On our journey to financial independence, most of us know by now that we need to spend less than we earn and invest the difference. There is no magic formula for building wealth, other than focus, restraint, and patience.
Or is there?
It’s been said that personal finance is 90% behavioral. For our family, that was definitely true. We understood the how of personal finance pretty quickly, and in fact, the more we simplified, the better results we had. Pay off debt, max out retirement accounts, invest in low-fee index funds. The why of personal finance was much more difficult. It’s been much harder to curb our desire to spend in the here and now for such a distant goal.
Personal finance is a lot like parenting. The results of all your hard work and sacrifice don’t show up for a long time and in the meantime, everyone is questioning your sanity.
While we still struggle with spending (you can see our breakdown on our latest net worth update), we have gotten much better since we wised-up in 2008. And we continue to get better, due to our secret weapon. Ready for it?
That’s right: turns out that being grateful for what you already have makes you a lot less likely to want new stuff.
When I was a brand-new mom, I had a really rough time. I had a baby who kept me up for half the night, as newborns are want to do. I had just quit my job, leaving us with 45% less income and health insurance costs to absorb. I was home all day long with said infant, staring at the walls of my 40-year-old home. For some reason, I thought a lot about all of the updates we needed to make in our home. “Look at that imperfect paint job. Wow, original laminate counter. We should replace that. The cabinets don’t close well anymore there are so many layers of paint on them.” Inevitably, my thoughts would drift to how little money we had to do any of said projects. Life felt a bit dismal. Until I read about the power of practicing gratitude.
Then I made a decision. When my thoughts began to wander to what changes we needed to make to our home, I made myself focus on the things in the kitchen that I loved. “We have a brand new, stainless steel oven that we didn’t have to pay for, thanks to our home warranty that was a gift from our realtor. It is so new and shiny. Look at that beautiful bay window that looks out to a flowerbed. I love the green we painted this room.” Focusing on what I liked about my house instead of what I wanted to change about it gradually change shifted my inner thinking from “more, more more” to “we have enough. We have plenty. We have a wonderful house.”
Sheryl Sandburg, the COO of Facebook, lost her husband in 2015 when he collapsed from a heart attack while on the treadmill during their vacation. She has experienced overwhelming grief over the past two years. When her psychologist friend suggested she think about how much worse things could be, she was at first indignant. How could her life be worse than suddenly losing her husband?
His reply gave her a new perspective, “Dave could have had the same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children.” It was at that point that she started to focus on how grateful she was for what she did have, that her children were alive and healthy.
Every night, before she goes to bed, she now lists three things she is grateful for. “People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier. It turns out that counting your blessings can actually increase your blessings. My New Year’s resolution this year is to write down three moments of joy before I go to bed each night. This simple practice has changed my life. Because no matter what happens each day, I go to sleep thinking of something cheerful. Try it.”
So how can gratitude help with your financial independence journey? Focusing on all the positives in your life can make it a lot easier if you struggle with comparisons or feeling like you’re going without.
Focusing on what we have, versus what we don’t, changes our mindsets from one of lack to one of abundance. As Shakespeare says, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” It can be difficult to feel grateful in the moment, next to the display of Apple watches, but regular practice has strengthened my and my husband’s gratitude muscles and tremendously helped us get a big picture view of how good life is.
Studies have shown gratitude makes us more patient and therefore, willing to wait for our long term goals.
David DeSteno, writing in the New York Times, describes it this way: “The emotion of gratitude, viewed from a cost-benefit perspective, stresses the long-term value of short-term sacrifice… certain emotions can temporarily enhance self-control by decreasing desires for immediate gratification. While feeling happy doesn’t do much to increase patience, feeling grateful does” (emphasis mine).
There are a lot of ways to practice gratitude, but I do recommend regular practice. Because setting up cues to remind you to do a certain behavior helps turn that behavior into a habit. Here are a couple of ways that have worked well for our family:
Practice Makes Perfect
- Journaling: just like Sheryl Sandburg, take a few moments at the end of the day to list three things you’re grateful for.
- Before meals. If you’re so inclined, say a prayer for the ways you’re grateful now. If not, just go around the table and take turns voicing one reason you’re grateful that day.
- When you’re in nature. I regularly think about what I’m grateful for when I’m outside. I think it’s because where I live, the mountains make me feel small by comparison and remind me of my place in the world.
- By writing thank-you notes: make one day a week a thank-you note writing day. (Full disclosure: I don’t do this very often!). It will get you in the habit of thinking who in your life you should be thanking and for what. The age-old practice of thank-you notes has been lost in our fast modern world, but it combines two of my favorite things–being still and feeling grateful. I always feel happier after I’ve sent a couple of thank-you notes.
- In the car. If you have a long commute, you can mentally list to yourself all the things that are going right or well in your life. My list usually starts with, “we are all healthy.”
- Before bed. When I’m putting my kids to bed, we talk about one thing they’re grateful for that day.
For us, the regular practice of gratitude helps us realize we don’t need a bunch of new stuff to make us happy, because our cup already runneth over. It helps with our patience and a focus on our long-term goals.
Do you agree with me that gratitude can be a secret financial independence weapon? How has it worked for you in the past?