A topic that has come up (in somewhat different forms) independently in several different areas of my life recently is that of trying to balance the idea of simple and frugal living with living an ambitious life.
Let’s say, for example, that you have enormous career ambitions. You want to be CEO of a company, or maybe you want to design the next product that literally everyone’s using. You have huge career goals and dream of all of the trappings that will come with it.
Maybe you have other big goals, like running for Congress. Maybe you’re part of a homeschooling collective and also want to run a side business. Maybe you want to be a great writer whose pieces are read by tens of thousands.
Perhaps you simply dream of living a life that has a perfect balance of family, marriage, parenting, social time, interesting career, hobbies, and community projects.
All of those things are ambitious. All of those things are a serious draw on a person’s focus. All of those things add difficult wrinkles to a person’s everyday life.
How do those things square up with frugality or the idea of “simple living”? How can a person on a fast career track or with a bunch of sprawling ambitions lead a simple and frugal life?
I think that Sarah and I come as close as anyone I know to achieving this balance.
Sarah and I both have careers. We work at maintaining our marriage. We’re parents to three school aged children. Sarah and I are both involved in the community and both currently hold and have held leadership positions in the past. We have large social networks – I’ve had more than a dozen friends over for dinner parties in just the last week. We both have involved hobbies that we’re passionate about.
At the same time, I actually think of my life as being pretty simple. We live well below our means and save a pretty sizable portion of our income. I (mostly) have time for the things I want to do in my life, though I do have a sizable someday/maybe list. We eat most of our meals at home with our family gathered around the table together at least once a day (on schooldays) and often two or three times a day (on weekends).
How do we achieve that balance? Here are some things that I’ve figured out over the years.
I want to start by talking about how we view frugality. Frugality, to us, means maximizing the value of one’s dollar. It means spending as little as possible in the areas we don’t care about so that we always have money for the things that we do care about. We do our best to reflect that principle in all of our spending choices.
For example, we buy a lot of store brand items for most of our household needs and many of our food needs. We’re really careful about major purchases and take our time with them, doing research and shopping around. We go dirt cheap on the things that aren’t a big deal to us, and we often don’t spend money at all on non-essential things that aren’t in line with what we care about.
The fundamental key here is having a strong grip on what’s actually important to us and what isn’t. At the point in our lives when we got into real financial trouble, we didn’t have a strong grip on what mattered and what didn’t. We felt the need to have “the best” of everything, even in areas we didn’t really care about. Whenever we were idle, we felt the “need” to treat ourselves, even when we didn’t really want anything. Impulsive desires often ruled the day and often ruled our spending choices, even though those impulses would fade really quickly.
The big shift in our spending occurred when we realized that the number of things we actually really cared about in the long term of our life was rather small. There were lots of things we impulsively desired, but those impulses never stuck around. In the bad old days, we’d dive into those impulses, spending our money on them and then wondering where it all went. Now, we basically just say no to almost all of those impulses. This makes the rare impulsive thing really special, for one, but it also means that we have an abundance of money for the other things in our life.
Here’s the thing: this philosophy of frugality spreads out to one’s entire life. The basics are clear: spend minimal time and energy on the portions of your life that you don’t care about so that you have plenty of time and energy for the portions of your life that you do care about.
This required me to sit down and ask myself what parts of my life were really truly important to me. What parts did I want to succeed strongly in? Which parts did I not really care about that much?
Here’s the thing: if you try to succeed strongly at everything, you’re going to fail. There simply isn’t enough time and energy in a given life to succeed at every single thing that you might want to succeed at. It doesn’t exist.
A much better approach is this one. Consider your life as a whole. What three things do you really want to be known for, above all else? What three words do you want written on your tombstone?
Everything else is secondary. Everything else should be lived as simply as possible, in terms of minimum commitments of time and energy.
For me, the three words I think I want on my tombstone right now are father, husband, and mentor. Everything else is secondary to those to me and are often seen by me in terms of how they can help me fulfill those main three words.
So, what does that mean for the rest of my life?
I want simple routines in terms of my basic life requirements. For example, I have no need to dress fancy to fulfill those roles most of the time, so I have a very straightforward wardrobe that makes me dress pretty much the same every day. It’s presentable and very simple. Being “fashionable” or “well dressed” isn’t going to be on my tombstone.
I aim to avoid spending time on anything that’s either not in line with those key roles or isn’t recharging me to be maximally effective at those key roles. Hobby time, for example, should either be really effective at recharging me or else it’s something I’m actively doing with people for whom I’m either a parent, a spouse, or a mentor of some kind. This actually has a lot of implications. Here are some of them:
+ I rarely watch television except as a family event
+ I try to read books that will help me grow as a person
+ I exercise to keep my body and mind healthy, and I often exercise with family
+ I try to eat healthy simple meals
+ If I’m tired, I go to bed rather than trying to eke out another hour of low productivity (which also means I wake up with an hour’s less sleep, which makes tomorrow bad)
+ I try to make all household tasks as efficient as possible, which leads into things like just defaulting to buying store brands when grocery store
I regularly put aside time to rethink the big goals of my life. This is the kind of “big picture” thinking that a lot of people skip out on. Once every three months, I spend a few hours really reflecting on my life as a whole. Am I happy with how things are? Am I happy with where I’m headed? It’s okay if the answers aren’t positive. It gives me a chance to change or update those big goals I have in my life.
While many of these specific strategies are practical ones, they all come back to one key idea: focus on a few areas of your life that really matter to you and simplify everything else in terms of money, time, focus, and energy. For me, the best way to do that is to cut out things where I’m just idling without purpose, make ordinary tasks into the simplest routines I can, get plenty of sleep, do things that maintain health and energy, and minimize my financial spending on things that aren’t either directly a part of those big goals or directly supporting those big goals.
The reality is that you can’t have everything in life. You can’t simultaneously hit a grand slam in every single area of your life. There isn’t the time nor the energy for it. Rather, choose a few areas of your life where you really want to hit a grand slam, make them the focus, and then go super simple in all of the other areas. This is basically the philosophy of frugality applied beyond money – it’s applied to time, energy, and focus, too.
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