As a society, we tend to associate a higher income with greater happiness. In the decade that I’ve managed my own finances (with Sam’s help and occasional guidance from others), I’ve learned that having money definitely helps make life easier. But at no point in my life have I associated having a lot of money with being infinitely happy. On the contrary, I think it’s possible to be happy, fulfilled, and satisfied when not making six figures a year (or even $50k a year).
I’ve never been a “spender” in the typical sense. I go to bars and order a glass of water, nine out of ten times. When grocery shopping, I try limiting myself to only what I need and nothing more (making a list helps). Eating out is a luxury I cherish, because we don’t do it very often. I am proud that I have never had credit card debt, and assuming nothing catastrophic occurs, I never will.
I consider myself lucky to be spending conscious (or a cheap-ass, as my friends would say). But it can be a curse. I feel buyer’s remorse more deeply than most people. I also struggle to purchase new things, like a backpack. The zippers are breaking and one strap is tied because I can’t adjust it anymore, and I complain about it almost every day. Buying a new one, though, requires me to spend money above an unjustified threshold that I hold in my mind for some unknown reason.
I still spend money, even though my friends will attest that I am the cheapest person they know. While I won’t deny those claims (they’re right), I can spend money. When I make the choice to spend money, it tends to be a lot of money all at once: vacations, our house, weekend trips, or expensive things we’ve wanted for a long time and researched a lot.
My purchases tend to be on things I’ll own for years, things that bring me great joy, and things that build memories. Sometimes this means a long vacation or a weekend getaway. Last year, Sam and I invested in really nice touring bikes so we can do more adventurous, off-road biking. I also put a lot of money into my running shoes and workout clothes so I can enjoy racing and staying active.
Do these things cost money? Of course. But I buy these things intentionally, and I’m aware of my spending habits. I can sense when I’ve spent too much in one month and need to back off for a few weeks. Most importantly, I don’t spend money I don’t have. We use our credit cards strategically to earn points on large purchases, but we always have the cash set aside to pay them off immediately. It’s a rare day that I go on a spending spree without knowing exactly what I want to buy and why I want to buy it.
By centering our money around a few high-quality items and experience-based adventures, we get greater satisfaction and value out of the money we spend. I know I’ve earned the things I’m buying, and finally owning something (or going somewhere) after saving for it makes it feel like a reward.
Even though we don’t make a long of money, we feel wealthy. We own things that are important to us and make us feel happy. We’ve seen incredible places and done amazing things in our short time together. We can spend time with people we love, people who make us feel whole and satisfied. Not only are we free of debt and financial strife as a result of narrowing our focus to only buying a few things, but the gratification we feel when buying these things is amplified because they mean so much more to us.
For the most part, I am really happy about my mentality towards saving money instead of spending it. However, I’m also fortunate to have a husband who encourages me to reward myself with purchases sometimes. We support one another by saving for things we want, but still allow flexibility to enjoy the present moment if it means spending a little money. Life’s about balance, and he helps keep me focused on what’s really important in life: what’s the point of saving money if I don’t get to enjoy life a little bit along the way?
The average person can’t have a beautiful home filled with expensive things, afford to eat out a few times a week, and travel the world every year while being fiscally responsible. There are lots of ways to be fiscally irresponsible and give the impression that you can afford a certain lifestyle, but we don’t play that game. It’s possible some people look at the life Sam and I live, specifically how much we travel, and assume we have all those other things, too. The truth is that we don’t, because we can’t afford it. We’ve prioritized exploration over a lot of day-to-day luxuries, like fancy coffee every morning and taking Ubers everywhere.
We don’t make a lot of money. We aren’t “rich” by societal standards. But we don’t pay a lot of attention to society’s standards. We focus on what we want, why we want it, then go out and get it. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort into figuring out what’s important to us and why, and we spend our money chasing those things because they bring us the most fulfillment.
To us, few things compare to a candlelit dinner in a tiny alleyway in Lisbon, or climbing the mountains cradling lochs in Scotland, or hiking deeper into the mysteries of the Grand Canyon. Experiencing these things make us feel like the wealthiest people in the world. Even though money got us there, it’s only because we prioritized doing those things above doing other things.
Only a very lucky few can “have it all.” For the majority of us, having it “all” won’t be obtainable at any point in our lives. It doesn’t mean you can’t be happy, and that you can’t have the things you dream about. Once you understand what your heart really wants, you can save for those things and get them. You, too, can find true wealth—regardless of your paycheck.