Updated on 02.16.09

Using a Gratitude Journal as a Personal Motivator to Save Money and Enjoy Life

Trent Hamm

A few weeks ago, a nice reader named Nicole introduced me to the concept of a gratitude journal:

Have you ever written about a gratitude journal? It’s something I’ve started doing and it’s really helped me figure out what is important in my life. It’s easy. Each day you just write down the five things you’re thankful for. I do it before bed or sometimes I’ll jot down things during the day.

I decided to give it a try for a few weeks to see how it went for me. Each day, I simply made a list of the five things I’m thankful for that day. Here’s an example from last Sunday:

1. My daughter’s ornery one-eye-closed grin with chocolate ice cream all over her face.
2. Watching the Daytona 500 with my dad, even though I don’t like NASCAR. We don’t spend much time together and I like it when we do.
3. My son running into the living room, giving me a hug, and running out again giggling.
4. Overhearing my mom telling my dad that she loved him.
5. Reading about 70 pages in a really good book while my kids napped.

I have a collection of about twenty five of these entries now, and many of them read like the above. They usually involve my family, enjoying some quiet time alone, a writing success, or a period of feeling really good (like an after-exercise rush).More importantly, though, virtually none of the items I’ve listed in nearly a month revolve around spending money. The high points of my day usually don’t revolve around any sort of financial exchange at all.

What about the days when I do spend money on something unnecessary? When I reflect back on those events at the end of the day, I rarely think about the spending event. Instead, I’ll often think of some little piece of that event, one that could have been cut out and placed in a less expensive context.

Take my memory that I noted above about my daughter with ice cream on her face. That moment was the result of a visit to Cold Stone Creamery, where we spent quite a bit on ice cream for the six of us (my parents, my wife, my two kids, and myself). Yet, we could have quite easily gone home and eaten much less expensive ice cream and had virtually the same memory. If we wanted some “luxury” ice cream, I could have just made a batch in the ice cream maker during the afternoon, making a stunning batch for just a few nickels on the dollar.

What about that good book? Sure, I could have spent a lot on that book that I was enjoying, but the truth is that the book was essentially free via PaperBackSwap.

What about that entertainment center that my father and I watched the Daytona 500 on? We watched it on our rather old television – no expensive high definition flat panel is needed here. Having a flat panel wouldn’t have changed that moment a bit.

The value here isn’t the stuff, it’s the moment. A moment alone. A moment with my daughter. A moment with my son. A moment with my parents. A moment with my dad.

These moments are the spice of my life, and it doesn’t matter whether I have the latest gadget or if I live in a dump. Either way, I would still enjoy these moments.

So what should I spend my money on? For me, the motivation to spend money revolves around the ability to build a moat around those moments. What can I do with my dollars so that my daughter always has the lightheartedness to bust out one of her big smiles? What can I do with my time that makes my parents’ retirement a little bit easier (calling them and communicating a lot goes a long way there)? What can I do to preserve the health of my marriage over the long haul (and, trust me, buying trinkets might be nice, but it’s no substitute for communication and relationship building)?

In the end, my idea of sound personal finance is about protecting those moments that I’m grateful for. What moments are you thankful for?

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  1. Jason G says:

    What an excellent idea. I’ve never been much into journaling, but taking time to write down what you are thankful for and then reading it back to yourself; could be a real eye-opener for many people.

  2. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    That’s a nice idea, and good points. I might see if my wife might want to do that together. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Maureen says:

    These are your true treasures, not ‘stuff’. Great post!

  4. Sarah says:

    I’ve been keeping a similar journal for almost 4 months now. I had realized that my journal was turning into a place to vent negative thoughts that I didn’t voice elsewhere, and dwelling on these thoughts in my journal wasn’t helping my life at all– in fact it often made negative things linger. Now, I write a single thing every day that stood out as something I truly appreciated that day, or made me smile or laugh or love life. Sometimes it’s a whole story that takes a few pages to write, or explains why a particular instance, observation, or thought stuck me as important that day, but more often it’s a few sentences or a few words– along the lines of yours. Most importantly, no matter how frustrating a day I had, I don’t write down the negative, but find the grain of positive that the day brought out. I truly think that doing this over the past 4 months has made me a more positive person. It’s funny, because now I notice tiny little things throughout the day that I appreciate, simply because I want to remember to write them in my journal, but that makes them stick in my head all day long.

  5. Joe says:

    Although I’ve rarely written down what I am truly grateful for, once you make that decision to change your mindset and make it your attitude, it’s stunning to see what you can be grateful for,
    even in the smallest of things that you may have overlooked in the past

  6. Noel says:

    That’s a great idea and an awesome post. I think that my hubby and I will have to try. He needs the attitude boost and change of mindset that comes from being grateful for what you have and making yourself happy.

  7. Gabriel says:

    That’s a really inspiring idea. Thinking about it, all of the moments I’m truly grateful for involve people, whether parents, friends, or someone who leaves a thoughtful comment on my blog. We are social creatures, and we (I) forget that to our detriment.

  8. Su Prieta says:

    Self-confidence is a cancer. Once it implants, it grows very rapidly. I learned to overcome the “cut-and-run” initial impulse. Most of us have experienced it. Once you stay through that initial impulse, you are forced to take an action. It may not be the right action exactly, but we have a tendancy to modify and improve our technique over time.

    Good for you for staying through your “cut-and-run” reactions.

  9. RJ W says:

    I do something very similar, asking myself at the end of the day, what I enjoyed most.

    At the end of each day, the entries revolve around one of two things. First, interactions with people I’m close to. Second, an accomplishment. It could be the feeling of getting through a nice workout or writing a helpful article.

  10. Su Prieta says:

    Simple Dollar, I am very embarrassed because I left my previous comment on the wrong post. I clicked through from my reader and ended up on the wrong site, for this apologize.

    I have read your post and I agree that the things we cherish are often not the things we spend need to or should money on. I am thankful everyday for my husband. We do not yet have kids, but I am learning gradually to separate the things in my possession that I have paid for from the things that promote my happiness and peace of mind. I do think it is a process sometimes, but I’m getting there.

  11. Dawn says:

    One of my goals for 2009 is to get back into keeping a gratitude journal. I used to do it all the time, then sort of lost track. Now I am back on it. Each night before bed I sit down and jot down 10 things that made me happy during the day or made me smile. You are right – almost none of them have anything to do with money.

  12. Adam says:

    You could also adopt this tool to help you figure out the difference between expenses that you want and expenses that you need. It would also be useful in helping you prioritize the expenses that you want – if you buy a new TV, and none of your entries involve the TV, maybe the TV wasn’t something high on your priority list, and maybe it was more of a splurge than something you really needed or desperately wanted.

  13. Carmen says:

    I like this idea, but am wondering if it’s simply about recalling what was good about your day as opposed to needing a written record of them. Or is the main purpose to look back at them over time?

  14. Gabriel says:

    Carmen, I’ve been wondering the same thing. It’s always good to recall the best parts of your day, but I suspect that writing it down makes it more “real.” Similar to the way that writing down what chores you have to do on a list, then crossing them off as you do them, keeps things more organized. It’s like having backup memory storage.

  15. I think that’s a very good idea…part of being able to be content with a frugal life is learning to appreciate what you already have(both material and immaterial things), and this is a good way to encourage contentment and joy.

  16. Green Panda says:

    I’m grateful for my family. I love my husband especially his ‘go with the flow’ demeanor. I love my mom’s phone calls to just say hi. I love my sister’s sense of humor. I love baby brother’s optimism no matter what’s going on.

  17. Tricia says:

    Our family has been doing something similar at meal times for years. When we are all eating together, one of us gets the ‘blue plate’. All the other people at the table have to say one ‘appreciate’ towards the person with the blue plate (which rotates around the table every meal). I can’t tell you how the person on the receiving end BEAMS when they hear what nice acts they have done. It’s usually something simple like,” I appreciate that you took the dirty laundry down without me asking you…”

  18. moody says:

    i think i may try this. for me it wouldn’t be so much about realizing that my truly special moments don’t involve spending money. i would use it to keep myself positive. there’s something incredibly reassuring about knowing that good things happen even on bad days.

    to carmen and gabriel: i think the writing it down is really important. it does make it more real than the thoughts just floating around in your head. plus, if you plan on making any changes based on the journal, having a record is key.

  19. Barbara Scialabba says:

    I have been keeping a gratitude journal off and on for 10 years. It keeps me focused on looking for the good things everyday. My life has beed a little nuts these last few years-husband laid off 4 times in 4 years, he had unexpected open heart surgey, handicapped daughter causing a lot of commotion but even on these days, I can focus on wonderful people, my job, my friends and other things that are a blessing. Writing it down commits it better to memory and makes me more aaware the next day to keeping looking for the good things. And you are right-none of it costs money.

  20. Trent, this is a good post. Just reading it makes me appreciate what I have, and my mind starts listing all that I am thankful for.

    Thanks for sharing this experience.


  21. Christina says:

    What a great idea! I decided to try this last night and enjoyed it. I’m going to blog about it. :)

  22. Trent–

    You nailed– It’s the moment. We all need to grab and cherish all the moments. You just have to be aware of them and capture them when they happen.

  23. MK says:

    I’ve heard of a grtitude journal but have never actually taken the time out of my day to write down, or even just to reflect on the things that have made me happy throughout the day. I think this is a great idea to enable us all to reflect on those little (and sometimes big) things that happen to us on a daily basis.

    thanks so much for reminding me of this at a point in my life that I really believe that I think it would be most beneficial to my wellbeing!!

  24. Carla says:

    There’s a gratitude journal for the iPhone to make this very easy to do! Check it out: happytapper.com

  25. cwk says:

    A gratitude journal? First I’ve heard of this sort of thing, but thankfulness goes a long way toward successful, happy living.

    Every time I lose it, I’m reminded that I need a good, swift kick in the pants.

  26. This post was highlighted in the February 19 edition of Gratitude Watch.

    Thank you for promoting the value of gratitude.

  27. Heather says:

    Don’t forget that getting a book from the library is completely free!

  28. michelle says:

    I read a study about this gratitude journal–apparently the idea failed miserably. After 6 weeks of having high school students write 5 things they were grateful for, they were re-measured in gratitude and found to be less grateful than students that didn’t have to write the gratitude journal.

    apparently this habit created “gratitude exhaustion” and made a lot of the students feel resentful.

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