Years ago, having just earned a degree that brought along a $17.5K student loan, I broached the topic of money with my fiancé while on a coffee date. I shared my worries about my debt and wondered how I’d pay it off in under a decade with my pitiful post-college salary. She sighed, then revealed something that I should’ve been expecting: she had strong hesitations against marrying into my debt.
That hurt. I didn’t understand the weight of my debt at that time, so I launched into a barrage of excuses. I reiterated my worries about a quick debt payoff, but she stood her ground. Debt, for her, was painful. She’d seen it crush those she loved and desperately wanted to avoid the trap of money pain that’s so common in new marriages.
While it didn’t quite work out the way she planned — we married one year later, debt intact — we came together on a firm rule: there would be no settling into an expensive marriage, buying a house, or pumping out children. No — the first order of business was working together to pay off my student loans.
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At a recent money conference among colleagues, the speaker asked the small crowd what they think when about they think about money. One woman offered an answer: Stress. Others joined in around her: Pressure. Never enough. I couldn’t help but empathize. The money I’ve made later in life taught me that it’s true: money can’t make you happy. The bouts of depression still come around when life takes unexpected downturns, and that ancient Fear of Failure never goes away.
My wife tells me I have a signature look when I’m worried about money: I stare at our budget numbers, hunch over the keyboard, press my fist into my chin, and scowl. Sometimes, I think, the numbers just aren’t adding up. But then my wife — detecting the incoming breakdown — passes by my desk, grips my shoulder, and tells me what I’m hoping my budget will tell me: that everything is going to be okay, even when it’s not.
But to hear me tell you that money can’t make you happy is a useless sentiment. It’s like telling the friend in the plane not to be nervous, that there’s nothing truly dangerous about skydiving; you’ll never see the truth of the matter until you’re on the other side of that situation, i.e. when you’ve landed safely on the ground, or when you reach a new milestone on your net worth tracker and feel, at best, a passing rush to the head.
So, rather than pursuing more money, I’ve found there’s another, better route to financial happiness.
In sifting through those moments in my life that brought real, warm pleasure, very few of them involve large spending: the quiet thrill of a good book; a long drive along a remote beach with my wife; hamburgers with bacon and avocados; two matinee tickets to a critically-acclaimed indie movie. It’s not the experience of buying a car (I have the rare disease of having no interest in cars), the allure of a fancy house, or a new iPhone that makes me happy. As a member of the human race, I’m a world champion at Getting Tired of Things. But in those simple, cheap expenses, I find something real.
This, then, is financial power: knowing oneself enough to know when there’s enough.
If only we could turn inward, to that little self in there, and say, if you just learn to live without gadgets, fine dining, and all these worthless toys, all of this stress will fade away. But the little self inside rebels, and claims, surely, there’s a purchase out there that will bring greater satisfaction this time.
So, this is why we think about stress when we think about money. This is why, for some, there’s never enough.
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In the year my wife and I spent paying off debt, we lived as simply as broke college kids.
I remember the daily routine: I’d head off to my miserable job as a programmer at an insurance company, making what I assumed was a generous wage (it wasn’t). My wife worked part-time at a startup as a copywriter. She thought her job was miserable, too, but she had the pleasure of leaving work at 1pm, picking up sushi from the restaurant a few blocks from our apartment, and spending the rest of her afternoon sitting cross-legged in front of the TV — sushi in lap — rewatching Sherlock episodes.
At 5:30pm, I’d begin my long commute home, usually in the rain. But I remember how fun it was to walk into our small apartment on those evenings. The grief my boss had given me that day usually stayed behind in the mud I wiped on the door mat, and my wife and I would spend the rest of our evening watching movies and eating blue box macaroni and cheese.
Those were good days.
Happiness, for us, came cheap. Frankly, we didn’t have much choice; most of our money was being sent away to that debt machine. So we put our money into cheap food and cheap entertainment. And we got fat. But there was happiness, too.
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I’d like to tell you that becoming debt free was easy. But it was miserable. Our only focus during that time was watching a negative balance rise closer and closer to zero. And that was what was most difficult: working so hard — long hours in crummy jobs — just to get to zero. Most dream of achieving something great; we only dreamed of achieving “nothing,” so that then, we might turn zero to one and our life could truly begin.
Debt says, keep your attention on that thing behind you. It straps you to that point in time, back there, when perhaps you didn’t know as well as you know now. For some, that little self shows up to convince them that this new freedom from debt is a great opportunity to return to debt, if only for some very special purchase. But we were fortunate: the pain of that time taught us that, no, debt wasn’t worth the trouble.
Three years after making our final debt payment, we’re forever in a blissful loop, regularly recreating the simplicity of those early days with the sushi and Sherlock and silliness. We still enjoy cheap nights in with each other. Those times remind us that it’s not the cars and houses that we need. Rather, it’s a clear understanding of what makes us happy and how we define “enough.”
The way we saw it, it doesn’t take much to have everything you need. And that realization has made all the difference.
This article originally appeared on Smart Penny Institute.