Don’t Let Money Get in the Way of Happy

Don't Let Money Get in the Way of Happy

Photo courtesy of Donnie Ray Jones

I worked with a couple recently who was about to have their second child. They came to me because they wanted help figuring out if they could afford to live off a single income so that the wife could stay home with the kids.

Looking at their situation purely from a financial standpoint, the answer was clear: they would be better off if the wife kept her job. She made good money with good benefits and that income would have made it easier for them to save money and reach some of their other goals faster.

But here’s the thing: they didn’t come to me asking for the best financial decision. They came to me because their top priority was creating a life where the wife could stay home. That’s what would make them happiest and they just wanted some help understanding whether they could make the financial side of things work.

And you know what? They could. And that’s exactly what this personal finance stuff is all about! First you decide what kind of life you want to live. Then you get to work creating a financial plan that makes that life possible.

It’s life first, money second.

When money gets in the way of happy

It’s pretty common to do things the other way around. With all of the personal finance “rules” out there (spread by people like me), it’s easy to start basing your life around making the best financial decision at the cost of your personal happiness.

You put off starting a family because you worry about how much it’s going to cost.

You stay in a job you don’t like because it pays well.

You focus so hard on cutting expenses that you feel guilty for spending on just about anything.

These decisions are made in the name of responsibility. And they very well may leave you with more money in your bank account.

But do they make you happy?

Happily responsible

This isn’t about forgetting all of the personal finance lessons you’ve learned. This isn’t a call to raid your savings and go on a shopping spree.

This is about being happily responsible.

There’s a common saying that you can have anything you want, but you can’t have it all at the same time. I’m not sure where it originated, but I read it most recently in Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Non-Conformity.

I love it. It’s empowering and real at the same time. You can have the things that matter to you. But to do that, you also have to know what doesn’t matter to you, or at least what doesn’t matter as much, and you have to give those things up.

In other words, in order to reach some goals you have to sacrifice others.

But the real key to that saying is the first part: “you can have anything you want”. The second part, the sacrifice, is only relevant if you’ve got the first part nailed.

So what do you want? What kind of life will make you happy? Is it finding work that empowers you? Is it growing your family? Traveling the world? Retiring early? Buying a house?

Whatever it is, the financial goal should be to find a way to make it happen. You don’t need to make “the best” financial decision possible all of the time. What you need is a financial decision that makes your ideal life “doable”.

Think back to the couple above. There were no rash decisions being made. They weren’t ignoring their goals or being irresponsible.

It was actually the exact opposite. They knew what they wanted and they thoughtfully sought out a plan that could make it happen. They still had to make sacrifices. Some of their other goals had to be put on hold for a little bit. They needed to find a way to cut back on some of their regular expenses.

They still had to be responsible. They just chose to be happily responsible. They decided to bypass the “optimal” financial decision in favor of the one that brought them more joy while still meeting their basic financial needs.

Isn’t that what it’s all about?

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14 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Kirsten September 22, 2014

    Love this. I’m a mom who would very much like to stay home, but I do make more than my husband. It would be doable for him to stay home on my income, but not the other way around. When I write about that, I almost always get “why does he stay home?” Because he doesn’t want to! And because *I* want to. Either of us staying home is a huge hit to our financial future because of huge student loan debt, so the decision for one of us to stay home is just based on what would make me happy – it’s not a necessity.

    • Matt Becker September 22, 2014

      Great example! There are just so many cases in which the perfect financial answer isn’t the perfect life answer, and that’s where the tough decisions have to be made. Obviously we still need to be making responsible decisions, but we don’t need to be making decisions that negatively impact our happiness purely in the pursuit of having more money. Good luck figuring it all out!

  • Myles Money September 22, 2014

    Of course it’s about being happy. But how many people actually consider the idea of NOT making money? It seems that making money is too often the goal, whereas really it should be LIFE. Work to live, not live to work. And if you don’t need to, what’s a better way to spend your time: in a cubicle or with the kids?

    • Matt Becker September 22, 2014

      I 100% agree with you that life, or specifically a happy life, should be the #1 goal. But I don’t always put work in the negative category. I think there are many people who have enjoyable, fulfilling jobs that contribute to their happiness in the same way that retiring early or being home with the kids might contribute to other people’s happiness. It’s all about finding the things that are right for you and making your financial decisions revolve around them.

  • Mr. Frugalwoods September 23, 2014

    Excellent point! When folks focus on their finances, it can be really easy to get tunnel vision with the numbers. Money is a means to an end unless you are scrooge mcduck! 🙂

    We’re looking at giving up a couple of great jobs to go live in the woods. Does it make financial sense? No, though we do have good plans in place to provide what we need. But it will allow us to live a more fulfilling life. And that’s something a spreadsheet can never completely reflect.

    • Matt Becker September 23, 2014

      What a great example of exactly what I’m talking about! I’d say the move you’re talking about makes perfect financial sense if it gives you a better chance to live a life you enjoy. And like you said, you’re not just running away from your responsibilities. You’re putting a plan in place “to provide what we need”. I’m really excited for you and can’t wait to hear how it goes!

  • Kayla @ Red Debted Stepchild September 23, 2014

    Right now I’m making some personal happiness sacrifices to get out of debt, but my overall plan is to work hard now at my FT job, PT job, home business and side hustles so I can eventually do what I truly want – quit my FT job. This will bring me great happiness so I’m making sacrifices now to make that happen later.

    • Matt Becker September 23, 2014

      Good for you! Pursuing the things that matter most to us almost always requires us to sacrifice in one way or another. Good luck pursuing those goals!

  • nicoleandmaggie September 23, 2014

    Having money brings me a feeling of security, and that feeling of security makes it a heck of a lot easier to be happy. A little early misery was well worth the sacrifice to put my family on good footing long before any children were born.

    • Matt Becker September 24, 2014

      I’m with you all the way. It took us a while to build up our financial security, and there were definitely sacrifices along the way, but all that work has made us feel happier and has let us take advantage of opportunities we couldn’t have without it. Win-win!

  • Kate @ Money Propeller September 24, 2014

    A few days ago, me and my hubs kept discussing if he would purchase a ticket to come home to attend our daughter’s important school event. At first, he told me that he really wants to come, but right now, we are really saving very tight. And in the middle of the night he called me and decided that he really wants to come home.

    • Matt Becker September 27, 2014

      Sounds like you guys are using your money to do the things that make you happy. Very cool!

  • Don @ Breath of Optimism October 1, 2014

    There have a been a few times recently where my wife was debating spending money simply because she was concerned about saving money. I told her to not look at it as a purely financial transaction, but to take into account her happiness as well. The item cost $50 and in the long run, I would rather spend the $50 if it is something that I really want than to not buy it because it doesn’t make financial sense.

    • Matt Becker October 2, 2014

      Agreed. It’s a tough balance because obviously you can’t spend money on everything, but there’s definitely a point at which spending money on happiness makes more sense than putting it away for tomorrow.

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