I frequently hear people bemoan the choices they have made when it comes time to “man up” and be financially responsible. They grieve over the vacation they have to cancel due to a layoff. They cry over the kitchen renovation that has to be put off when the roof needs replacing. They sob when they have to put off buying the 70-inch TV because the car died and they have to replace it. The thing is, this moaning and gnashing of teeth usually does not begin until all avenues of credit have been exhausted. In other words, people put off acting responsibly until the last minute. They take trips on credit cards. They finance the roof repair and the kitchen renovation in one home equity loan. Only when there is no other choice do they decide to act responsibly and give up whatever they’ve been desiring. But not without a lot of whining.
Those of us who are debt free look at things a little differently. We’ve learned to take satisfaction from doing the responsible thing. When a trip has to be canceled or a desired purchase put off due to tight finances, we don’t get all bent out of shape about it. Don’t get me wrong: We get disappointed just like anyone else. It’s disappointing to have to put off something you’ve looked forward to for a long time and it isn’t something we actively seek out. We don’t go around saying, “How can I deprive myself today? What fun can I cancel today?” Most debt free people aren’t into self-flagellation just for the heck of it. But we do realize there are times when necessities have to take precedence over luxuries.
Since we know this and live by it, we’ve learned to take satisfaction from doing the responsible, grown-up thing when we have to. How, exactly, do we find satisfaction in a disappointing and likely stressful situation? I don’t know about every debt free person, but I do it by focusing on the bigger picture. People who get all bent about missing a vacation only look at the vacation. They can’t get beyond what they are being forced to give up. It’s more satisfying to them to go into debt to have it all right now than it is to find some sort of compromise between what you need right now and what you want right now. I prefer to look beyond the sacrifice to the good that will come of the sacrifice.
Let’s say I have to cancel a vacation because the car died and I have to go spend $8,000 for a decent used car. I’m disappointed, sure. I’d rather travel than car shop any day. I look at the missed vacation and spare a brief moment to be sad for the loss. Then I get on with buying the car. Once I have the car, I look at my finances and immediately assess the damage. Let’s say I had $9,000 in savings allocated for the car and vacation fund. Now I have $1,000. Okay, I’m out $8,000, but it could be a lot worse. I could be out $8,000 plus another $2,000 for the trip. Then I’d be $1,000 in the hole. I know from looking at my books that I made the right choice. I’m still debt free and I have $1,000 to build on again. Since I don’t have any debt to pay off and shouldn’t have to buy a car again any time soon, I can direct a lot more money to saving for the trip. I can replace that $8,000 in about six months. That’s when I will take my trip. I change my booking to six months out and forget about it.
Looking at the bigger picture has made the postponement of that trip easier to take. I know I’ve done the right thing because I can see that the present and the future are taken care of. I’ve found satisfaction in doing the right thing because I’m secure. I’m secure right now because I have a decent car again so I can go to work, and I still have money in the bank. I’m secure for the future because I still have some savings left that I’m quickly rebuilding in case something else goes wrong, and I know I’ll still get my trip in six months or less. It’s far more satisfying to approach something this way than it is to go into debt for a luxury. That debt would hamper my present: I wouldn’t be able to replenish my savings as quickly and I’d have nothing in the bank if I needed it. The debt would also hamper my future: The trip would likely be delayed even longer because it would take me longer to get back to positive territory, let alone begin saving again. It would be a long, hard slog to get back to where I was and there’s no trip or other luxury that will make up for that amount of aggravation and stress for me.
That’s how I find satisfaction in dealing with life’s disappointments. I don’t love having to give up something I want, but knowing that the choices I make today set me up for a better, more secure future, makes the loss easier to take. I can look beyond the immediate gratification and see that I will be happier long term if I do the responsible thing.