Updated on 10.08.14

The Financial Cost Of Happiness

Trent Hamm

Discovering What's Important And Discarding The Rest

My wife and I had a long talk about a week ago in the exhausted afterglow of a day full of packing boxes for the move. We were talking about the moments that make us genuinely happy, those instances in our life where we feel pure joy. We tried to make a list of them, but we both fell asleep during the conversation.

I relate this little tidbit because the concept of moments of happiness has been on my mind for a long while now and something about this conversation really kicked it to the next level. I spent the last week or so writing down every single moment that filled me with happiness. The list ended up having about fifty items on it; here are the seven from the first day: two of them were directly associated with writing success, two of them happened when I was playing with and interacting with my son, one was a tender moment with my wife, one was when I was making a homemade pizza and my wife and son and I all laughed at a silly moment involving the cheese, and the last one occurred when I was reading an article and kept drifting off into my own thoughts.

Why did I make such a list? I’m generally a happy person, but as with everyone else, I have moments where I’m happy and moments where I’m sad, but most of the time I’m just somewhere in between. To me, a happy life is one where the happy moments outweigh the sad ones, and that’s truly all that I want from life. I created the list because I was seeking all of the elements in my life that bring me happiness. What things do I do on a daily basis that make me happy? Focusing on them with my money and my life will lead me down a path of continued happiness.

Sound interesting? Want to give it a shot? Give this a try.

First, spend a week (or even better, a month) making a list of every event that happens that brings you real happiness. It can be a funny joke, it can be a moment with a friend, it can be a work success, it can be a beautiful piece of writing. Whatever it is that really makes you feel good inside, write it down with enough detail so that you can recall it. Carry a notebook around with you so you can jot them down as you go.

At the same time, jot down those things that really make you feel low. Maybe someone insults you and it hurts. Maybe you feel terrible because you can’t pay a bill. Look at those moments when you feel low and write them down as well. Why? They’re usually keyed to a souring of something that’s made you happy in the past.

When you have this list, first tease out all of the things that made you happy. What was it about each moment that brought on happiness? Also, figure out the financial costs associated with that thing, particularly in how it brought you happiness, particularly if it’s a non-necessary cost. You can then generally match up the things that make you happy with many of the things that made you sad. For example, one of the things that makes me happy is interacting with my son, but I was quite sad and worried when he had a really terrible rash on his arm a while back (it turned out to not be much of anything at all).

This final list of things that make you happy should be the things that fill your life. These are the things that are worth saving up for and worth doing with quality and gusto. If you’re dumping a lot of money into things that aren’t on this list of things that make you happy, cut back big time on them and use that money and time on the things that do bring you happiness. For example, I found a lot of time to work on this site because I cut out other hobbies in my life that weren’t bringing me much happiness any more. I also realized that debt made me sad and from that being debt-free made me quite happy, so I realized that focusing on freeing myself from debt was something I should really focus on.

It’s really worthwhile, as it exposes the core things that really bring joy into your life. By centering your life emotionally and financially around those things, you not only spend your money in a way that’s more in accordance with who you are, you often find yourself wasting less money and feeling much happier about the money you do spend.

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  1. RD says:

    Hi Trent – thanks for all the great content at TSD. It certainly made me happy to come across your blog. Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” is an entertaining read on the topic. It gives a funny, anecdotal & academic look at happiness which you might find intersting. Thanks again!

  2. Jay Machado says:

    For an interesting take on the science of happiness, check out “Stumbling On Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert. (It’s won some book awards and is a genuinely interesting and entertaining read. About how we may not be the best judges of our states of happiness, about how the mind can fool us in order to make our lives bearable and appear more cohesive and meaningful than they otherwise might.

  3. I’m all about these types of things, Trent. What a world of difference it can make in someone’s life when they truly decide what’s important and letting go of other worries. Focusing on what we need to focus on make for such a more enjoyable lifestyle.

  4. Andrew says:

    I enjoyed this post, a little more in depth and methodical than some of your other “finding yourself” articles.
    My life is pretty great, worry free. The only things that seems to plague my mind regularly is that I don’t know what’s important to me. All the obvious stuff like loved ones, family, financial security are important, but I can’t seem to aim any one direction in life or focus on anything that really matters, since no one or two things seem to prevail over any others. I’m going to use this method to help figure out a direction and find my focus.
    Keep up the good work, this is the only blog I read regularly.

  5. I think doing this sort of exercise is very empowering. It is always good to pause and reflect on that which makes us happy and the power we have to bring more of that into our lives. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Kim says:

    I found your website recently and have been loving it.

    Over the past year, my husband and I realized the kind of life that would make us happy. It’s a big goal, so it’s taking a lot of time and financial discipline to get there. The surprise, however, is how working toward happiness can be a source of joy in itself. I guess the journey really is the good part.

  7. vh says:

    What a neat essay! And what a lucky person your wife is, to have an extraordinary man like you in her life. Hope your move brings your family joy and your future is full of credits on the happiness side of the ledger.

  8. c says:


    Your frustrationg with being unable to “aim any one direction in life” is something to which I can relate. This book might be worth a look for you:

    Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher

    best of luck.

  9. Many years ago I took myself through a similar process. I sat down and thought about what I beleived were the things most important to me. I listed them, then started comparing them. With each pair, I asked myself “would I sacrifice ‘important thing A’ for ‘important thing B’?” And thus, ranked my list.

    Here are the top few items:

    1) Peace of mind (ie: trying to do the “right thing” and at least doing what I do for the right reasons).
    2) My relationships with my family and friends
    3) Try to make the world a better place by the time I die than it was when I was born
    4) Having the experiences that I desire to have (e.g. traveling to specific places, reading certain books, etc)

    Ranking my life priorities has made life decisions easier. I know, clearly, when I sacrifice, for instance, an opportunity to travel to attend to a family member, that I am ultimately doing what makes me happier. I end up making th e “right” decision more often and more easily, AND I do not regret what I sacrificed.

  10. H. Blythe says:

    This website is one of my go-to websites, however, this article is the first time I have fundamentally disagreed with you.

    “I’m generally a happy person, but as with everyone else, I have moments where I’m happy and moments where I’m sad, but most of the time I’m just somewhere in between. To me, a happy life is one where the happy moments outweigh the sad ones, and that’s truly all that I want from life.”

    Please decide that your goal is to live an exceptional, extraordinary life. I don’t mean landing on the moon, but reading your above comment just smacks of ‘settling’.

    Why not live a life of unparalleled joy and passion???

    Happiness comes from knowing yourself, having choices and certainty that the choices you make are right and perfect. When you have that absolute faith in yourself and your place in the world, that inner strength, absolutelynothing can shake that. THAT is what leads to happiness.

    Most moments are not ‘sad’ or ‘happy’. (Excepting something like a death, and there are even some buddhists who would disagree with me.) I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

    I was traveling with my spouse on a long distance trip and we had a very very serious accident. We ricocheted off of a Greyhound bus, to the left concrete barrier, then the right. We literally were in a living, dangerous pinball machine. It could be considered a ‘sad’ event. The car was totaled and no one was hurt, but they easily could have been.

    My joy in this situation was the fact that I, while my spouse was about to lose it, pulled it together. I got everything organized, calmed them down, and took that moment to express my absolute gratitude that we were intact and untouched. Does it matter that we were in the middle of nowhere? No.

    I am thankful and cherish and take joy in every moment of my day. If you move through your day without awareness and consciousness, then you move through your day on automatic pilot. And, most likely, you spend your day ‘in between’ happy and sad moment.

    Make the choice to LIVE your own life. Consciously, gratefully, and with joy.

  11. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Blythe, that’s exactly what I’m talking about, leading a better life. No life is full of constant joy, but if you make the right choices, you can definitely head in that direction.

  12. Millionaire Mommy Next Door says:

    I love this post, Trent. So many people waste their days, and their money, totally unaware of how they’re spent.

    I keep a daily happiness journal. In it I write a list of about 5 things that made me feel good that day. This has created a habit for me – a happiness habit. Simply through daily practice, I’ve become so aware, so awake, to all of the wonderful daily little things that make my heart, and my face, smile.

    This habit also keeps my money spending in alignment with my true values. It makes crafting a budget I can live with easy, because I know that it’s not money that ultimately makes me happy; it’s my hubby, my daughter, my friends and family, my hobbies and interests.

    Identifying what it is that truly makes you happy is key to not only your well-being, but your financial success. They go magically hand-in-hand.

  13. Chessiq says:

    Trent, an awesome post. I have a journal, but it is usually for goals, and thoughts for my blog, but not one for tracking stuff that make me happy. It is a great idea to keep track of those things. In a way, it is counting your blessings, which is not always easy. Happy moments, unlike things or people, are easily overlooked when counting blessings.
    I am not sure I will track my sad moments. I tracked them for a long time and I decided to let go. You know how sometimes you just focus on the negative things? I did that for a while and it was easy to keep track of who wronged me, what didn’t go right, etc. No more of that. I know I will experience some not-so-happy times, but I try to just let go of them when the pain goes away and the lesson has been learned. I understand the point you raised though.
    Many thanks!

  14. H. Blythe says:

    I don’t know. It seemed you were setting the standard rather low for yourself.

  15. MoneyNing says:

    Sometimes it’s hard to let go, but we should really take the bold step forward and try to look for ways to bring happiness. Thanks for this article since it gives everyone some ideas to think about.

  16. Dave says:

    I stumbled upon this site by accident. I’m looking for answers. Im generally not happy. I placed to much time serching for the riches and let life pass me by, as did my wife of 30yrs.. Im 51 and want to start over. Im burried in debt and am thinking of letting all go to find a simple life.
    Looking for ideas

  17. Jackie Curran says:

    Great tips. I have found over the past 4 years of teaching laughter yoga, (an exercise based system of laughing without jokes) , that the best way to feel happy is to laugh every day and to give to others with no thought of reward for yourself. Once you feel happy and positive it is much easier to deal with life’s tasks and also to see the funny side of life.

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