I have written in the past about contentment and after several conversations with clients this week, I feel the need to once again share some principles of contentment that I have learned. It seems that financial stress is rampant in our culture. On a weekly basis I have conversations with clients who are struggling and conversations with clients who are content. Surprisingly, the difference between the two has nothing to do with income level. Too often we put off contentment as something we will obtain at some point in the future – once we have a little bit more. We say to ourselves, “When I get a new job, or pay off debt, or buy the vacation house, or…, then I will be content.”
After hearing the financial journey of hundreds of people, I have become convinced that contentment is not the result of how much money we have, but our attitudes and habits toward money. I have worked with some who seem so happy and content with so little, and with others who seem so stressed and grasping even though they have much. Contentment is what so many of us are seeking, yet so few of us find. What is the secret of those who are content? It starts with the heart, but it is also about foundational habits that can drive our experiences with money. Here are five habits that bring contentment and some thoughts on what they mean in everyday life.
1. Spend less than you earn
The first habit is to simply spend less than you earn. It sounds so easy but can be so difficult in practice. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking, ‘if I only earned 10% more I would be ok”, rather than working on the reality of the financial situation right now. Unfortunately, our ‘needs’ tend to expand to fill the funds available, so that we never really catch up. It takes discipline to have a budget and to say no to those things that go beyond it. Sometimes, it requires a significant change, like moving or selling a car, to bring the budget back in order. Those that have had the discipline and courage to take those steps know the peace that can come from getting your financial house in order.
2. Plan for Financial Margin
The second habit is to plan for financial ‘margin’. Consider the book whose type runs all the way to the edge of the page. The words appear overwhelming, crammed together, and confusing. Budgets that are so tight that they require every dollar can have the same result. We can ‘spend less than we earn’, and still be stressed if a small unexpected event will throw off our plan. Worse, if we are truthful, many of those unexpected expenses aren’t really all that unexpected after all. Health issues do come up and roofs do need to be replaced. Having margin provides the peace of knowing that the plan is strong and can handle at those unexpected expenses.
3. Avoid the Use of Debt
The third habit is to avoid the use of debt. The bible says that the “borrower is a slave to the lender”, and I think it is an appropriate description. Anyone who has been overwhelmed by debt knows the feeling of slavery to paying off those debts. Debt causes stress and can result in a persistent sense of anxiety in your financial situation. If you are in significant debt, I would encourage you to think about how to radically remove yourself from that situation. This may require selling the house, or a car, or having one spouse go back to work. Once again, I would encourage you to choose the path of peace to get yourself out of the debt situation. If you are not in debt, then avoid it. It can rob you of the contentment you seek, simply by offering a quicker path.
4. Give Generously
The next habit is to give generously. I am convinced that something beautiful happens to our hearts when we give. Not only do we get to see the good that our money can do, giving can release us from the burden of money. We can face the fear of ‘having enough’ and release it by giving to others. If we ever really want to have contentment, then I believe that giving generously must be a part. When I work with clients that have plenty, but still can’t seem to find contentment, it is the habit of giving that they are often missing.
5. Set Long-Term Goals
Finally, setting long-term goals is a habit that brings contentment. Denying yourself now for a future financial goal can be a powerful process, but without clear goals, the future can be easy to dismiss. Those with clear goals can stay the course and be content with today for the hope of a better tomorrow. For example, those with clear retirement goals can rest in the knowledge that they are saving for the future, and find contentment in the old car, saying ‘I’m driving an old car, but I’ll be able to retire when I want’. Knowing, and crystalizing that trade-off is an important habit to be content with the now.
As you review this list of habits, I encourage you to consider your strengths and weaknesses. There may be some things that you are doing well, and others poorly. Which habits can you improve to bring more contentment to your life. Sometimes these changes take a tremendous amount of courage. It can be difficult, and scary to make the changes needed to bring contentment. If you need someone to talk to, or would like some help deciding the best path, please give us a call. We would love to help you in your journey.