Live for Today or Save for Tomorrow
Obviously the answer lies somewhere in the middle– but where? We take pride in making responsible choices for the future instead of thinking only of today, but do you ever feel like you’re going too far? Not appreciating the present enough?
I hear that suggestion a lot regarding how much money frugalites and penny-pinchers spend: that we’re not enjoying life enough because we’re not willing to spend much money. The thing is, I don’t think that spending more money would make me noticeably more happy! I mean, certainly there are some things that I could spend more on and enjoy– probably more expensive vacations, maybe going out to eat more and/or at fancier places– but in general I’m very comfortable with the way things are. I find ways to enjoy myself that are just good values for the money… and if there’s something that comes up that’s expensive but would be really wonderful, I weigh it carefully but am pretty good about letting myself go for it if it’s worth it.
However, it’s the flip side that concerns me. The amount you save is a combination of how much you make and how much you spend, so it follows that to save the most for tomorrow you need to make as much money as you can today. A lot of personal finance bloggers like to stress the importance of increasing your income as much as possible.
For me personally, while I’m not earning as much as I could if income was my only priority but I’m still doing a job I like and one I feel is good for society. The thing is, I’ve never really envisioned myself following a standard “career path”. Yet most of the other options will likely pay substantially less, in some cases perhaps as little as half as much. So the question is, how long should I stay at a good-paying job that I’m fairly but not completely happy with? I definitely want to try other work, but don’t I have plenty of time for that later on?
There are many arguments for doing higher-paying work first– getting money into savings and taking advantage of compounding interest, paying off debt– and putting off more satisfying but lower-paying work for later, maybe even until retirement or an early retirement. (For just one example, it’s the classic recommendation for socially-minded lawyers: put in a few years at a big firm, rake in the dough, pay off your loans and save up, and then later you can give it up and go do your public interest law.) But the approach worries me in a lot of ways. What if I get too used to the benefits of making my current income? How do I decide when I’m financially “ready” to switch to a lower-paying job? And what if when that “ready” comes, it coincides with the time in my life when I’m looking to buy a home, get married, have children, etc, and suddenly the financial hit seems a lot less doable?
So maybe it’s better to try different and more challenging options now, when I’m young and more flexible and I know I can pull it off. Besides, who knows what unforeseen things could happen in my life that might constrain my future decisions? I’m sure I’ll regret it if I don’t try working at other kinds of organizations; I would hate to look back and realize that I missed out on great opportunities only because I was too concerned about the size of my retirement account. There’s a lot to be said for seizing the moment.
I have a personal goal to let concerns about money affect my choices as little as humanly possible. The hard part is finding the best way to do this. Working to save as much money as I can is one way to help free me from money concerns later in life, but it means putting money squarely in the center of my decision-making process today. If I try not to worry about money and income in the present, that will make things harder in the future. It’s so hard to figure out where the right balance is.
Do you struggle with trade offs between earning money and being happy and fulfilled? While I doubt many people have precisely the same concerns as me, I feel like this dilemma is probably applicable using a lot of different measures of happiness and satisfaction: pleasant vs. unpleasant work environments, a more personally satisfying career vs. a higher-paying career, a job that has shorter hours and/or is more flexible vs. a job that eats into your personal life but pays well, even working vs. staying home with kids. How do you make these kinds of decisions in your life?