Updated on 04.22.08

The Things Money Can’t Buy

Trent Hamm

To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. And Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.

The quote and video above are from a speech given by Jim Valvano at the 1993 ESPY Awards. He passed away from cancer less than two months after giving this speech.

On my computer, I have a startup page that has this quote on it front and center. I see that quote every day when I start my work day and often several times throughout my day, and it regularly inspires me. I spend so much time focusing on money issues when I write on The Simple Dollar that it’s often easy for me to lose sight of all of the things that money can’t buy. Money can’t buy back a moment with a loved one that’s passed away. Money can’t buy back an afternoon at the park with your son when he’s grown up and moved away. Money can’t buy back a chance to repair a broken relationship – or the fleeting chance to build a new one.

I keep a list of things that I try to do every week – or roughly so often. These are things that don’t cost me anything, but they’re things that fill my life with so much value and joy that I can’t put a mere price tag on them.

Valvano’s three are on there.

This one’s easy for me – a half an hour with my two year old son almost always ends in laughter. This is almost a reminder to just spend some quality time with him each day.

I have a collection of “tear jerkers” that bring a tear to my eye every time I hear them or see them. They include the last five minutes of the film Field of Dreams (partially because I can relate so well to the connection that baseball has made with my father and grandfather), a handful of sentimental songs, and a small pile of old photographs. I try to look at a few of these every day, and almost always one of them does the trick. It keeps me in touch with what I value most.

I try to read something every day that pushes me intellectually – an essay in a well-written magazine, a journal article, a literary short story, or a section of a challenging book. I then spend some time thinking about it – looking up details that I’m unsure about and trying to really understand what’s being said. I almost always feel much better for the effort.

Here are three more. Take a few moments out of your busy week to try doing a few of these things. You won’t regret it.

Connect with your parents.
Right now, just fire up your email program and send a note to your mother and/or your father saying nothing more than “I love you. Thanks for all you’ve done for me.”

If that seems hard, spend some time thinking back to your childhood and think about all of the small but continuous sacrifices your parents made for you. The evenings spent at home instead of going out. The pennies pinched to make sure you had food on the table and a present under the Christmas tree. The time spent preparing meals and cleaning the house. Watch a toddler or a young child sometime and remember that you were once that age for years and your parents did countless little things to feed you, help you, and clean up after you.

Most of the mistakes that are made that seemingly damage or destroy a relationship are pretty minor when they’re looked at through that sort of reflection.

The thirty seconds you spend touching base with that relationship, even if it means swallowing a bit of pride or getting past some indignation, are thirty seconds that you’ll never regret.

Tell someone that they inspire you.
Again, a phone call or an email are perfect for this kind of thing. But I’ll be more public about it – I’ll tell you about my oldest brother, Al. I’ll quote something I wrote about him recently.

Al is about thirteen years older than I am – old enough such that we didn’t have much of a direct relationship at all when I was little. He was in high school when I was still in training pants, and he moved out when I was in first grade – not exactly a relationship of peers.

Instead, I looked up to him in the way that a little brother might in that situation. I watched him do a lot of things, for better and for worse, often when he didn’t even realize I was watching. And he inspired me to do a lot of things.

Al is outgoing – an extrovert while I’m an introvert. He had self-confidence that I’ve never felt. When I was in high school and in college, for example, my natural tendency would be not to talk to girls – any time I would try to build up the courage to talk to someone, my gut would try to talk me out of it. It was often at those moments I’d think about Al – and I’d realize that he’d have the courage to simply go do it, no matter what, and more than once that was enough to give me the kick in the pants I needed to stop being a wallflower.

In fact, it was that very motivation that got me to call my wife-to-be back and ask her for a second date Al happened to be there just when I made that phone call. He probably doesn’t remember it in the least, but I sure do – he basically said stop being a wimp and call that girl. I did, and now she’s my wife.

His self-confidence inspires me in other ways. It comes out as intense passion for things, and that passion drives him to get better at these things and – even better – teach others about them. He’s a passionate hunter, and he taught both me and my wife how to fire a rifle.

Al inspires me quite often to be less analytic about things and more passionate instead. I might sometimes think that his passion and zest for life goes too far, but without that inspiration, I might simply look at my hands a lot and simply not speak at all.

Al likely has no idea that I think this way and he’ll probably never read this posting – he’d rather be out in a tree stand than reading a blog. But I’ll find some way to tell him very soon.

Is there someone in your life that would be shocked to find out that they inspire you or that you think quite highly of them? What’s holding you back from telling them? Speaking up about it does nothing more than add some positive vibe to your relationship.

Spend time with a child – and with an elderly person.
There are two periods in a person’s life that you can be sure are fleeting: childhood and old age. Every day that passes for a child is another day that they move from being a child towards being an adult. Every day that passes for an elderly person is one less day you have to tell them how you feel.

There’s also another reason why it’s valuable to spend time with children and with elderly people: they’re both often willing to put aside the layers of social norms that we build up around ourselves and reach out in a deeply authentic way. Because of that, they can touch your soul in a way that’s very difficult for younger adults to do in a social situation.

Seek out the young people and the old people in your life and reach out to them. You may get much more than you bargain for.

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  1. Daniel says:

    When I was trying to come up with a phrase that captured this attitude to use as a tagline on The Art of Zen Living, I picked “Live simple. Live happy.”

    I think it sums up an ultimate truth that we, as a society, have lost site of in our rush to the modern age.

  2. Frugal Dad says:

    Excellent post, Trent. You know, the saying is true, “The best things in life really are free.” I find more fulfillment in spending time with my aging grandfather and my young children than anything money could buy.

    Jimmy V’s timeless inspiration will continue to move generations to come. He was such a great guy, not just in the college basketball world, but beyond the court. Thanks for including the video. I distinctly remember watching those ESPY’s with my mom as a sophomore in high school and hearing this speech.

  3. camila says:

    My husband is still in his treatment for leukemia. We are just 37 years old, and we really treasure our moments together. There are good chances that he will make it for good, but still, it really changes you.
    We want to have more money, but just for the ability to do what we want and be able to worry about the things that really matter.

  4. Your blog is so thought-provoking. I love that you focus on issues that are beyond the immediate need to make/ accumulate money and assets.

    Of course, money buys lots of stuff, and research consistently shows that there is at least some correlation between having money and being satisfied with life.

    But money can’t buy happiness. Thank you for the important reminder.

  5. @ camila: I am so sorry. You are a very strong person. My thoughts are with you.

  6. kevin says:

    I’m a huge ACC basketball fan. I’m Wahoo, but I like the Pack as long as they are not playing the Cavaliers. I got tears in my eyes just by reading the first sentence of the quote at the start of this post. Jimmy V’s speech gets me every time.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “research consistently shows that there is at least some correlation between having money and being satisfied with life.”

    That’s only true up to the point that your basic needs are covered. In other words, the middle class is generally happier than those in poverty. After that, there’s not a whole lot of correlation.

  8. Debbie M says:

    I have a similar list of things I like to do regularly (maybe not quite daily), and they are:

    1) think
    2) socialize
    3) create
    4) do something physical
    5) do a good turn

    I never thought of directly trying to mess with my emotions. That’s interesting.

    P.S. We should also brush our teeth daily.

  9. Saving Freak says:

    Please, everyone. Bathe daily. This is a gift to the world.

  10. Sandeep Goswami says:

    Great thought provoking post!

  11. Daniel says:

    “Tell someone that they inspire you.”

    Trent, today, for me, that is you. This comment thread has given me a great idea for a post.

    Well, actually I was going to comment back, but once I realized I was gonna be at like 900 words…

    Anyway, thanks for the though provoking post!

  12. !wanda says:

    ““research consistently shows that there is at least some correlation between having money and being satisfied with life.”

    That’s only true up to the point that your basic needs are covered. In other words, the middle class is generally happier than those in poverty. After that, there’s not a whole lot of correlation.”

    More recent research indicates that Trent’s statement may not be true- that beyond that point, money can make for a happier life. After all, not being stressed about money shouldn’t be bad for you. Anyway, how money influences happiness and how other factors like culture influence that relationship is an active area of economics and social sciences research.

  13. !wanda says:

    I really appreciate my mom and tell her every week. My dad, on the other hand, spent maybe half of my childhood overseas. That’s OK, because I’ve seen how he is with children and decided that I appreciate the fact that graduated from college debt-free with all the extra money he made more than I would have appreciated him living in the same house as me. I don’t think he wants to hear that, though.

  14. NED says:

    7 Things to be done everyday* (A “summary”):
    1. Laugh
    2. Cry
    3. Think
    4. Brush your teeth
    5. Bathe
    6. Sing
    7. Read The Simple Dollar

    *Disclaimer: You can do some of the above at the same time but attempting to do everything together can result in lockjaw + a speed pass to the nearest Acme Asylum.

  15. NED says:

    Camila: My heart goes out to you. I had lost my maternal grandmother to leukemia when I was 10 and sometimes, in the quiet hours of the night, I can recall that deep sense of loss I felt then.

    Death truly opens the eyes; It is ironic, but I feel that experiencing a death is the fastest way to know what makes us happy… Now you just have to remember what you have seen and grasp that bit of happiness.

  16. Gayle says:

    Camilla: My heart and prayers to you both. My partner was diagnosed with leukemia (CML) on 9/11 and it felt like the drama and pain of the nation was being acted out on the private stage of our lives. He was 29, survived to receive a bone marrow transplant, then passed away less than a year later in 2002. 4/24 would have marked his 36th birthday, and I still miss him dearly.

    I look back on that time as some of our best. You’re absolutely right, the experience changes you. And you pay more attention to the little things. We had many wonderful, memorable times before he was diagnosed, but those that came after seem so much more powerful if only because we were more aware of our mortality.

  17. gr8whyte says:

    Money isn’t everything. Sooner or later, time will become more valuable than all the money in the world which is mostly why I took early retirement. I saved from habit without intending early retirement but a co-worker suggested that I look into all my options when our organization was privatized in 2006. Thought things through and time won over everything else. I bailed. Since then, I’ve thought a few times about what might have been had I not retired. No regrets whatsoever.

  18. Ro says:

    Camilla: Thoughts and prayers to you and your husband.

    Trent: Great post!

  19. fay says:


    our thoughts are with you, stay strong for your husband and never give up hope

  20. Antishay says:

    Thank you for posting that video – I would have never seen it otherwise. I got my cry in for the day!

    I’ve been thinking about how much I really embrace life and try to live to the fullest. Some people I know recently decided to tell me that they all admired me for being so open, and so vulnerable to life (after all, I do cry, think and laugh a ton every day) and your post strongly reminded me of that conversation. There’s something to be said for actually LIVING.

    Thank you so much for posting all of this. Hopefully some of your readers will take time to start feeling alive again, and take to heart what you’ve said. :D

  21. I love that video, every time I see it I feel guilty for ever complaining about any of the really insignificant things we all complain about in life.

  22. I recently read an article in the NY times about how money does indeed buy happiness. It’s more of a relative income sort of thing but it’s still better to be rich and healthy than poor and sick.

    I agree there are things money can’t buy. But the lack of money doesn’t make them any more viable. Or does it?

    Great post.

  23. Michelle says:

    My fiance and I play a game with each other that every night we tell each other the happiest, funniest, and saddest thing that happened to us each day. It really allows us to connect and makes you think of the little things that are easy to pass up.

  24. jm says:

    “You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.”

    You do that seven days a week, and you should seriously consider looking into treatment for your manic-depressive disorder.

  25. Linda says:

    I sort of agree with jm #24 about the manic-depressive disorder. I feel like Robert DeNiro in ANALYZE THIS because my emotions are so out of control. I do not think that crying at the drop of a hat is a good thing. I also realize that job or health or family issues beyond our control have emotional repercussions and sorrow is better expressed than denied.

    In any event I hope that I will soon be able to not cry every day. It is extremely annoying to me. It is great to see that crying a lot may not be the earmark of a total loser.


  26. Michelle says:

    Trent I turn to this site for daily money tips, but I have to admit I love when you switch it up. Thanks for this post — it puts a lot of things in perspective. :)

  27. love muffin says:

    Love the Simple Dollar….Thank you Trent.
    I consider myself an emotionally available/healthy person…So I am going to adapt your list to read:

    1. Laugh
    2. Think
    3. Sweat (do something physical)

    every day.

  28. erskine says:

    to gayl: this a universal truth, we are more aware of our existence in the moments when we realize we won’t live forever and we appreciate something or someone in the moment when we’ve lost it. Unfortunately, nowadays people live as if they would never die and die as if they have never lived!

  29. DougR says:

    Here’s a silly little thing I do every morning. I usually have multiple tabs open on the browser, so I “visit” (via webcam) four or five places around the US, and watch them as the day goes on. I see the sun come up, the midday weather, see the sun go down. Somehow it helps me keep a “big picture” view in mind, and it also helps me feel my place in the world. (The places I visit are the Great Smoky Mountains, Livingston Montana, Jackson Wyoming, and Glacier National Park, but there are lots of webcams all over the world ready to give you a glimpse into an exotic “someplace else,” on an hourly or daily basis.)

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