Friday, June 24, 2011

Spending money on what you value brings real happiness

My husband and I have a good life. We have flexible work schedules and a home in the country where we grow a large garden and keep a few chickens. We’ve been known to float homemade rafts and dangle our toes in the nearby creek with our four children, and to eat s’mores made in our fire pit for dinner.

In general, I’d say we live a slow, deliberate life. We don’t have television reception where we live, and we have no cable. And we have pay-as-we-go cell phone plans because we don’t get service in our area. Our two cars have a combined total of over 330,000 miles on them, and we do almost all of our shopping for clothes and other household needs at thrift stores.

Now, it’s quite possible that the idea of going without cable, weeding a garden and paying 10 cents a minute for cell phone calls might literally sound like torture to you. And that’s OK—because my definition of a good life cannot (and should not) be the same as yours.

Too often, people look around at what others are doing and buying, and decide that those things are necessary for a good life. And so begins a vicious (and often debt-ridden) cycle, where other people’s lives and possessions become the measure of our happiness. The result is that happiness becomes elusive, always just one purchase or activity out of reach.

This isn’t to say that material possessions don’t have the potential to improve your happiness quotient. In fact, I unequivocally believe they do—as long as the things you buy reflect what you sincerely value. My husband and I, for example, value nature and look for ways to spend more time outdoors.

Accordingly, we invested in a 1978 pop-up camper last summer. It’s got brown plaid seat covers, gold linoleum and a few dents here and there, but it suits our family well right now. We also saved for and built a screened porch last winter. We knew we wanted a room that, for three seasons of the year, would shelter us from the weather and keep us sequestered from mosquitos. Both the camper and the porch have improved the quality of our lives by giving us more ways to enjoy the outdoors.

Figuring out what you value isn’t always easy, but it’s worth the effort to do it. Begin by asking yourself a simple question: What is important to me? If you can, list at least five things. The things you list will be your unique values. When you identify them, and start making decisions based on them, you will be happier and more satisfied with your life.

My own list includes beauty, creativity, family, flexibility and, as I already mentioned, nature. With this list at the top of my mind, I am better equipped to make decisions about how I do and do not wish to spend my time and money. Sure, I may still admire a friend’s new car or the fashionable way she dresses, but I don’t value driving a new vehicle or wearing trendy clothing. I have learned that I get genuine satisfaction from spending my money to outfit our camper with the supplies we need for a weekend getaway, or to create a playhouse for our children.

When you understand what you value, you’re more prepared to create a budget that actually works. Your budget will help you focus on spending your money in ways that will help you achieve the good life that you – not your friends or neighbors – really desire.

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