Three habits to build financial contentment
At Sound Stewardship, we talk quite a bit about contentment. It’s one of our two goals for all of our clients, contentment and confidence, which underpin all our seven principles. As I’ve written before, contentment is a learned skill. One that takes discipline, training and practice.
And one that might very well save your life.
Because we can easily run ourselves to death on the “hedonic treadmill,” that never-ending chase of the next good thing. Think about it: in grade school we look up to high schoolers. In high school, we wanted to be in college. Then it’s not being able to wait for grad school, or a first job, getting married, a better job, a higher paycheck, a certain car. Eventually, retirement. Of course, it doesn’t end there.
We are always pursuing something new.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. There’s beauty in the Christian perspective that God made us as tinkerers, curators and creators. Wanting to work, to improve — that’s part of who we are. We like a good plot line. We love forward movement. God put that in us.
But God also gave us the idea of a Sabbath. We needed to be told to let enough be enough regularly. Without it, the implication is we’ll never stop and be satisfied.
Even the wealthiest think they need more. In fact, one famous Harvard Business School survey showed that the rich estimated that having three times their current net worths would make them happier. It’s never enough, is it?
My wife, a more content human than I am, has been a huge influence on me. I remember once, when I was talking about another conference I wanted to attend, another thing I wanted to learn, she said, “You do realize that you’ll never stop, right?”
She’s right! I recently turned 40, and I’m just now getting better at contentment. It’s not easy. I’ve been thinking about how to balance that God-given desire to work and create with the God-given gift of contentment. Here are a few practices that have helped me:
- Start a strong Sabbath routine. Once a week, intentionally rest. Put your work down and walk away from your lists. There will always be more to do. Ignore all of that, sit down, and enjoy what you’ve already done and what you already have. Intentionally create weekly routines that bring you rest.
- Practice daily gratitude. Find a ritual you can stick with, like journaling, meditating or jotting down a thankfulness list. Perhaps focus on one thing you’re grateful for at each meal. Research is clear that consistent gratitude exercises improve mental health & contentment.
- Reflect on what you really want. I really enjoyed this thought-provoking article on satisfaction by Arthur Brooks, an author who often explores happiness. Brooks wrote about finding a bucket list he had written on his 40th birthday years later. He realized he’d managed to achieve every single one of his goals, and yet none of them gave as much joy as he expected. On his birthdays, he now writes a “reverse bucket list” where he imagines himself five years older, “happy and at peace, living a life of purpose and meaning.” And then he writes down the things he thinks will get him there.
Big surprise: The reverse bucket list is really different than the original. Humans aren’t good at understanding what will bring us happiness. It’s usually the intrinsic things — the experiences, the relationships, the moments of presence — that we’re after when we think we need more money, more promotions, more things. Maybe it’s not the sailboat you really want. Maybe it’s the feeling of adventure. Or uninterrupted time with the people you love. What’s the want behind the want? Reframe goals by examining what you are truly looking for.
I’ve seen this play out in my own life. One of the happiest times in my life was when we were first married, in grad school and living on $12,000 a year. Our splurges were buying the “nice” orange juice and a fancier brand of frozen pizza once a week. We didn’t feel poor. It’s easy to forget, as our lives changed, and our income increased, how much joy there is in simple things.
During the pandemic, my wife and I developed the habit of walking together twice a day. Months in, we realized we hadn’t gone on a date night in forever. We realized we didn’t need the official date night when we were spending so much time walking and connecting —that was what we really wanted, not nights out or expensive dinners.
Where are you already finding the satisfaction you’re chasing through more money, power or possessions? Real contentment usually comes when we get clearer on what we really want from life and put some habits in place that remind us that we probably already have much of it.
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