For my twentieth birthday, more than ten years ago now, my grandfather wrote me a letter that I saved and have referred back to on many occasions in the decade since. There were many nuggets of wisdom contained, but one that stuck with me is his advice to “Enjoy life – stop and smell the roses.” Perhaps my grandfather sensed early on that I would be a go-getter, to the detriment of my family and personal relationships. Maybe he knew that I would work sixty hours a week in my first job to try (in vain) to advance. The early career burnout I felt after six years at this pace, and his words, combined to have a profound effect on who I am today. I no longer maintain such an aggressive schedule, and put family ahead of any career pursuits. I also used this advice to loosen up a bit when I felt myself becoming deprived by our frugal lifestyle.
Smelling the Roses
A common theme amongst personal finance writers, particularly those who write about frugality, is the constant fear of overpaying, blowing a budget, or buying something frivolous. Conceptually, and financially, these ideas make sense, but not so much in real life. If the only thing you do with your money is save, pay off debt and squeeze every single penny until it screams, eventually you will grow to resent your financial plan (and your family may grow to resent you). I take the advice to “stop and smell the roses” to mean that life is supposed to be enjoyed. We have a finite number of trips around the sun, so why not enoy the ride. That isn’t an invitation to blow everything you earn on season tickets to your favorite baseball team, or to take the European vacation you’ve always dreamed of, but it is an invitation to do a few of those things in moderation.
Make “Fun” Part of the Budget
In a recent article I mentioned the benefits of keeping a “Sunny Day Fund.” This is the opposite of a rainy day fund, which is usually recommended for having a cash cushion when something bad happens. Conversely, a sunny day fund is for the good times. By identifying a few fun things you would like to do you are providing extra incentive to stay on track with your financial plan. After all, if you blow the food budget you may not be able to fund the sunny day fund this month, putting that Disney vacation off another month or two. Here are a few ways to add some “fun” into your budget:
- Solicit feedback from all members of the family. Ask them what they would love to do or have, but haven’t been able to because of worry about money. Last year my wife said she would love to take my daughter to a Hannah Montana concert because she had never been to a concert, and at the time she loved Miley Cyrus. A concert and souvenirs can get pretty expensive, so I was initially put off by worries over the cost of our adventure. However, I remembered the lesson – “smell the roses” – and I agreed to go ahead with the plan. We managed to get tickets rather inexpensively and surprised my daughter with a trip to Atlanta to see Cyrus in concert for her birthday. It was an experience none of us will forget, and I’ve never regretted the expense.
- Set a target date and start saving. My family really wanted a Wii, but we didn’t have the cash for one. We decided as a family it was something we all wanted, and that we would make it a priority in our sunny day fund. Over the next couple months we saved $50 or so a paycheck, plus any “found” money, directly into the sunny day fund. When the balance in the fund had accumulated high enough to buy a Wii and one game we withdrew the money and paid cash for a new Wii. It hasn’t disappointed, and many family fun nights are now centered around Mario Kart.
- Include something for yourself. This sounds dangerously similar to “I work hard so I deserve it.” We all work hard, but you don’t necessarily deserve everything. After all, some things are out of reach based on cost, your income, etc. That’s a fact of life. But there are probably a few things you would really like to have, or to do, that are well within your means. Budget for these items and enjoy.
Having the occasional treat is the key to staying motivated for the long term. “Frugal burnout” leads to spending sprees that can drive you deeper into debt, or deplete savings accounts. Instead of depriving you and your family the occasional fun things, plan for them responsibly and enjoy the memories. After all, memories are the one thing that can’t be purchased.