About five years ago I was in a money hole I couldn’t see my way out of. I had a $6,000 student load and owed $12,000 on a 10 year old car. That doesn’t sound too bad but at the time that amount of money equaled one year’s pay. Two years later I was out of debt and working towards making twice what my hourly wage was previously. I started reading financial blogs obsessively and my favorite show became The Suze Orman Show.
Indeed I had turned my financial life around in a short time and I was poised to never live that stressful life again.
I started to save every penny I made, even becoming worried about using gas in my car to go do errands or spend money on such luxuries as apples. I completely flipped my ideology about money which was transformative but in the process I loss sight of some of life’s joys.
What happens to a lot of us when we take control an area of excess in our lives is we go the complete other way. The obese person who had bypass surgery becomes overly restrictive and then has issues with malnutrition. The mom who gets her kids back after years of neglect feels like she has to shower her kids with gifts to make up for it.
I tend to be a very polar person so I know all about looking for balance. In a class I’m either the best student or I don’t try at all. If I play a sport or a game I want to be the best or I want to quit. With money, I’m either spending it like it’s going to expire or I’m hoarding it like it’s the antidote to pain. No in between.
What I’ve learned in my short life is that whenever my life is not in balance I’m not truly at peace. Even good things that happen can put my life out of balance. A new relationship is exciting and joyful but it takes me away from self-care and inevitably leads me to feel like something’s missing. Having money gives me more security but if i’m not careful I can become obsessed and unbalanced.
Money can be very tricky for people because it takes us back to this issue of control. You are the one who controls your money. Money is your security and by extension it’s pretty much your destiny. When I save money it grows my security, and conversely when I spend money it lessens my security. This can be a great motivator for those who need help with the motivation to save.
But for others of us we already have the saving part down and we need to unclinch our fists a bit. Money decisions happen all day long and they often affect the experiences we get to have. If I were to always make the frugal decision I wouldn’t get to go to Dodger games or take the train to Portland, I wouldn’t ever get to taste a pomegranate or smell that expensive shampoo I love so much. These days I choose some things that give me joy over saving the money.
My biggest takeaway from the couple years I lived super cheap was that for all that saving, my life got pretty small. Making the money-saving choice had backed me into a smaller and smaller corner until I was at home all the time, making myself tuna fish sandwiches and watching tv. So I started giving myself permission to have joy. I went out with my friends when they invited me to dinner. I drove the extra 15 miles to go to that gym location I liked better.
That’s not to say that money is joy. If money equaled joy then the people with the most money would be the most happy and that certainly isn’t true. I think that money equals options so in a way money gives you the freedom to find joy. Of course there is also joy in saving money and you can certainly live a happy yet frugal life. But you can’t deprive yourself and also be fulfilled.
Denying yourself doesn’t give life balance. What I have found is that whenever I completely restrict something, be it money or food or something else, I go on a binge later. So I don’t restrict anymore. I let myself relax and do what I want, guiding my behavior with positive choices as I go along.
This is life, after all. We don’t get a second life to experience so we better be having fun along the way of our financial journey. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and realize I could’ve experienced so much more while remaining financially secure. I read an article by an early retiree who calls himself Matt. He now travels the world completely financially independent, here’s what he had to share about balance:
“I fear financial failure. I toy with the idea of going back to a job I don’t love just to build a bigger safety margin. [But] there’s a cost to being overly conservative. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. We don’t get our time back. We don’t get our health back. Financial prudence is important, no doubt, but so is living for today.”