I used to feel really guilty about the ways in which I spent my money. My solution to this guilt was to spend even more money, buying things which would provide a short term balm for my heart, but would in the end leave me feeling even more guilty than before. I felt like everything was slipping away and there was nothing I could do about it, so why not go to the bookstore and buy another book? It will make you feel better, I kept telling myself, but it didn’t.
What did make me feel better, though, was holding my son. He was about five months old at the time of my final economic meltdown. One evening, my wife went to bed early, my son wasn’t feeling good, and I sat on the couch holding him on my lap for several hours. He finally drifted off into a restless sleep and I just kept holding him there, as I looked around our apartment at so many things that I had spent money on foolishly. I was drowning in debt because of all of this stuff, and yet the thing that really made me feel good, that really made my life feel like it had value, was asleep in my arms.
After that, I realized that it wasn’t the stuff that I owned that had value, and it was that revelation that brought about a great change in my spending and financial life.
I invite you to sit down for a half an hour and think about things in terms of what’s actually important to you. Here are some ideas that you can think about that might show you the way to a better life.
Figure out what the top priority is (or top priorities are) in your life. For me, it is my son and his well-being and happiness. Is his life stable and happy and healthy, so he can grow up comfortably and without worries? I used to believe that what made me happy was physical items, but since my little boy came along, he washed away that nonsense; nothing else compares.
What’s valuable to you? Maybe, like me, it’s your child. Is it your spouse? Maybe it’s a passion, like writing or painting. What is it that you do that brings pure joy, joy that isn’t later followed with guilt? The key to a fulfilling life is finding those things and making them the center of your life.
List every expenditure you have, both in terms of money and time. This is pretty easy. Make a list of everything you spend and everything you do over a given timeframe (say, a week or a month). You sleep, you watch television, you pay your electric bill, you go out on the town – everything that takes time and/or money.
Decide whether each of these expenditures is contributing to the top priority or not. I usually use a ten point scale, with a 10 meaning it contributes very strongly (things like time spent playing with and reading to my son) and a 1 meaning it doesn’t contribute at all (buying electronic gizmos for myself). It usually requires some thought to figure this out; for instance, I rated my primary employment as a “4,” because it does provide income, but it keeps me from doing things with my child that I’d rather be doing.
Figure out what expenditures of time and money you can cut out. Go through the items with low numbers and ask yourself whether you can cut that out of your life. Almost everything with a 1 or a 2 can go for most people; for me, I’m now looking for ways to eliminate or reduce the impact of the 3s and 4s, particularly those that have a large time or money investment. I don’t shop for books much anymore (I use the local library to find things to read) and I rarely eat out anymore, for example.
Make a list of things that you’d like to do or have that would contribute to the valued portions of your life. This list is your “goal” list, as you’re trying to set new goals for yourself that match your real values. Then, whenever you’re tempted to waste money or time on the items that you’ve marked as having a very low importance to you, you can instead choose to put those assets towards one of these goals. For example, my goals now are to maximize time spent with my son (which means I’ve eliminated some of my hobbies), eliminate debt (so I have more income available to continually ensure things for my son), buy a nice home for him to grow up in, and invest for his college and my retirement (so I’m not a burden).
When I think about these goals and why I’m choosing to follow them, and compare them to the low-priority things I was using my money and time on before, I feel genuinely good inside for the first time in a very long time.