The Path To Contentment

From the time we were small we’ve had ingrained in us the idea that climbing the corporate ladder was the result of hard work, ethical behavior, and networking with the right people. For the most part that is still true. However, corporate life is not quite as revered as it once was.

I was no different growing up. I dreamed of becoming a football player, or a doctor, or a successful businessman. Those were big dreams, but dreams that kept me on track, academically, throughout high school. After a back injury my senior year of high school derailed any hopes of playing football, I turned my attention to my studies and finished on a high note, intending to enter college the next year and declare pre-medicine as a major.

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Photo courtesy of TimWilson

Somewhere along the way I burned out on the whole process. I grew tired of college, the idea of being a doctor, and I was really floundering. After a death in the family, I returned home and lived with my grandfather while working a string of part time jobs, because I couldn’t find a full-time one.

Not long after marrying my college sweetheart I found a full time job as a customer service representative at a bankcard call center. The starting salary was $18,000, but I could earn 10% more by taking the graveyard shift, so I did. Looking back, we felt rich! My wife and I worked opposite schedules for a few months, until the stress at her job, and being seven months pregnant, brought her home.

I bounced around the bank from the call center to back office operations, credit, fraud investigations, disputes, etc, eventually landing in software development, which was the focus of my studies after returning to school after the birth of my daughter. Again, I thought I was on the fast track up the corporate ladder. I ultimately landed a better job after finishing my online business degree, but again, somewhere along the way I had a change of heart.

Reflecting back, I don’t remember a specific event that changed my perspective, rather a combination of events that changed my priorities. I had spent a decade living above my means, acquiring things, and racking up debt to finish school. The events of September 11th drew me closer to my then 1 year-old baby. The thought of traveling away from her, and my wife, terrified me, and the first time I flew after 9/11 (only a few months after) I remember feeling a panic that I had never felt before. I was lucky my new job would not require travel, because it was something I endured prior to 9/11, and downright dreaded after (not necessarily out of fear, but because of the new restrictions and the increased hassle that came with traveling).

Then my family was dealt a double-whammy as the economy started to turn late last summer. My mom was diagnosed with a giant cerebral aneurysm in early August at 53 years young. My mom raised me as a single parent, and had done well climbing the corporate ladder herself, despite lacking a college degree, and being the lone female manager in a male-dominated industry. She remains an inspiration to me. But the aneurysm, seven surgeries, a stroke, and a 102-day hospital stay from September to December wiped her out, financially, emotionally, and physically. She and my stepdad survived without an income as he cared for her for 6 months until long-term disability insurance kicked in.

A second scare came in February of this year when we almost lost my mom because of a new bleed in the aneurysm. She endured an 11-hour brain surgery, and despite even the doctor’s dire predictions, she survived. This time her hospital stay was 45 days. Today she is wheelchair-bound, unable to walk and use her right arm. Her vision and speech were affected, but she still has her wit, and we still love spending time with her.

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Photo courtesy of ellievanhoutte

I share all this because it sort of explains how I got to here. It’s funny the things that shape our beliefs, and our dreams. Twelve months ago I viewed a 6-month emergency fund as a luxury; now I think it is a necessity. Same for disability insurance. Being debt free went from a nice-to-have goal to our number one priority.  Next we’ll work to pay off our house early.

I’ve become content with my current career, and my “side hustle” here at Frugal Dad. No longer do I long for a corner office and a six-figure salary. I long for a mortgage-free, modest home in the country with a garden, some room to roam, and the abiliy to spend some extra time with my kids, and one day, my grandkids.  I’d gladly trade in that office chair for a comfy rocking chair on our front porch overlooking our land. Flashy cars, big houses, expensive clothes and gadgets are all just obstacles in my way of achieving this goal.

Comments

  1. Great post about true wealth. We find that we don’t *need* a lot of the things that seem to be important. If you always want more, you will never have enough. It’s good to know when you have enough.

  2. That’s a real story.

    The trickiest thing about financial planning is that it is all about meeting goals. But the goals are ever-changing! By the time you meet them, they’ve changed into something else.

    Rob

  3. You said: “No longer do I long for a corner office and a six-figure salary. I long for a mortgage-free, modest home in the country with a garden, some room to roam, and the abiliy to spend some extra time with my kids, and one day, my grandkids. I’d gladly trade in that office chair for a comfy rocking chair on our front porch overlooking our land. Flashy cars, big houses, expensive clothes and gadgets are all just obstacles in my way of achieving this goal.” and I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  4. Great stuff. Being content and having the things that matter..family, peace..are the nonmaterial things that make us wealthy…let us never lose sight of this.

  5. I did the corporate thing too — was a big kahuna art director traveling all around the world to do the dog and pony show. I hated. every. minute. We had a phrase for our big salaries: “golden handcuffs” Got laid off in 1998 and it was the best thing that ever happened to me! I used my severence to start my own business and I haven’t looked back since. Now I frequently spend time in the hammock, spend my days herding our small flock of chickens and turkeys, have important meetings with the tomato plants and performance reviews to the other livestock. Once in a while I have to “work” — but I get to create fun things for good clients. I put a “be nice to me” clause in all my client contracts. If you aren’t nice to me I don’t work for you. Period. Beats Corporate America all to heck.

  6. My father-in-law is my idol in this respect – 36 years of blue-collar work at RJ Reynolds Tobacco and is now retired, in his 50′s with no mortgage (or debt of any kind for that matter) and plenty of time for his three young grandkids… and fishing on his 2 boats.

    His favorite advice: “You can’t take it with you” and “Bigger ain’t always better”

    He’s a simple man that speaks volumes to me with few words – he’s definitely helped us slow life down a little… great article

  7. Much like you (I even started off pre-medicine as well) my wife and I have found contentment in each other, our awesome son, our families, our dogs and the home we’ve made. Everything else is just clutter. I feel very lucky to have figured out what really matters this early in life (I’m 34).

  8. I really appreciate your honesty and authenticity, it’s why I keep reading your blog. My thoughts are with your family and your Mom as she continues to recover.
    Thanks so much for another great article!

  9. Amen. Friends look at me in horror when I say that when the house is paid off, I’ll quit working for a while.

    But our son won’t be a baby forever and our parents won’t be around forever either. Better to spend time with them now than clawing up the corporate ladder.

    There’s no point in having the corner office if you are alone.

  10. Great post and, as always, a reminder of what truly matters and the struggle, at times, to focus on just that.

    I totally agree with getting off the corporate treadmill/ladder. I never actually focused on climbing it, but I worked hard (and smart) and had a degree of “success” until I realized that I couldn’t align my personal values with what I was being asked to do in business. Got off, got out and it’s been a struggle. But, it’s what I had to do. And I don’t regret it. I regret the time/energy and life I put into work for awful bosses in companies that had no real interest in their consumers and/or customers beyond taking their money.

    Unfortunately, the majority of folks will still be working for an organization, for the majority of their work life. If they are lucky (given the times).

    So much has been written about getting out of it, and for good reason. But we need more to help those citizens who labor each day for dysfunctional corporations and miserable bosses.

    We need ways to “persuade” organizations to clean up their acts, as it were, in how they do business and how they treat staffers. To be accountable.

    We need resources for these staffers to get legit help (and not from the hugely ineffectual HR departments. Human Resources is truly an oxymoron in most companies.) when they are discriminated, messed with financially, etc.

    Everyone can’t opt out. Nor should they. It’s like what is happening today in medicine. Many of the best doctors are simply leaving because they can no longer practice medicine as they believe it should be practiced. It’s not burnout, it’s the inability to BE a doctor, when everyone else is telling you how to treat patients. Or rather NOT treat them!

    Corporations are only as good as the people who run them and all the staffers. We need a whole new way of running businesses that is more humane and is really aware of the true value of “humans” (hate the term “human capital”)

  11. From the heart – great post :)
    Emjoyable read.

    Let me tell you – what you are aiming for is well worth the struggle right now to get things paid off. I write this from my mortage free little home on a small rural town lot with an adequate garden, a beautiful natural area of the US to live in, with the rocking chair on the side porch… and it overlooks the house across the street where 2 of my 8 grandkids live :) Lots of visiting going on :) I work part time – just enough to keep the health insurance paid for til medicare kicks in! Plenty of time for friends and family.

    Keep it simple, keep it down-to-earth… do for yourself all that you can. Being debt-free is sooooo worth it! Hang in there!

  12. The secret of living the life we love is the ability to identify the point of maximum fulfillment, the point of enough. More than enough will not increase our happiness. Instead, it begins to eat away at our sense of satisfaction.

  13. I enjoyed this. The financial/frugal tips and advice you provide are great, but my favorite blog posts are those that delve into the author’s history and motivations. Sounds like you’ve come a long way. It’s inspiring.

  14. @Susanne: Thanks! I try to strike some balance with the personal/reflection posts and more “how to” topics. Often times these types of post crop up because I just have to get something off my chest, and I’m thankful for having so many want to listen to me vent a bit!

  15. Lovely post, which I’ve just linked to in my weekly roundup, and which reminds me of my own path to financial freedom (which I’m still walking!)

    For me it was my dad getting diagnosed with a creeping debilitating illness within a couple of years of retirement, and not being able to afford to retire until he reached 65. It was so frustrating, especially as he’d discussed (and if I’m honest bored) me for the previous 10 years with an explanation of how much money he was saving away for him and mum to be secure in retirement.

    I resolved not to put my financial future out of my hands. I wish I could rewind time for him.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  16. What an amazing post! Unexpected health concerns brought me face to face with my own mortality at the ripe old age of 27. Since that time I’ve come to realize that life is too short to waste in a cubicle, an office or the boardroom. I give 110% while I’m at work, but when the day is over I come home to the things that really matter.

  17. My husband and I have found ourselves realizing the same things. He works in a bank and the ‘corporate ladder’ has really begun to lose its appeal. We’re much more interested in becoming debt-free and living comfortably and simply. Excellent post.

  18. Nice thought-provoking post. Family has a way of giving us the best reality-check sometimes. I hope your mom is doing better. And I think you may have answered the question for me, as I wondering how to (re)allocate my next paycheck… I need to work harder at eliminating all debt.

  19. I’ve really enjoyed following you on Twitter. Do you follow Dave Ramsey? We too are on the journey to financial freedom…thank you for your encouragement and perspective!

  20. I am the same age as your Mom…I still have huge debt, no home and no retirement. I am a single mom who put every scrap into making a life for my only son. It paid off, he is a well adjusted sailor now!

    I am going back to a corporate job and a painful commute because of this economic downturn. :(

    But, now I am thinking of amassing my emergency fund and disability insurance before paying off my debt.

    God bless you Jason, I have learned a lot from you. Thank you for sharing everything.~n

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