The financial pursuit of happiness

PREAMBLE

I realise that this is the first entry I have made in a while. In part, this is because I have been spending the last month with my girlfriend relaxing and enjoying some leisure time. However I have been working on a few entries, one relating to a climbing story in the Cordillera Blanca, one relating to the impacts Climate Change is having on that mountain range and this one which relates to dealing with finances to pursuing your dreams.

I am posting this one first as I now find myself sitting in Yosemite Valley, California. Still a Mecca for climbers around the world, sitting at the base of El Capitan I felt inspired to write about this very topic. The absolute grandeur of this flawless piece of granite forced me to take a moment to appreciate where I am and the journey I am on, none of which would be possible without utilising the methods I talk about below.

As always, this article is based solely on my experience. However, I truly believe in the power of these techniques and encourage anyone to apply them to their own life.

 El Capitan, a Mecca for climbers around the world. Simply stunning.

El Capitan, a Mecca for climbers around the world. Simply stunning.


THE FINANCIAL PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS

One of the questions I get asked most often, particularly when people find out I have a mortgage is, “how can you afford to travel for a year?” Finances is one of the biggest barriers to many of us pursuing our dreams and certainly could have prevented me from realising mine had it not been for embracing the concept of minimalism. Hang on, minimalism. Isn’t that where you throw out all your stuff and live with fifty items or less? Have some of you just rolled your eyes? Please stay with me and I promise this won’t be a plea for you to throw out all your stuff.

I wanted to write about this topic because I believe it is an effective tool to maintain good mental health as well as financial freedom. It’s a pragmatic approach to life which provided me the freedom to pursue what makes me happy. I hope it can do the same for you.

So let’s address the elephant in the room. Minimalism is often interpreted as needing to rid your life of material possessions. To me this is completely missing the point. It’s about happiness, living a meaningful life and taking steps to improve your overall wellbeing. While reading this article, please keep in mind my interpretation of minimalism:

Minimalism is investing your time, energy and money in what adds value to your life while minimising investing in areas of your life that do not.

Essentially it’s all about being more conscious of where we invest our resources rather than mindlessly investing based on where society tells us we should.

Spending quality time with friends and family, intellectual stimulation, being outdoors, travelling and climbing are the primary areas which add value to my life. Therefore, I tend to focus my time, energy and money in these areas.

Note, the areas I have highlighted don’t refer to how I achieve quality time, or intellectual stimulation. They simply identify those areas as being essential for me to find happiness and fulfillment in my life. As a result, I am free to pursue those objectives in ways which do not necessarily require me to spend a lot of money. Particularly on things which do not add value to my life.

For example, my girlfriend and I don’t need to go out for an expensive dinner or visit an overpriced tourist attraction to enjoy quality time together. For us, it can be as simple as cooking a meal at home together (without a TV on), going for a hike or camping. We both love these activities, they enable us to enjoy each other’s company free from distraction (equals quality time) and they are incredibly cheap!

Though I don’t buy a lot, a do spend money on certain material items. Two key areas are climbing gear (big surprise) and books. I will happily visit a bookshop while travelling and spend $50 on a few new books because I love to read and it meets one of my key fulfillment areas – intellectual stimulation. I like learning about new subjects and I find reading a great way to do this while also keeping my mind stimulated.

Some people would argue that I should go for e-books and I would agree if books did not add significant value to my life. However, I am happy to spend money on paperback books, I enjoy them and like sharing them with friends and fellow travellers once I am done. You might have a similar affection for a different type of possession. If it enables you to meet one of your key areas of happiness, therefore adding value to your life then I encourage you to invest money on it.

What you won’t see me spending money on are things that I consider excess and which do not add value to my life. When I lived in my own home, visitors, including my own parents often commented on how it didn’t feel like a ‘home’ due to the lack of décor. Honestly, I just couldn’t bring myself to spend money on things like vases, fake flowers, pictures or other knick-knacks just to fill space. I just didn’t see the point and in no way was it going to bring me fulfillment or improve my wellbeing.

These items might be relatively cheap, from $10 to a couple of hundred dollars each, however once you start filling your life with dozens or even hundreds of these things, that is a lot of disposable income you could have been investing in more meaningful ways.

I can say the same about clothes. I would be lucky to buy one new outfit a year and almost always its apparel that I can wear while climbing or doing something else outdoors. It’s always interesting when I attend weddings as I have about three different shirts to wear with my suit so inevitably I look the same at most special events. Spending $150 on a new dress shirt does not add value to my life in a meaningful way yet I could easily spend that same amount on a new piece of climbing equipment, some books or on fuel to go camping with my girlfriend without even blinking.

What is meaningful to me is likely different to you. Identify what provides your life with meaning, brings fulfillment and happiness; however the key lies in identifying the ‘what’, not the ‘how’. If we free ourselves from the restrictions of how we are expected to find happiness and fulfillment (i.e. big house, new car, latest fashionable items), then we are free to pursue them on our own terms. In ways which don’t see us spending much of our disposable income, often for little return.

Hopefully all of this is providing some context around my interpretation of minimalism. Why is understanding this concept important? It will help you understand how I found myself in a position where I:

1)     Had the financial freedom to pursue a dream like the Vertical Year.

2)     Had the freedom to mentally commit to a dream like the Vertical Year.

When I first started thinking about travelling to Peru to climb Alpamayo, one of the first things I did was check the bank balance. I had inadvertently saved more than $25,000 while paying off a mortgage and travelling overseas each year to climb.

Suddenly I realised that I had the potential to do more than just Alpamayo. I could visit some of my dream climbing destinations in one single trip! Ice climbing in the Canadian Rockies and rock climbing in California were now on the cards. Due to when the ideal climbing seasons were in each area, it meant I was staring down the barrel of twelve months abroad. A huge commitment both financially and mentally.

I am being completely honest when I say I was not consciously saving for this trip. The savings materialized naturally because of the lifestyle I had chosen. Focusing on what brings me fulfillment and pursuing those areas in ways which didn’t necessarily cost a lot of money.

I assess each purchase in terms of how it is contributing to my life. This requires conscious effort just as the personal savings concept ‘paying yourself first’ does. The difference with minimalism is that you don’t necessarily need an end goal or target savings amount to start with. It happens organically.

In addition, minimalism has enabled me to control my expenses this year. My greatest costs are food and accommodation. Though I need to be healthy and safe, I do not need to go out for dinner or spend money on expensive accommodation to achieve those goals.

In Canada I rented a cheap room in a share house for just under $600AUD/month, in Peru I slept in my tent as often as possible while sleeping in a six bed dorm when I couldn’t for $12AUD/night and I am spending the next month in California living out of my rental vehicle for free.

I cook simple yet nutritious meals using cheap staples like legumes, rice, polenta and pasta while purchasing fresh vegetables as needed to minimise waste. Breakfasts consist of oatmeal with dried fruits and nuts with fresh fruit, sandwiches and bars for snacks. My typical food expenses to date has been about $15AUD/day.

These simple adjustments have seen me save thousands over the course of the year so far without negatively impacting on the important aspects of the journey. It has kept me free from financial stress, providing me the freedom to pursue more costly opportunities as they arise to make the most on this journey.


 My rental vehicle and home for the next 6 weeks. Not exactly stylish however it serves my purposes and will save me more than $1,500.

My rental vehicle and home for the next 6 weeks. Not exactly stylish however it serves my purposes and will save me more than $1,500.

What might be less obvious are the mental health benefits associated with minimalism. A survey in 2017 found almost 50% of Australian’s had suffered some form of financial stress in the last year and that earning more money provided little relief with around 30% of Australian’s earning over $100,000 p.a. having suffered financial stress.

It is a common problem for most people that when we earn more, we spend more. Its easy to happen in a consumerist society. However, who we are has not fundamentally changed. What brings us happiness and fulfillment is still the same.  I believe this common problem is a result of us focusing too much on how society tells us to find happiness rather than focusing on what brings us fulfillment and happiness as individuals.

Imagine getting that promotion, earning an extra $10,000 per year and your expenses remained practically the same. Or conversely maintaining the same level of income while minimising the superfluous expenses in your life. How much easier would it be to pay unexpected bills, deal with financial emergencies or pursue those trips you thought would take years to save for?

Aside from relieving financial stress, minimalism provides us with the freedom to pursue what makes us happy. When we consciously focus our efforts on these key areas in our life, we are liberated from societies expectations and reap the benefits. Knowing something brings us fulfillment and happiness and not focusing on it is like having a winning lottery ticket and never cashing it in.   

Minimalism is not a new concept. However I believe it is becoming more important as our society enjoys a higher quality of life. When we are free to focus on things other than survival necessities, we should be focusing on what brings us happiness and fulfillment. However, it seems somewhere along the way a lot of us have lost or way. We are being bombarded with ads and consumerist agendas which has led us to forget that we are free to pursue happiness in our own way. Think about what’s important to you, take back control and help enable yourself to pursue your dreams. I certainly couldn’t be doing this if I had not.

If you want to read more about minimalism, here is a great website/blog/podcast to find out more.

If you are suffering from financial stress you can find some great resources on the ReachOut Australia website here.