Updated on 11.19.08

The Time of Your Life

Trent Hamm

debt is slaveryRecently, I was leafing through my copy of Michael Mihalik’s excellent personal finance book Debt Is Slavery (one of the very few I’ve actually kept).

I was working through something of a problem in my mind, one that I wasn’t quite sure how it fit in the context of good personal finance management. When I think back to the happiest time in my life, I think about the honeymoon I spent with my wife – the most expensive two weeks of my life.

My wife and I went to England and Scotland for our honeymoon in the summer of 2003. For a week, we stayed in a hotel with a nice room overlooking Hyde Park in central London, about half a block from the Royal Albert Hall and just a short walk from Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. Later, we spent a few days in Manchester, followed by a few days in Inverness, along with stops in Bath and a few other random places around the country.

I don’t even want to speculate how much the entire trip cost, but I can say without a doubt that it was the most expensive trip of my life. It was also the most memorable two weeks of my life. I remember so much of it with a warm, loving glow – even the pictures seem to possess a certain magic.

On the surface, this would seem to be an argument against much of what I talk about on The Simple Dollar. From my own experience, the most expensive period in my life was also the happiest.

But as I flipped through Debt Is Slavery, the answer to my problem slapped me right in the face on page 39:

When was the best time of your life?

I would guess it’s something like:
+ The idyllic two weeks at summer camp when you were a child.
+ The two month backpacking trip across Europe.
+ The trip to Mazatlan for spring break.
+ The winter you spent at Sun Valley as a ski instructor.
+ The family road trip across the United States when you were 12.

What’s common about those experiences?

+ You had the freedom to do whatever you wanted.
+ You had few, if any, obligations.
+ You were footloose and fancy-free.
+ You weren’t burdened down with STUFF.

The answer to my very problem was right there in front of me. My honeymoon wasn’t a great memorable time because we spent it in such a fancy place. It was memorable because we spent it together, doing whatever we felt like doing, with only a couple of suitcases to worry about.

We were a continent away from any worries in our lives. This was following a period in which I had worked eighty hour weeks trying to create a product that had just gone live a month or two before our wedding. While we were in England, there were no middle of the night calls. There were no emergency tasks that had to be done.

There was just me, my wife, and a lot of simple and enjoyable things.

Looking back now, I realize that the location could have been almost anywhere and it still would have been the best two weeks of my life. We could have just thrown two changes of clothes into the back of our car and driven away from the wedding and it would have been the best two weeks of our lives.

When you consider it took us almost four years to pay off that trip, I somewhat wish we had just taken the simpler trip. We would have still had the freedom, togetherness, and lack of obligations, but without having to come home to that huge bill.

Great memories don’t come from expensive trips or meticulous planning. They come from spending time with little obligation other than to enjoy yourself.

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  1. Caleb says:

    Wow. Very valid point. There are definitely some things that money won’t buy. Was the experience worth it?
    My girlfriend and I went on a cruise this past summer. I’m only 24, so this was the most expensive trip of my life. Although, it was super-expensive from my standards, I fully enjoyed myself for the first time. I was in another universe. Away from everything. And I was with the love of my life. My girlfriend is always working on the moment (hence, she is a big spender). I’m more concerned about the future (hence, I’m a big saver), as you seem to be yourself. But sometimes fully experiencing the moment is a priceless charm.


  2. Susy says:

    So true. Some of our most memorable vacations are camping/backpacking trips that cost almost nothing. But with no agenda & no itenerary and nowhere to be and nothing to do, it’s a stark difference from our day-to-day jobs. There’s just something about being able to sit by the fire for 4-5 hours that’s so relaxing.

    I think we even enjoy these vacations more knowing they’re only costing us a couple hundred dollars!

  3. AD says:

    I feel the same way about our trip to Europe. We didn’t live it up with 5-star hotels, but we did spend a lot, and my husband and I had credit card debt we could have paid off with the trip money.

    I think it’s curious that I don’t regret that trip in the least, considering how frugal and careful I’ve become. Next time we go, we’ll pay in cash, and we already paid off all consumer debt. It’ll feel great, but I still loved every minute of the trip we couldn’t afford, wouldn’t trade the experience, ever.

    I also think it’s weird that I’m secretly happy that I spent a bit too much on clothes at one point. I cleaned out 80 percent of my closet, and I was left with some great-fitting, nicely made pieces of clothing. Most were pricey items, but now that I carefully evaluate every purchase, I’m sort of glad I was reckless before, and now have nice things (which I take very good care of since I’m not likely to spend that much to replace them).

    It seems strange to me that I enjoy the memories of a trip we couldn’t afford, and enjoy carrying a handbag that I would never buy again, given that I’m so careful with money now and fixated on solid financial goals.

    I really don’t understand it, but there you go.

  4. Johanna says:

    Weirdly, the best time of my life was also one of the most stressful: my first year in grad school. Even more weirdly, it fits right in with Mihalik’s examples, in a way. My friends and I were working toward the common goal of passing our candidacy exams, so not only did we have a great “we’re all in this together” type of feeling, but we were free from the burdens of just about anything ELSE.

    These days, I get a lot of fulfillment out of travel, and especially travel to England, so I feel I should point out that it really IS a special place, and going there doesn’t have to be expensive. You can fly coach, stay in B&Bs for $100 a night or less, travel around using discount bus and train tickets purchased in advance, and eat in charming (but reasonably priced) little cafes, and still see Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Albert Hall, Bath, and all the other places without spending a fortune. I guess what I’m trying to say is, the specialness of the experience really might have stemmed, at least in part, from the location, as distinguished from the spending of large amounts of money in that location.

  5. Your Friendly Neighborhood Computer Guy says:

    Great insights, you seem to be having more epipiphanies lately (or at least blogging about them more)!

    I think alot of the joy is lost in vacationing and travel for the average american who is obsessed with controlling every aspect of the trip. The most fun I’ve had travelling is when I flew to the Philippenes on a whim while I was in the Army stationed in South Korea. I put the whole trip on my credit card and lost my wallet while I was there!! (luckily I kept my passport seperate so I was able to fly back). It was a big financial “blonde moment”, but while I was there I explored, made friends, and learned to get around without money. It was the bext trip of my life because I didn’t have my wallet to use to spend money on tourist traps.

    Since then, I try to spend a good chunk of my vacation time just wandering around and seeing what adventures I can get into…there’s no better way to experience another culture like getting lost in it.

  6. AD says:

    “I think alot of the joy is lost in vacationing and travel for the average american who is obsessed with controlling every aspect of the trip.”

    Very true. I’ve hear people describe Italy as “dirty and full of gypsy theives.” Wow. I feel bad that that person spent a chunk of change to go to Italy, and totally missed the point. The art, the food, the people. If you’re a control freak, you probably won’t have a good time traveling abroad. Much better to roll with the punches and appreciate the differences, and yes, even the inconveniences.

  7. AD says:

    HEARD. Not hear. Gah.

  8. Paul says:

    I kind of agree, up to a point. I’ve travelled pretty extensively, and I can honestly say that there are things that I’ve loved doing and experiences I’ve had that I just couldn’t get in my own country. Whether it’s gambling in Las Vegas and walking in the Grand Canyon (I’m English btw), walking through a Moroccan market, or just sitting on a tropical beach, I simply could not replicate my experiences without travelling.

    It all depends on what makes you happy. If all you want an need is to be close to someone you love for a time, you don’t need to travel. But, opening your mind to a different culture for a week or two is also worth more than money you spend. I think of it as an educational activity as well as leisure time!

  9. deepali says:

    Well, I think this just illustrates the point that there is little correlation between money and happiness beyond the basics.

  10. bethh says:

    Reminds me of lyrics to a Dan Bern song, “New American Language” that always cause me to reflect:

    Yeah but sometimes I think the thing to do
    Would be to get a place way out in Missouri
    Put down as many months rent as you can part with
    Tell everybody else you went to France.

  11. Sharon says:

    To AD: Your experiences don’t seem strange at all to me. I think the point of frugality is to stop spending money mindlessly on things you don’t really care about, so that you can spend it on things of lasting value, without stress or guilt. Those pricey items in your closet that still give you pleasure were not the problem. It was the other 80%!

    Now as for travel,that’s my weakness. I agree that it’s better to pay cash, but if the opportunity comes along, my credit card balance is zero, and I can reasonably expect to pay off the trip fairly quickly and easily? – Where’s my suitcase and passport??

  12. Kris says:

    I wouldn’t count any of my travel experiences as “the best time of my life”. I’m not a very good traveler, though, since I desperately need routine and travel interrupts all of my routines. I enjoy my memories of having gone to Greece, for example, but I was miserable pretty much the whole time I was there.

    When I think about the happiest times of my life, they all have the following things in common:

    1. I was either jobless or for some reason not working for pay
    2. I was home, surrounded by my routines and all of the things that delight me
    3. I had an interesting project to work on
    4. I was by myself

    I’m wired a lot differently than many people, though.

  13. michelle says:

    We are in the middle of planning our honeymoon for May 2009 right now and will also be going to Scotland plus Amsterdam, Brussels and the Rhine River in Germany. This will be a very expensive trip for us, but I know it will be worth it. We have saved up the entire amount in cash and have no other debts, so I actually feel good about splurging on something that is very important to both of us since we have cut back everyhwhere else to make it happen.

    One question to anyone who travels abroad frequently, is it too soon to book our airfare now for May/June 09? I found a pretty good deal on flights and I want to book, but I am afraid if I book too soon, our flights will get cancelled and mess with the rest of our plans.

  14. Mia says:

    Very true. The most memorable times of my life have been trips away. Recently as we decided to downshift our life, I very briefly considered cutting back on trips. The thought of it caused me too much pain and instead we are trying creative ways of taking trips on a reduced budget instead.

  15. Another Debt related book I would like to mention – The Credit Diet by John Furhman. It’s got practical insights and easy to follow steps to get rid of debt.
    A Dawn Journal

  16. sara says:

    very interesting observation. We Honeymooned in Maui, but brought and cooked all our own food (which was surprisingly relaxing since we could eat whenever and whatever we were in the mood for) and just played around doing all the free/cheap things we could find. I agree that its the lack of obligations and chance to relax with my best friend that made it such a wonderful time.

  17. Ryan McLean says:

    I just went on my honeymoon and went about $10,000 in debt. It would have been awesome except I got a mjor ear infection and I was sick for 8 days out of 14. I even ended up in hospital. When i can afford it (either this year or next year) then I will be having another honeymoon

  18. kristine says:

    You describe what made your vacation so wonderful-no obligations, feeling footloose and fancy free.

    You can achieve a little of that feling every evening, simply by turning off your cell phone, and the ringer on your phone. You can always check calls at your leisure.

    Luxury is not being at beck and call. Slavery is interrupting time with your family, even time in the bathroom, to run to an electronic device just because it makes a noise. It will keep.

    Unless, of course, you are a doctor.

  19. s says:

    Hi Trent,
    I know cents and sense is your topic. That book
    sounds interesting to read. I just think that you sometimes have to splurge. How would you know what it would be like if you never did this. I think the freedom was also that you were going to have great accomodations. This can be part of the fun. I know the bill is there when you get back.
    At least you know you and your wife had a beautiful honeymoon. I myself don’t travel that much. I like the idea of traveling within your means just to get away with no worries and bill to pay when you return. I agree this is fun to just do what you want hopefully without being in debt. Debt is slavery. I see it this way too. Great post. Makes me think !!!!

  20. Amber says:

    This came at a great time. I am planning my wedding right now for two years down the road (my fiancee is in the Army on deployment) and we are determined to save enough for the wedding and honeymoon. I am very lucky that my Grandmother owns a house on a beach that we could stay at for free as a wedding gift, but some people think I live too frugally and am shortchanging myself. Thank you for reminding me that I am actually doing the exact opposite of shortchanging myself and my soon to be husband.

  21. Lisa says:

    For you frugal wedding planners, how about skipping the engagement ring? Or having a wedding ring that costs a few hundred rather than thousands (or more)? There. You just saved enough for a honeymoon in Italy.

    My point/advice is to not be a sucker for the sales pitch. Get something nice and meaningful that you love but don’t bother feeling like it is an investment because I doubt you are planning on selling it.

  22. Saver Queen says:

    I couldn’t agree more! And ironically, we often get sucked in to making purchases in order to acquire those precious moments, feelings of freedom, joy, like cars, motorcycles, trips and even clothes. When I look back at one of the happiest times of my life, it was falling in love with my partner. I was filled with so much joy that nothing could compare to it. I remember feeling like I needed nothing more in the world. At one point we were given a gift certificate to a very fancy restaurant. We enjoyed it but we both knew that we would have also enjoyed a Big Mac just as much; we were so over-the-moon, head-over-heels in love with each other. The times in my life when I have felt free and confident have also been my most joyous and they have never had any correlation to my earnings and certainly nothing to do with the money I spent.

  23. kellykelly says:

    I need a lot of stimulation. I can get only so much of that locally. I treasure my memories of my trips to other states and countries, the discoveries, the not knowing what’s around the bend.

    Sometimes you DO have to spend money to get a certain feeling.

    I desperately miss travelling.


  24. ” … freedom to do whatever you want … few, if any, obligations …footloose and fancy-free … not burdened down with STUFF.”

    Ah, the life of a bachelor with no children and no house. Life is practically a permanent vacation. :-)

  25. Lurker Carl says:

    Love, celebration and commitment. Vowing to forge a life-long relationship and build a strong future are the spiritial hallmarks of a marriage ritual. A wedding is an expression of joy and promise to be shared with family and friends.

    Opulence, extravagance and self-gratification. So many weddings project a perception of wealth and glamour that everyone knows does not mirror the family fortune. Why begin your marriage with a lie?

  26. Stephen says:

    Trent – it was your honeymoon!!! – the best part occurs in the hotel – no matter how much spent on the room.

  27. Nick says:

    And as another lesson, like you mentioned the appeal of the vacations and their enjoyability is that you were free. When in debt, you’re not free, you are constantly checking your statements, making payments, etc.

  28. Rosie says:

    @ Kris (comment #10):

    Thank you so much for posting that!!! WE are wired differently–believe me, you are not the only one to feel that way.

    As always, Trent, food for thought.

  29. No Debt Plan says:

    Now imagine saving all of that money, living frugally, and then being able to live a life of freedom like that all of the time — rather than 2 weeks out of the year.

    That’s the goal for me.

  30. Anna says:

    This reminds me of something my mother told me years ago. Her sister-in-law (my father’s sister), who was always well dressed, thought my mother didn’t spend enough on clothes.

    My mother, too, was well dressed — she just was very careful with her money. Seeing the two women together, you would not have been able to tell which one spent more on her clothes.

  31. Battra92 says:

    Best time of my life? Of jeez, I really can’t say I’ve had one. Honestly, I’ve never been able to take big vacations or just be free. Even when I go on vacation (the rare anime con trip) I tend to be frugal buying cheap food from basic restaurants (sometimes eating out of grocery stores) and such.

    The other funny thing is whenever I go to an anime con, I always buy a figure or two for my collection so I can’t say they are uncluttered or really cheap for me.

  32. kz says:

    When my husband and I got married last year, there were so many people who were horrified that we planned to camp for our honeymoon. I figured the choice was simple – I could either go someplace really nice for two days and come home having exhausted our budget (yes, we paid for our $12k wedding, including *everything* except my engagement ring, in cash that we saved over 11 months – I know we could have done it cheaper, but it’s exactly what we wanted and it was paid for) OR we could go camping in a provincial park in Canada (we live in Michigan) for 9 days, including hotel stays on the way out and back, and come home with extra money. Since I think camping with my husband is fun anyway, it was completely a no brainer.

  33. Amber says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of days — Trent, you really hit a nerve! I agree that being “free” definitely is one of the best parts about traveling. But I feel free from everyday responsibilities even when I go to visit my family.

    To me, traveling abroad is much more than a good time. I think it’s important to see how other people live and experience their culture firsthand. The history lesson that often goes along with it is valuable too. Oftentimes, it is easier to be fully immersed in a place by spending less; it usually costs less to stay where the locals live and to eat in their restaurants.

    Overall, I think traveling as a kind of education — something that’s necessary and worth sacrificing for. We get so wrapped up in our daily routines, that it’s sometimes hard to think beyond our families or our local communities. Getting away from it all can be fun, but it also can offer a good dose of perspective.

  34. “+ You had the freedom to do whatever you wanted.
    + You had few, if any, obligations.
    + You were footloose and fancy-free.
    + You weren’t burdened down with STUFF.”

    The first two are very expensive, if you want to maintain them long-term (and eat, and sleep in a bed) you need considerable financial resources. That’s why such fleeting moments are so precious for most of us.

  35. Strider says:

    @Michelle, Comment #11

    I don’t know where you’re going in Scotland but you can catch some pointers on what to do on my wife’s blog: http://www.xanga.com/calinda

    http://www.kayak.com – best place for comparing flight prices AND when is the best time to fly (if your plans are flexible)

    Now is not too early to buy your tickets. We bought ours 4-5 months in advance.

  36. Anna says:

    I think this is a really interesting idea. I think there’s quite a bit to be said for pairing down a vacation to focus on the essentials.

    What I find true in my own travels, however, is the education. Traveling in a foreign country, especially one where you don’t speak the language and the customs are very different, are an eye-opening way to learn about yourself and our world. While there’s a lot to be said for a frugal vacation, some experiences cannot be replicated close to home.

  37. JanB says:

    Great post. I have done extensive travels (by U.S. standards) quite cheap. It was one of the best times in my life. I lived for over a year out of a backpack and when I came home I got rid of so much stuff! Working overseas is a great way to get to see places you normally would not. I went right after college, but opportunity is still there if you are interested as you get older. You make money while you are there and we took day, weekend and time off to see the sites. We stayed in hostels (just sleeping there anyway) or camped. I went with a program called BUNAC (www.bunac.org) which is a work exchange program. We actually came back from our trip with money!!

  38. Annie Binns says:

    I’ve been catching up on my feed reader and just ran across this post. Talk about a huge “AH HA” moment … enough that I’m heading to the library in about 5 minutes to go get this book. @Kris’ comment also rang true for me – an ideal vacation would be if I could just send my family somewhere fun and I could stay home and putter for a week!

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