Contentment: The Secret Ingredient to Financial Success

How much is enough?  The answer to this simple question could determine how likely you are to find contentment in your life.  A few years back Scott read a book titled Enough by the late John Bogle (inventor of the index fund and The Vanguard Group founder) that opens with a story that is quite fitting to this topic.  Two incredibly successful authors, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller have been invited to a party hosted by a billionaire hedge fund manager.  Kurt says to Joseph, “You know, this billionaire makes more money in one day than you made in your whole lifetime from your novel Catch-22.”  Joe responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have…enough.”  Do you have enough?

In this blog post we’ll discuss the idea of “enough”.  Each of us has a different perspective on what enough means in our life, and for some, like the aforementioned billionaire, enough is something elusive we chase our entire lives, but never seem to catch.  The reason finding enough or being content is so critical to financial success is that if you never have enough you will always be seeking “more”, and this more usually comes at a cost.  A cost that can have a dramatic effect on your marriage, family, and financial future.  Let’s start with a definition of contentment.

Contentment (con-tent-ment) noun.  1. a state of happiness and satisfaction. 2. the state of being contented; satisfaction; ease of mind.  3. happiness with one’s situation in life.

Happiness, satisfaction, a state of mind, an attitude, and being at peace with your life are all ways of describing contentment. 

How content are you with your life?  

How happy are you? 

These are important questions we rarely ask ourselves.  One suggestion is to add these questions to your millionaire money dates we suggest you routinely take with your spouse.  Chances are if you’re not content your spouse might also not be content, and even worse, your children may eventually follow in your discontentment.  When one of the parents in the family is constantly chasing after the next big thing (i.e. new cars, electronics, jewelry, bigger salary, etc.) those around them will likely follow in their footsteps. 

The same is true of those outside of your family you spend time with.  A few weeks ago Scott shared a story about how a coworker several years ago leased a new SUV and within weeks Scott was “infected” with discontentment still driving his old Honda Civic (aka the pregnant roller skate) and decided the “cure” was to lease a big expensive SUV.  The only thing he was cured of was having around $500 each month taken from his bank account and over $2,000 removed from his coffers after the lease expired and he had far too many miles on his leased SUV.  Scott’s feeling of contentment also quickly faded as fast as the new car smell in his SUV.

This is an example of how being discontent can lead to poor financial choices.  If you’re like most doctors you’ve probably made a few bad choices like Scott, and a few of these won’t kill your financial future, but if you are like many doctors who make these bad choices over-and-over again it gets harder to recover from them.  The good news is you can recover from poor decisions made in the past, as Scott did, if you quit making the bad financial choices.  However, the challenge becomes how to do this.

What can we do to become more content?  Most of us would agree that buying things rarely leads to greater contentment in our lives.  Yet we often still do it seeking happiness and satisfaction in our lives only to repeat the cycle again when the newness of our latest purchase wears off.  It’s what many describe as a hedonic treadmill. 

For example, vehicle purchases for the most part, are purely done because we just want a new vehicle.  Rarely will you see someone drive a vehicle onto a dealer’s lot falling apart and about to blow up.  Cars these days are lasting longer than they’ve ever lasted.  We tend to buy a new vehicle because we want to, not because we need to.

Wants vs. Needs

This brings us to a key element to understanding how to be content – knowing the difference between a want and a need.  What is the difference?  Well, that depends on your viewpoint.  For us a need is something basic to life.  Things like food, water, clothing, shelter, electricity, heat, etc. are basic needs we all require to sustain life. 

If you want to do an eye-opening exercise take your budget and note whether each line item is a want or a need.  If you really want to trim your budget to maximize the dollars you have to pay off debt, temporarily eliminate all wants from your budget (check out our debt shovel if you need help with this).  You’ll probably be surprised by how small a percentage of your monthly budget is needed to cover needs (unless you have a really big house or rent payment).

Our goal is not to suggest you live with your family of five in a 400 square foot one room studio, eat Ramen noodles, wear second hand clothing, and ration toilet paper just to save a few bucks.  You have to decide what level you will sacrifice to in order to speed up the process of becoming debt-free.  The greater the sacrifice the quicker you will be out of debt, however, you need to make sure you don’t end up needing psychiatric help in the process:-)

The real focus is on making sure as you identify wants from needs you start to develop the ability to tell yourself you can be happy and content even if you didn’t purchase the new phone, car, etc.  And the purchase itself is not being made to create greater contentment in your life.  Which brings us to the next point – contentment is something you learn to become.

Learning to be content.

As doctors you know the power of learning.  Learning has led you to where you are today.  Learning has the power to change lives.  Not only your life, but also your family’s life, and the lives of the patients you serve.  The great news is as doctors you are masters of learning.  You’ve spent the greater part of a decade learning by the time you finish residency, and the learning doesn’t stop there.  To be a great doctor you have to continually be learning. 

Being content is also a learning process.  You don’t just wake up one day and decide, “From this day forward I will be content.”  No, like your medical learning, to be content is a continual process; a daily learning process that leads to becoming content and staying content.

We would suggest that learning to be content has two key elements – humility and gratitude.  We live in a world where pride rules over humility.  When was the last time you heard a leader in this world speak about the power of humility?  Maybe, if you’re a church-goer, you’ve heard your pastor speak on this topic, but rarely do you hear key leaders in organizations and / or government speak on the power of humility.  What you will hear, and certainly see, more often is that pride is far more powerful than humility. 

There is nothing wrong with having pride in your work, your children, family, friends, etc., but if you’re not careful pride can lead to ego, and when you start to look down on others you will struggle to be content because your focus will shift to always being one step ahead of others in every aspect of your life (i.e. career, possessions, wealth).  There is a proverb that states, “When pride comes then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.”  When you have a humble attitude you take a big step forward in gaining wisdom and contentment.

A second component to contentment is gratitude.  In other words, being thankful for what you have.  We would suggest a simple test for determining what enough means for you is when you can say to yourself on most days (being content every day is probably a stretch goal), “Enough is what I have today, right this minute, and I need nothing further than what I currently have to be content.”  Could you say this about yourself today? 

When you combine humility with gratitude you have found a place of contentment.  The “sweet spot” in life that leads to success in nearly every aspect of your life from finances to family.

Practical ways to become more content with your life.

We finish this blog with a few practical ways to increase the contentment in your life and help in lifelong learning to be more content. 

The first tip is a way of planting contentment seeds in your mind that grow into something beautiful over time.  Start each day with planting a seed of gratitude in your mind.  Use a journal, or better yet, a post-it note, to write one thing you are grateful for that day.  Post the note somewhere you can see it most of the day to provide a reminder and crutch to leverage when thoughts of discontentment creep into your mind. 

What you’ll likely find is that your post-it note will be on something that costs little to no money.  You’re not likely to write something like, “I’m grateful for my new Porsche”, but will instead write things like, “I’m grateful for my husband who gave our daughters a bath last night while I rested.”, or “I’m grateful for my wife who always does my laundry without asking.”  We all have many things to be grateful for if we will simply stop, take a breath, and think about them.

Becoming more humble takes time, and one way to learn humility is to start by doing some self-reflection.  Spend a few minutes each week writing down how you showed humility during the past week.  Also, reflect on times when you were not so humble and determine ways to keep from repeating the same mistake the following week.

Keeping a contentment journal is another simple way of keeping an eye on how content you’ve been the previous week.  On a scale of 1 being completely discontent to a 10 of total contentment, how did you score the past week?  What can you do to improve the following week?  The grateful notes, and the humility and contentment reflections are also great sharing opportunities with your spouse on your millionaire money dates and monthly budget meetings.

A few other ideas include spending less time watching TV and surfing online, especially social media.  Advertisers want to tap into your feelings of discontentment to get you to buy things you don’t need, and social media will also tempt you to fall into the comparisons trap that leads to getting on and never getting off the hedonic treadmill. 

Giving can also help drive contentment.  When you give to those in need you begin to see you have more than enough when you can give to others what you could keep for yourself. 

Setting priorities can also help stay focused on learning to become content.  When you have priorities you will have a greater focus, especially when dealing with your money.  Budgets and life goals help you center on what’s important to you and your family.  You’ll also find that as you accomplish your goals and get a feeling of accomplishment, contentment will come along for a free ride. 

For many finding contentment is an elusive challenge.  We would argue most people who struggle financially also struggle with contentment.  In fact, we’ve never met a couple who told us they were content and at the same time deeply in debt.  In general, as contentment goes up so does financial success because instead of giving your money away to buy contentment you save it, invest it, and give it, which leads to a continual progression in learning contentment.

So, what about you?  Are you content?  Do you need to learn to be more content?  Spend the next 30 days applying one or two of our prescribed techniques and slowly work your way off the hedonic treadmill and onto the path to contentment.

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