANTED to play with his daughter.
    But this work/child balance is certainly not new. Children always want as much time and attention as they can get. In the olden days they got less time and attention because their parents had more children to take care of, nowadays parents have jobs instead of 5, or 15, children.
    Main point: taking time for ‘yourself’ is not a cardinal sin. You don’t HAVE to spend every second of the day welded to your kids. Still, nobody ever went to their death bed saying ‘I should have worked more’

  9. Adam @ Checkbook Diaries says:

    I’ve also noticed myself making far fewer sacrifices with my family in the name of work. Once we got married and started planning our family, I noticed a very strong shift from work to family. These days, I have tried to make spending extra time at work an exception instead of the norm. I must say though, that the financial ramifications to that are real when others that you work with willingly perform extra tasks after hours at the expense of their family. It’s just something that I have learned to accept.

  10. Adrienne says:

    The most important thing about this situation (which happens quite a lot to us work at home folk) is to make a choice and stand by it. Either choice is fine but what catches most of us is the GUILT behind either. I find that the guilt is the bigger problem than either the work or the kids (or maybe this is more of a “mom” issue….as society places a huge amount of guilt on motherhood).

  11. verbal says:

    Balance is hard, but when you get it right, it’s really rewarding.

    I’m making a lot less now than I was a few years ago, but I’ve got a job that’s right for me, and I find I’m happier now regardless of the money.

  12. Colin says:

    “When your kids are young, they don’t care or understand that you’re trying to make a living. They just know you’re gone.” — Joe McNally

  13. PF says:

    My husband could not possibly resist “Daddy” from our 17-month old. No way. It is the call of the toddler siren; no man can hear that call and expect to escape. There’s just a certain inflection that comes from that little voice, from that little person who has only recently learned to use words. Trent, there really was no other choice you could make. Resistance was futile.

  14. Graytham says:

    Great piece, Trent. And I can tell what part of the country you’re from because you say “needed mailed” and “needed written.” I’m sure a lot of people thought those were typos! :-)

  15. George says:

    Trent – try avoiding the “needs mailed” and “needs done” phrases, where you left out ‘to be’. See http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2007/11/11/lawn_needs_cut/ for a discussion of why you should avoid it.

  16. Rob says:

    I’m suprised anyone would have to even think about this.

    Work will always be there.

  17. David says:

    We “work to live” not “live to work”. This was told to me by my first boss and it has stuck with me ever since.

  18. MB says:

    I choose to stay home with my kids. Sometimes they drive me nuts, but I know I will miss it one day. I didn’t want to work through their childhood and I feel very fortunate to have that choice.

    My husband loves it too because he can call home and see what we are doing, I take photos and videos during the day, and we can go meet him for lunch at the park across from his work anytime.

  19. Ann says:

    “Work will always be there” Rob, that is very true. I’ve been working at home for over 12 years, since my girls were 1 & 3 years old. As they got older I spent as much time with them doing things/activities (swimming lessons, outdoor children’s theater at one of the colleges in the summer, going to the beach with other moms & kids for a day, swimming in the river at the state forest & cooking hot dogs for lunch over an open fire, letterboxing, hanging out in the pool, going camping for a night just the moms & kids, etc.) and then working late into the night (sometimes until 1:00 a.m.). They are now 13 & 15 and they DO remember a lot of these times we spent together and the activities that we did. Both of them will say at some point “Do you remember when we did (this) & can we do it again this year?”

    Now that they are getting a little older they are starting to spend a bit more time with their friends doing social & fun activities, so I am glad I gave up some time when they were a little younger.

    I now have more time during the day (especially with them at school) to do all my work, but I will give up a day of work (and make it up on the weekend if I have to) if they are on school break to go out & do something with them or even stay at home & watch a movie, etc. Pretty soon they will be gone & I will have all the time in the world to take care of my work obligations.

  20. Scot G. says:

    Will you be getting back to writing about money instead of writing about writing about money soon? Just asking.

  21. Keith says:

    I appreciate your transparency Trent. It is a fine line to walk sometimes, being a good parent and making a living, but it seems you are doing it well. Thanks for the article.

  22. marc says:

    Wise choice Trent. You should always be there when your kids need you or want you Missing work for one hour will never kill you. You have often written about the value of one’s time in making economic decisions,well, the value of this hour was priceless. I have two little ones of my own (twins) and I try to spend as much time with them as possible. About a month after they were born a friend of mine whose children are now adults said something that has stuck with me ever since. She said although the days can often be long, the years are always too short. Enjoy the long days.


  23. cwcomment says:

    This really highlights the power of small in all of our daily lives. Taking a few moments to be with our families, ask our co-workers how they are doing, bring chocolate into the office. All of those small blocks of time can reduce stress, lower our blood pressure and even help us reset our brains and give us a boost when we return to our work.

  24. BonzoGal says:

    Great article.

    And I have to say thanks again for introducing me to Swap-A-DVD. I’ve gotten rid of dozens of titles I no longer wanted and gotten things I felt were real “keepers.”

  25. Dana says:

    It always surprises me when people say they want one kind of life and then turn around to do something that take them in the opposite direction. Wise to reconcile that from time to time. Good post!

  26. Amanda B. says:

    I think that comment #5 got glossed over. The question is never “What matters most, the work or the kids?” Obviously, the kids. But sometimes we have to ask ourselves what precedent are we setting? I have know far to many Daddy’s girls who expect the entire world to halt at their whim (I am sure there are boys like this, but I think they get it beat out of them by high school by other kids). I am not saying that choosing to spend an hour with your daughter at this age has ruined her forever. But at some point she needs to understand that it is not ok to interrupt daddy’s meeting because Barbie’s head came off. I can’t express enough how the ability to amuse one’s self is a truly sanity saving characteristic in a child.
    And on the subject of staying home: My great grandmother stayed home with all her children, but they never had her undivided attention. People don’t seem to realize that the days of the SAHM that were romanticize were nothing like how we imagined. The kids either amused themselves in the house with the older children watching the younger or they tagged along while the SAHM tended the garden, fed the animals, cooked dinner, put up cans of jam, mended clothing, patched fences, and almost other job that needed attention. There was not hours of one on one attention playing psychiatrist approved development games. There were children playing in the dirt, barely in view of a distracted mother. The idea that we as parents are slaves to are children is purely a modern invention.

  27. Carrie says:

    What Amanda B. said. Children need to learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them. The kids-first-at-all-costs mentality only raises spoiled, entitled kids.

  28. Great post. This really encapsulates the tradeoffs we make, and shows how smart decision-making can both create that synergy that you’re talking about, and eliminate a lot of the guilt that some of the commenters have talked about. It’s so important to direct the “energy” of our money where we want it to go. I work like crazy at a business based in my home so I can pick my daughter up from school pretty much every day.

    @Amanda B., I think you’re right that kids used to amuse themselves more, but in Trent’s case, a 3-year-old can’t yet look after an 18-month-old. Little children who receive a lot of supportive personal attention will grow up to be self-sufficient kids. Individual families’ experiences will vary, but my daughter got that attention while my husband and I were home with her most of the time when she was small, and now (just turned 8) she is very, very self-sufficient and really can amuse herself for days at a time. I don’t know that most kids get hours of undivided attention — that’s probably still romanticized! — but a little goes a long way.

  29. Sandy says:

    A friend of ours had her kids in day care while she worked from home until they were school aged. Once they were school aged, the mom told them….only interrupt me if someone is bleeding.
    They are all really together kids, despite having little parental one on one.

  30. Rob says:

    After reading some more comments, some struck a cord. Of course life is all about balance. Kids do need independance. But I do volunteer at the childrens hospital here in Hartford CT. Has any of you seen kids going thru chemo? Any seen kids lying in the beds with tubes coming out of them? I’m talking 2 thru 6 year olds.We just had a benefit fundraiser for a 2 year old who has spent 12 weeks in the hospital going thru 4 surgerys for a brain tumor. I had an x who lost a 3 year old in a car accident. I also have a 2 year old. When I am older, or if something happens tommorow, I will never want to regret having spent the time I should have with my child. For me, seeing the kids in a hospital, and not playing outside with a ball, yes, the world revolves around my child. They are only a child once.

  31. Rick says:

    Maybe somebody already mentioned it, but I’m wondering why it’s an all or nothing decision? Take a 20 minute break, explain that you have a lot of work, but want to take a break to spend with her, play with the child, then explain that daddy needs to get back to work.

  32. I think you made the right choice!

  33. Troy says:

    No question you made the right choice.

    My world revolves around my wife and young kids. As does yours. You are a wise man.

    Your detractors opinion is of no consequence.

  34. Shirley says:

    You made the right choice. The best of things always come with a price. I enjoy your writing but these glimpses of you as a tender father are the best because they bring you into personal focus and I relate to you.

  35. A wise choice. Your kids will grow up before you know it. Enjoy them at whatever age they’re at. You can always catch up on work by staying up late; you can’t coax a sleepy child to play when she’s tired. For me, the most important work will be put on the back burner if my kids need me. You sound like a great dad!

  36. Evita says:

    This post made me uncomfortable. Daddy Trent was at work and he allowed his daughter to interrupt him, not for a five-minute hug, not for a twenty-minute break, but for such a long time that he was hopelessly behind in his work, to the point that he was exhausted the day after. Will Trent give in each time his adored) child wants his work time?

    What is wrong with showing a child that a closed door means that daddy is not available right now?

    Just a tought and by no means a judgement on Trent’s decision! it must be so difficult to be at home and at work at the same time!

  37. Evangeline says:

    Oh for crying out loud. Trent has the kind of job that allows him the option to rework his schedule if necessary. It is his choice and there is no reason to begrudge him the option. That’s like someone bashing all the working parents for abandoning their kids to daycare while someone else raises them and calling them neglectful or selfish for choosing money over their kids. That simply isn’t the case. My favorite parenting comment: “Every family must find the right recipe that works for them.” Trent has the right recipe for his family and I seriously doubt this particular day in his life will be the ruination of his career or family. Read the post again and gather from it what he was really trying to convey. Make choices that match your mindset and give that will give you the life you want.

  38. Mule Skinner says:

    I agree with Scott G #20 — this is a meta discussion.

  39. Carmen says:

    Good choice. I was going to be so incredibly disappointed if you hadn’t made this choice that I almost stopped reading the article!

    Even though I would always choose family over work, I also felt the age of your daughter was key in making the choice you did.

    Your daughter is so young that even 10 minutes would have been enough. During this family time you could also have had a drink and a snack if you needed one.

    As kids get older I think you can reason with them more about needing to work for ‘x’ long, after which you’ll be able to do ‘y’ with them. They soon learn it is in their interests to minimise disruptions since it’s to their benefit. But as with everything, the follow through is the key to making the rationale work. :)

  40. I really like this post, but as for the GPS . . . you touched a nerve with me.

    Our parents found bathrooms, hospitals, and parks without a GPS. Sounds to me like you are trying to justify the purchase. For the average American, a GPS is a “nice-to-have” . . .

    I work on the road going to multiple client locations in remote places almost every single day– I just broke down in September and bought a super discounted Magellan.

    My wife wanted to take it for an upcoming day trip with the kids and her parents– I reminded her it is a tool for my work and I needed it tha day . . . hit the Mapquest honey!

    My two cents.

  41. Charles Cohn says:

    Now that GPS prices are coming down, having one is easily justifiable (unless you always go to the same places). If you set the unit to find the quickest route, it will often find a shortcut that you never noticed, saving gas as well as time. (This is especially helpful in a place like Atlanta, where the roads are convoluted.) If you are going to an unfamiliar place, it spares you from having to watch continually for street signs, enabling you to concentrate on the road and thus improving safety. (Of course, you must always be stopped when you are setting up a route.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *