Does anyone else have the best conversations with their mom?
Recently, we went to visit my mom in Connecticut. We had to see the owner of the house will be renting and I, obviously, had to get in some mom-time.
There are so many reasons that I love seeing my mom. She gives the best hugs. She is a super, amazing rockstar who takes the night shift with Baby Minnow so Jeremiah and I can get some sleep (seriously, saint status here). And we always, always end up having a thought-provoking conversation.
This time, it was about money.
Happiness Today or Happiness Tomorrow?
During our visit, my mom was telling me a story about how she and her boyfriend almost made an impulse purchase of a used convertible the weekend before. She’s always loved convertibles, this one was a great price, drove beautifully, and they really wanted it.
As she’s talking through the negotiation, she saw my ever-frugal “Oh shit, what did you do?”-face. Stopping, she asked me this question.
How do you balance spending for happiness today with saving for the future?
And I’m going to be honest. It stopped me in my tracks a bit. And even after going home and spending a few days, it kept nagging at me.
Not because I didn’t have an answer to the question logically and intellectually. But because I was struck once again by just how hard this question is for someone who is new to it.
When you first start budgeting and prioritizing spending or a shock to your finances brings you back to it, it feels like there is absolutely nowhere to cut. You spend hours asking, “How do people that make less than me do it?” Everything feels like a need because all the wants have become paramount to your happiness, even if they aren’t.
And the truth is, for the vast majority of us, – me, my mom, and, probably, you – even if we did appreciate and derive great joy from all the things we want to spend money on, we just can’t afford it. We could spend every cent we had and still want more – more things, more experiences. So, tightening the belt beyond the already snug limits of our income to protect ourselves in the future is hard.
So what do you do? Where do you draw the line?
Spender or Saver: We All Have Things That Matter to Us
My mom and I have very different desires. And in our discussion, she called me out for that. It is easier for me to save, she claimed, because my hobbies aren’t high cost. Because I like eating at home more than dinners out and Harry Potter board games. Because my dream car was a Subaru Outback. I conceded.
But I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not sure she’s right.
Sure, I don’t want the little things. I would rather keep the cash safely in the bank. However, my personality makes it so home is the most important thing to me. I want a big nice kitchen, a homestead where we can grow our own food, and a wood shop for Jeremiah. Oh, and a Ford F-150 so that I can get my dream car back (hubby is currently the main driver of our Outback). I spend hours making notes about properties on Zillow.
And all these things cost way more than the $4,700 used convertible my mom was pining over. So why aren’t we buying them? We have the money for all of them right now. In fact, with the exception of the homestead, we could probably pay cash for it.
Why not dive in? It would maximize near-term happiness, right?
Tomorrow Comes Whether We Plan For It Or Not
We are waiting because doing it now would blow up our bigger goals. Sure, we would be over the moon excited about crafting our perfect home for a while. But when the day came when I was 45 or 50 or 60 and couldn’t retire because I threw caution to the wind when that Zillow house has just the perfect kitchen layout? I’d be pissed. And sad. And scared.
Every single one of us has things we want in life. A new convertible, the perfect house, a workshop full of power tools. But if we don’t prepare for the future first, then learn to live happily within what’s left over, we are not only setting ourselves up for failure, but for unhappiness.
So, before you fall prey to the excuses – the “there’s nowhere to cut” and the “what if you don’t even make it until retirement” – let me offer you this.
The average Social Security check in 2017 was $1,360 a month.
Take a moment and imagine yourself at 65 or 70, trying to live off $1,360 a month. Could you afford to go out to dinner? Travel to see your grandchild’s hockey tournament? Buy groceries?
To this, my mom said,
“But tomorrow is never guaranteed. You could pass long before you even retire.”
Yup. 100% true.
But probable? Something we can lean on as an excuse not to save? Uhhh, no.
Too often when we think about life expectancies we focus on how we might be disappointed by delaying happiness if we passed away before that time.
What we forget, is that a life expectancy is just an average. Which means over 50% of people will live beyond that point. With more years to cover in the retirement we chose not to plan for.
And that, I think, is core to my answer. How do you balance spending for happiness today with saving for the future?
You remember what life could look like if you ignore the future for too long. You protect that future version of yourself first, within reason, and then you take advantage of our endless ability to adapt as humans by living happily on what’s left.
To me, within reason means spending at a level where I will be able to maintain a consistent quality of life. I will be able to cover my living and health costs, in addition to the luxuries I choose to prioritize, in retirement the same way I do today.
Achieving this balance might mean only buying used cars, skipping a vacation, or picking up a side hustle. It almost certainly means giving up at least a little near-term consumption.
But the 50 versions of me expected to live beyond 93 years old? Those old broads are probably pretty pumped I’m not at the store picking out a Viking stove.
So now, I’ll leave the question to you. Do you agree with me? How do you balance spending for happiness today with saving for the future? And if you struggle with it, what’s the hardest part?
P.S. Mom didn’t buy the convertible. They stuck to their guns on a target price and walked when the dealer wouldn’t hit it.