The Three Elements of Changing Your Life

When I was a little, my mother made the choice to be a stay-at-home mom. It was not an easy financial decision for my parents and if it were not for my father’s relatively steady job and handful of side businesses to pick up the slack, she would have never been able to do it.

Because of that decision, my mother was there for me again and again throughout my childhood.

She could pick me up at school when I was sick. I didn’t have to “tough it out” until the end of the school day or go to a daycare where the daycare worker, regardless of how dedicated they were, would have their attention split among a lot of kids.

She was there when I got off the bus, usually ready to spend some time reading or to play a game together. Some days I was glad to do this and other days I wasn’t, but I was always happy that someone was there.

She attended pretty much every extracurricular event that I was able to participate in. Her face was a constant in the crowd, giving a little boost to the self-confidence of an awkward and fairly nerdy adolescent and, later, teenager.

I had several surgeries during my childhood, including five ear surgeries, an eye surgery, two tonsil-related surgeries, an appendectomy, a hernia, and a few other procedures that I’ve probably forgotten about over the years. I never had to worry about sitting alone in a hospital – she would basically stay there all day during my surgeries and hospital stays.

She always made sure that there was a home-cooked breakfast on the table in the mornings and a home-cooked dinner on the table in the evenings.

She did all of those things and so many more, and the sum total of those efforts simply made my childhood that much better.

At the same time, my father was almost constantly busy. There would be many periods of several days where I simply wouldn’t see him because he would either be asleep or at work or working on a side business. He would make an effort to do things with me, but it was often a matter of me tagging along while he took care of some aspect of a side business or rounded up customers.

When I was younger, that was sometimes really hard for me to understand. Now that I’m older, I understand the hard financial decisions that my parents had to make, but even now, there are many moments in my childhood when I wished my father could have been right there.

When Sarah and I made the decision to have children, one thing I pledged to myself is that I wouldn’t miss any moment that was important to them. Sarah didn’t have quite the same commitment, but she did see immense value in having at least one parent available for any needs the children might have.

I wanted to be able to somehow figure out a way to provide the emotional presence and constancy that my mother provided while also providing the financial reliability that my father provided. At the same time, I didn’t want to become a stay-at-home parent. I made very good money in my research-related job. Sarah had no interest in giving up her career, either.

This was our central goal as parents. It was something that we both wanted for our children.

Balancing all of that was a tall order.

It turned out, as I discovered during the first few years of my oldest child’s life, that the solution to the problem was threefold.

First, we had to get a grip – a strong grip – on our finances. Yes, this meant a big cut back on our splurges. This also meant finding ways to minimize most of our expenses. It wasn’t always easy, either, but without changing how we used our money and finding smarter ways to use it, we would have never achieved that goal.

Second, we had to make smarter use of our time. Without some sort of career change, having at least one parent readily available for our children wouldn’t be possible. Without some sort of intense additional effort, whether in the form of building a business in our spare time or taking extra classes, we couldn’t make the changes we wanted to make. Without changing how we used our time and energy and finding smarter ways to use it, we would have never achieved our goal.

Finally, we had to communicate. Almost every day, we both shared what we felt about our financial changes, our time changes, and our career changes. We found ways to support each other through the difficulties and we looked for solutions that could allow us both to have the things we needed in our life. We accepted that neither one of us was perfect, but that we both wanted to head toward this kind of goal. Without improving our communication, we would have never achieved our goal.

Money. Time. Communication. Those were the three big elements we needed to put our life on the track we wanted. Let’s look at each of them.

Money

Money keeps food in our belly, clothes on our back, and a roof over our head. Money in the bank guarantees those things for the near future, giving us the flexibility to make whatever changes we want to make in our life.

The road from the financial state of the average American – which, according to this article, is a paycheck-to-paycheck financial state – to a financial state where they can pull off major life changes is a difficult one, but it’s also a straightforward one. Here are three key principles for making that transition.

Commit to eliminating or constraining your own worst spending practices. Many people make the immediate assumption that this means one should completely stop spending money on personal pleasure. In truth, it simply means cutting the worst of your spending practices, the times when you spend money and get little value out of that spending.

Our minds immediately snap to the times when we spend money and get a lot of pleasure. I think about my annual trip to Gencon with friends, for example, and that’s something that would make my life distinctly worse if I were to cut back on it.

Instead, one’s mind should flash to the areas where we spend money out of routine, but without getting any real pleasure – or at least not enough pleasure to make it worthwhile. For me, I’ll think of things like buying a bottle of Gatorade at the gas station or putting some impulsive junk food in my cart at the grocery store or clicking “buy” on an online sale for some item that I had no real desire to purchase before I saw the sale. Those are the “junk” things that need to be eliminated. Use a critical eye with everything you buy. That doesn’t mean saying “no” to everything. It just means saying “no” when it’s not really important to you.

The thing is, once you start looking at each purchase in that way, a lot of purchases end up looking like “junk” purchases. They don’t make your life noticeably worse by cutting them, but they do free up money you need to get rid of debts and plan for the future.

Find ways to really squeeze the areas where you spend money but don’t really care. I don’t really care whether my household supplies are generic or store brand as long as they do the job, so why spend money on the name brand? Is there any reason in the world not to find simple ways to reduce my home energy usage so I spend less on my energy bill each month?

The vast, vast majority of us spend a lot of money each month without getting any emotional fulfillment from that money, so why not squeeze that money down to the bare minimum?

Take each of the bills that you receive each month and dig through them. Do you need some of the line items on that bill? If it doesn’t do anything for you, call up the company and ask to have that item cut. Go through your receipts. Are there any items on there you could have purchased in another form – generic, bulk, or something like that – without losing any of the value to you? If so, be smarter with your grocery planning next time.

Get rid of debt and don’t acquire more. Freedom from debt is an amazing thing. It will give you the lowest monthly bills you’ll likely ever have in your adult life. There are no credit card bills, no car loan bills, no mortgage bills. They’re all just gone.

Instead, all of that income that would have gone into those debts stays with you, to do with what you feel is most important. Maybe the lower bills open the door to a more fulfilling or less stressful career with somewhat smaller paychecks. Maybe the lower bills open the door to saving for financial independence. Maybe they open the door to eventually launching a business or building or buying a better home.

Paying down your debts isn’t hard if you’ve made the other steps listed here. A debt repayment plan makes it incredibly easy to know what to pay off first.

I’ll be the first to admit that there is some nuance in lower-interest debts. There are specific situations, such as a home loan or a student loan, where a low-interest debt makes sense. There are also reasonable arguments for investing excess money rather than paying down a very low-interest loan. Having said that, paying down debt is virtually never a mistake. The worst case you could make against it (except for unusual cases) is that you could have received a somewhat better return on your money under certain market conditions.

As we made these changes in our own life, we both began to feel less stressed out in our day to day lives. We felt less tied to our current jobs and began to have a reservoir of cash in the bank to help us through any transitions that might be coming up. But it wasn’t quite enough yet.

Time

We spend time in much the same way that we do money. We devote some of our time to actually earning money and some more of it in keeping up our lives by eating, sleeping, and so on. The remainder is ours, but the difference between achieving big goals and failing at them is how to use that time smartly.

The real solution isn’t in some perfect time management program (although, I’ll say from experience, they can be helpful), but in making a few simple realizations about how you use your time in general.

Embrace the idea that “empty time” is your enemy. “Empty time” is time spent not doing something that enhances your life in a positive fashion.

It is really easy to allow “empty time” to substitute for other needs in our lives. For example, we’ll fill an hour or two of “empty time” by surfing the web or watching television before bed when we’re actually tired and would be better served getting another hour or two of sleep. We’ll spend some “empty time” when we get home from work not really doing anything at all, when a nap or a productive task or sitting down and reviewing how things are going or building a plan for the near-term future would serve us better.

Recognize that true leisure time is not “empty time.” For me, an hour or two spent doing something I truly value on a personal level is as refreshing as a day spent doing something idle that I don’t really care too much about. I would far rather, for example, play a one hour long board game with a few close friends, talking about life and thinking about our best moves with our electronic devices off and in the corner somewhere, than spending three or four hours in a chair channel surfing. I get more fulfillment out of that one hour than I ever would out of those three or four hours.

True leisure time – time spent doing something that brings deep fulfillment into your life – is the opposite of “empty time.” It’s one of the most important and most valuable elements of life. It recharges you and makes the other demands on your time go much easier.

The flip side of that is that true leisure time becomes less valuable when you have it in abundance. Leisure time leaves you feeling recharged, not drained. When you’re left feeling drained after spending time on what is normally leisure, then you’re either spending too much time on leisure or you’re doing something that isn’t really bringing value into your life.

If you’re genuinely worn out, spend time doing genuine leisure time. Spend an hour or two doing something that’s truly fulfilling to you rather than just filling fifteen minute gaps here and there playing a mindless game on your phone that doesn’t leave you filling any better than before.

Never, ever undervalue sleep. Many people, when they’re trying to build something new or make their day more productive, will sacrifice sleep along the way. They’ll go to bed later to squeeze in more work or wake up earlier (without a bedtime adjustment) to get exercise.

Inadequate sleep makes almost everything worse in your life. It saps away your decision-making power and your ability to think properly. You often don’t see those deficits in the moment, but they add up over time and they can definitely rear their head when you least expect them to.

If you’re going to sacrifice “empty time” to anything, I recommend a mixture of sleep and planning how to use your time. Sleep will refresh you. A bit of time planning will help you make smarter decisions in the moment.

I adopted these steps in my own life to find the space to launch a freelance writing career in my spare time in the evenings. The income that it provided and the potential daily flexibility it offered, along with our smarter tactics toward money, pushed us closer, but it still wasn’t enough.

Communication

Communication with the core people in your life is important, but equally important (if not more so) is communication with yourself. If you don’t understand why you’re doing the things that you’re doing or why your partner is doing the things he or she is doing or your partner doesn’t understand what you’re doing, you’re begging for problems that will stand directly in the way of achieving big goals.

Be fully honest with yourself. It’s easy to convince ourselves that our mistakes aren’t really mistakes or that a mistake isn’t really a big deal. As long as we keep telling ourselves that poor choices are okay and not really a problem, we’re going to continue to make poor choices.

Don’t be afraid to take yourself to task for mistakes. Be hard on yourself about them. At the same time, don’t be afraid to feel good about the positive steps you take. Feel ashamed when you don’t bother to take a positive step. Feel proud when you do.

Know that excuses are the worst enemy of all. Excuses are incredibly dangerous things. They provide a convenient reason to not follow up on the positive behaviors we know we should be doing.

If you have to provide a reason to explain something you’ve done or are considering doing, it’s an excuse. Good choices do not require a reason or an explanation.

If you find yourself making an excuse, whether you’re excusing something you’re about to do or making an excuse for something you already did, that’s a giant warning sign telling you that there’s a change you really need to focus on in your life. Why are you making that excuse? Answering that question to yourself deeply and honestly is perhaps the most valuable investment of time and energy you can make.

Be fully honest with your life partner. At the same time that you’re practicing full honesty with yourself, you should also practice full honesty with your partner. Your partner is usually a big part of achieving your goals, so full honesty here is vital.

If you make a mistake, admit it and say so. If you’re struggling, admit it and say so. If you’re frustrated, admit it and say so.

It takes far more strength to be honest about such things than to hide them under a false veneer.

Talk about everything that bothers you – and everything that brings you joy. Many people let minor problems fester inside of them until they explode in an emotional burst. Along the way, those festering problems often lead us to making awful money and time choices.

Never, ever let that happen. If something is a problem, say so. Be clear about what the problem is and why it bothers you with the fullest honesty that you can muster.

At the same time, encourage your partner to share everything that bothers them and listen to what they’re saying, even if you disagree. If your partner is bothered enough to share it, then there’s a problem there that deserves real attention.

The sign of a problem in a relationship isn’t that problems exist – they always will. The problems happen when one person feels that they can’t communicate those problems and that the other person isn’t listening.

At the same time, you need to share the positive things. If you see your partner doing something positive that makes you feel good, tell your partner exactly what they did. Don’t hold back on the praise, especially for specific, good things.

Together, these things add up to full communication and deeper honesty and deeper understanding of one another. That will do nothing but make your goals much, much easier to achieve.

Our final ingredient was communication. We both opened up and became more clear about what we each wanted from our daily lives, what we valued in each other (as well as what we were troubled by in each other), our mistakes and our successes, and how we could each get what we wanted while providing everything our children needed. Understanding each other’s needs so deeply made it possible for us to make some major life changes without creating too much personal upset.

The end result is that I now work as a freelance writer and Sarah works in public education. Our three children are of school age, which means that I’m able to help prepare them for school in the morning, be waiting there for them when they get home, take care of school emergencies, and be a part of all of their activities while also contributing a healthy share of our household income. Sarah has increase career flexibility as well, as we now have the freedom for her to choose different paths in her educational career even if they mean lesser income for a while (or permanently). For now, her choices are very family-oriented, giving her free sumers during which she gets to spend tons of time with the children, but also giving her a career path that fulfills her.

We would not be here if it were not for better control over our money, our time, and our communication. They are the three key ingredients for change in life.

Final Thoughts

Whatever your big goal in life might be, it will fall apart if these three elements aren’t strongly in place. With us, our goal was for one of us to have incredibly strong career flexibility without sacrificing financial stability. Your big picture for what you’d like your life to be like might be the same or it might be completely different, but whatever the case, you won’t achieve it without money, time, and communication.

Good luck.