Yesterday morning, I played a fun little game with my two oldest children. I think one of them picked it up at school.
It’s a simple game, really. You start off by writing a very simple sentence of the form [adjective] [noun] [verb] [noun]. So, for example, you might write “The big dog chews on a bone” or “Tired Mom wears a sombrero.”
You write that sentence at the top of a piece of paper, then you pass it to your left. That person has to draw what you wrote, then, when their drawing is done, they fold the sheet so that the original sentence is hidden. Then they pass it to the left. At that point, the person has to guess the sentence based on the picture. That person writes their sentence, then they fold the paper so the picture is hidden and pass it to the left. You do this several times until the papers are full, then you unfold them to see the transformations.
We spent probably half an hour doing this and, at the end, we unfolded our shared drawings and sentences.
The thing I took away from this was from the drawings and sentences of my children. They’re happy. They’re secure. All of their sentences and pictures were joyous and involved doing positive things with their friends, their family, their pets, or their personal hobbies.
(If you’re interested in this game, a game very similar to this is sold commercially under the name “Telestrations“, but you really don’t need to buy a game to play it. This can work well as an adult game, too.)
So why write about this game?
One of the sharpest memories I hold in my head from the last decade or so is of a phone call I made to my son when he was about two years old. At that time, I was traveling quite a lot for work – I needed to make money to support the life we were living and to turn our finances around.
I was sitting in a hotel room in San Diego. My son was in our living room at home in Iowa.
Sarah told me that my son wanted to talk to me. I was happy to oblige – I wanted to hear his voice.
He got on the phone and said, “Daddy. Come home.”
I told him I would be home very soon. I had a day or two left on my trip, but after that, I would see him. I would pick him up at his daycare as soon as I got home.
He didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he loudly said, “Daddy! Come home!”
I didn’t know what to say. So I just said, “I’ll come home in just two days, buddy!”
He interrupted me with “Daddy! Come home! Daddy! Come home! Daddy! Come home!” And then he burst into tears. His tears sent his baby sister, who was about six months old at the time, into a flood of tears as well.
My tears were flowing, too.
The moment I hung up that phone, I asked myself what I was really doing with my life. I had a job that I enjoyed, but the travel was simply tearing me apart. It was causing me to do the very thing I had promised myself I would never do – be an absent father. It made me sick to my stomach. It made me ashamed of myself.
On the flight home, I decided that I needed to change things in my life. I went home, did an honest assessment of the state of my side businesses (namely, The Simple Dollar, some freelance writing opportunities, and a couple web design contracts), and talked it over with Sarah.
And I walked away from that job. Since then, my collective side businesses, along with Sarah’s job and our freedom from debt, have been enough to not only support us, but to help us build up some money in the bank.
Instead of flying to San Diego or Washington D.C. or Mexico City or New York City all the time (or what felt like all the time), I’m doing things like going to my daughter’s performance of Three Little Pigs. I have enough flexibility with my writing and other income streams that I can work on them in the evenings or early in the morning or when the kids are at school.
This is what I want to do. This is what is important to me, not some image of success I want to show to others. Everyone has something inside that makes them tick and makes them proud of who they are. Being there for my family does that for me.
More than that, I don’t feel ashamed of my life choices any more. I’m there when my family wants me or needs me.
My son hasn’t asked me to come home in many years. He just knows I’ll be there for him if he needs me, so he feels more secure about himself and about exploring the world around him and growing up. (My daughter and my youngest son haven’t experienced anything else.)
This is what smart personal finance has given me. Frugality made it possible for us to enjoy a good life while spending less money. A debt repayment plan helped us clear out our mountain of debts and maximize our monthly cash flow. Hard work and entrepreneurship gives us income from several different places and gives us both career flexibility. Without these things, this change would not have happened. They made it possible.
When I look at the pictures from the game that we were playing, what strikes me is that on two different sheets, some of the pictures they drew involve me doing something with them. The initial sentences had nothing to do with this, but the pictures just naturally showed a healthy relationship between a bright and secure elementary-aged child and a father who cares for them deeply. In one, I appear to be holding their younger brother on my shoulders while he roars like a dinosaur. In the other, I am doing something with a plate that they described as “making tacos.”
I am a natural and secure part of their life, one they can rely on and trust as they grow and explore the world. That’s what their pictures show me.
From the day Sarah announced to me that we were going to have a baby, that’s all I’ve ever wanted. Good financial choices made it possible.
What do you want from your life? There’s a very good chance that you can have most of (if not all of) that dream if you start making better choices with your money each day. It won’t happen today, or tomorrow, or next week. You don’t build a great wall with a single brick.
Whatever you choose to build, it will be worth it.