The point of accumulating and saving money is not to die with the most money in the bank. Yes, it can be helpful to your heirs to leave a fortune for the next generation, but not at the expense of living a fulfilled life yourself. There are many opinions about what it means to live a fulfilled life, but for most people, it involves taking the time to do whatever you’d like to do without needing to be concerned about the financial consequences, or whether you’ll have enough money to buy food tomorrow.
Doing whatever you’d like to do doesn’t have to cost money, but sometimes, it does. Some people could be happy living off the land, finding their own meals, and surviving on their own without ever spending a dime. Self-sustenance is an interesting concept and I have respect for people who can manage to live their lives this way. Most of us are consumers, however, and thus earn and spend money in order to live.
You’re reading Consumerism Commentary because you’re interested in finances on a personal level, but it’s important to remember that net worth and income are not the core concepts of living life. I wouldn’t be who I am without the aspects of my life that do not involve earning income. Society could not function if the only activities its inhabitants performed were those activities that other members of society would pay them to do.
It’s advisable to look for deals when we shop. If we’re spending money in a store, it pays to ensure we’re getting the best price. That could involve bargain hunting, negotiating, and comparison shopping. Paying attention to price and value plays a big role in everyday and occasional spending, but the usual goal in this type of frugal philosophy is ending the day with the most cash left in your pocket. I offer a different goal: ending the day with the experiences that shape you as a human being. It’s harder to measure, but at the end of your life, you’ll likely have fewer regrets and be more satisfied with how you’ve spent your short time alive on this planet.
Let’s call those experiences that add up to a fulfilled life “fun.” They might not always be enjoyable, but you collect these experiences and you can find a method of tallying and rating them. These experiences have the most meaning to you now and in the future.
Here are some tips for spending money for fun.
1. Necessities come first.
Before you can consider partaking in an experience that doesn’t have a positive effect on your net worth, you need to clear a few hurdles. These suggestions speak to the top of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I keep coming back to this cope psychological concept, and it might annoy anyone who has studied psychology beyond an introductory-level course, but I feel it’s symbolic of how to best organize personal finance, particularly spending.
The lowest level of the pyramid represents your physiological needs, everything you need in order to survive each day, namely food, water, heat, and shelter. In most communities, basic clothing is also a physiological need. It would be very difficult to rationalize spending money on anything else before these needs are met. Granted, you could avoid some of these expenses by living off the gratuity of family and friends, but that can only last so long — particularly if they see you spending money on fun things without considering moving out.
Feeding your need for self-actualization is a luxury. Climbing the Hierarchy of Needs pyramid can be tough, and focusing on enriching your life comes after your basic needs are met.
2. Define our goals and values.
Once your household has overcome any difficulties in the way of providing the basic physiological necessities, there is an opportunity to think about the big picture. There are many people stuck here, believing their goal is to earn money. Earning money is not a goal in itself, it’s only a path that allows individuals to meet other goals. A friend asked me for financial advice, and although I’m not a financial planner or adviser, I agreed to talk to him and help him think through his issues.
I asked what his goals in life were, because knowing this would be the only way to help someone plan for the future. He said his goal was to retire with $5 million in the bank. Regardless of whether that was a reasonable number, it wasn’t a real goal. I asked him why he wanted that particular sum, and he had never thought about it before. We started to work out what he would do with that money and why it was important for him to be financially independent. You need real life goals, not money goals. With real goals, you can evaluate whether the money you spend is worthwhile, and you have a purpose for saving and investing other than a big balance on your monthly bank statements.
In addition to goals, you should be aware of what ideals are important to you. A set of values defines how you live your life, where you spend your time, and an initiative for your funds beyond the selfish but necessary act of taking care of yourself.
3. Pay off debt.
Being debt-free is the most important financial goal. When you’re in debt, you’re beholden to someone else. Often, that someone else is a company with significant means to make your life miserable if you can’t pay. There are avenues for help if you need it, like bankruptcy, but for the most part, you can’t life a fulfilled life when part of the money you earn is dedicated to someone else.
If you’re earning $3,000 per month and paying $2,000 in interest to your mortgage company and credit card issuers, your income is basically owned by entities other than you. If the remaining $1,000 covers nothing other than your necessities like room and board, you are living in indentured servitude. Some might even say that debt is slavery. You should want any income you earn to be rightfully yours.
These suggestions are not necessarily in order. You can pay off debt while still determining your long-term goals because no matter what goals you choose, being debt-free will be key. In this case, debt includes mortgages and student loans, not just credit cards. Any interest obligation is a waste of your money. You don’t have to be completely debt-free to begin considering spending money for fun (that is, life enrichment), but you should have a plan in place for doing so and for emergencies that might cause trouble along the way.
4. Save for the future.
Living a fulfilled life often means striking the right balance between saving for the future and using the money you earn today for more than just necessities. Again, that’s a luxury that’s best considered only by individuals or families who have done a good job of saving for their future already.
It may be possible to save too much money, but many will not reach the point where this is a concern. There will always be more we can save for the future, but those who are on the path to a more comfortable, debt-free life have more options for spending today without sacrificing their future.
5. Compare your spending with your values.
If measuring success with saving money, the scorecard is simple. Your net worth and net income statements provide feedback. You’ll know where you stand at any moment from a financial perspective. When collecting experiences leading to a fulfilled life, keeping track of your progress is more difficult to measure. You could look at your discretionary spending and compare it with your values. Give yourself points when your expenses match the type of person you’d like to be and give you the feeling that you’ll be satisfied when you look upon your experiences. Subtract points if your spending was frivolous, not well-considered, caused regret, or prevented you from living life in the way you’d like to.
When it comes to spending money for fun, I am a big fan of spontaneity. Being impulsive or spontaneous can be responsible or irresponsible, however. If you’re striving to fill your life with rich experiences and to never look back on your time alive with regret, you can help increase the chances of creating a life you enjoy by taking a responsible approach. Everyone should get a chance to spend their hard-earned money how they want, but that freedom comes from the ability to make a few good, important choices about how to handle finances.
Published or updated November 28, 2011.