A most uncommon path to wealth and happiness

Updated to Productivity on December 29, 2022.

Lots has been written about building wealth. All good stuff about investing, saving, taxes and reducing debt.

And I bought into all of it for years.

When I had lots of debt, my mantra was “Earn more. Earn more. Earn more. Earn more. Earn more.” I was killing myself, trying to row my leaky money boat faster while ignoring water rising up my legs.

The truth is there’s many paths to Rome (and riches.)

You can win the family lottery and inherit a sweet nest egg, climb the salary ladder, get into rental properties, or buy lottery tickets.

And then there’s the most uncommon approach.

1. Spending less

My first foray into consciously spending less was in 1999 when I stopped drinking coffee. It was an experiment borne out of curiosity about my health (in my guiding days we drank coffee like water). I explain the math behind that experiment in this post. The result was about $1,600 in my pocket every year since.

When I stopped drinking coffee I put $1,600 in my pocket.

All from spending less.

The surprising bonus was I actually enjoyed it. Tea is better for my health and a whole lot simpler (just try ordering an extra-shot, half-sweet, no foam, soy…tea).

In the last month I’ve been pulling out my company’s annual statements, credit card and utility bills hunting for savings. Here’s what I discovered.

As much as I’m a fan of auto-payments on credit cards (only using cards that earn high travel points) for not getting nailed with abusive late charges, it’s sure an easy way to forget what you’re paying for.

A smart exercise is to grab a highlighter (and cup of tea) and go through last month’s credit card statements. Highlight anything that’s either a reoccurring monthly charge (like a subscription) or impulse purchase (like coffee shops, gas station snacks, airport magazines, or even donations). These are optional and, at the very least, remind yourself you are consciously making the choice to pay for these.

Or stop it.

2. Don’t buy crap you don’t need

In the lofty cloisters of psychology it’s common knowledge that when it comes to purchases, expectation outweighs long-term happiness. In other words, thinking about owning the new set of bath towels is more dopamine-inducing than the reality of owning the new bath towels.

Same applies for clothing, shoes, cell phones, FitBits, juicers, mattresses, Roomba vacuums, wide-screen TV’s – any product.

New research uncovered that the only exception to this expectation/happiness discrepancy is experiences. So, if your new car won’t deliver long-term happiness, sampling seafood Paella and touring Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona will do the trick.

It turns out that experiences CAN lead to long-term happiness. Like a visit to Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

I enjoy walking away from the temptation of buying.

During my last visit to our local book store, I stumbled across a surprisingly prodigious section selling nothing but journals. Thirty feet of shelf space for journals!

As someone who covets a good pen and journal, I was soon feeling light-headed.

Holding my breath, I quietly fingered leather-bound Moleskines and manly-looking hard-cover tomes smartly sporting the quintessential red-silk bookmark, reminiscent of our coveted family bible.

Verging on giddy, I imagined myself, steaming cup of evening Oolong at my side, thoughtfully filling page after page with clever little ditties, early drafts of my memoirs and decorating the margins with witty Seuss-like illustrations.



In the last 2 years I’ve bought dozens of journals – some still sporting their original cellophane wrapper – most have less than a few pages of scribbles before ending up in some drawer, never to be seen again.

This journal cost $7.99 (for a pack of 3) and seems to work just fine

And here’s the interesting part.

Once I turned away, all the fevered emotions of expectation dissolved.

So, when you’re feeling that pull of anticipation (it happens all day long) and are about to pull out your wallet, remember if it’s not a trip to Barcelona you probably don’t need it.

3. If you store it you don’t need it

The storage business is huge business (1 in 10 Americans rent a storage unit at an average cost of $2,000 per year.) Drive though the outskirts of any city, town or hamlet and you see a blight of farm-sized storage unit rows.

And if you’ve ever been bored enough to watch reality TV shows about storage units (Storage Wars, Storage Hunters) you know most of these lock-ups are packed full of, well, garbage.

Storage units are a cash cow for the building owner and stupid expense for the customer.

It’s a diabolically brilliant business.

You build cheap storage units, charge just enough so most people will ignore the monthly charge (average in America is $163/month for a 10’ by 10’ unit) with the promise of 24 hour access, knowing full well 90% of that garbage will never see the light of day again.

It’s cash cow for the building owner and stupid expense for the customer.

Do yourself a favour (not to mention your kids who have to inherit your bad decisions) and get rid of storage. In this post I wrote about the one-in, one-out buying strategy – start there.

4. Don’t buy with borrowed money

This is a no-brainer, but needs to be made clear.

If you buy anything with borrowed money you’re essentially marking up the price by as much as 40% and now you have to work longer to reach any semblance of financial freedom.

Sure, I know sometimes we get stretched and have to put food on the table. What is wrong is when we think our credit is a bank account we can use for buying stuff we don’t need in the first place.

If you need a bit of sticker shock to keep that credit card in your pocket, think about retirement. Whether you have a job-to-retirement goal or live in the entrepreneur camp, like me, we all need to take down our shingle some day.

Your new wheels lose 11% of their value as soon as you leave the dealership.

Buying with debt is like adding years to your retirement.

For example, it’s pretty obvious that borrowing $30,000 to buy the latest model of Excalibur Cross-Blade AWD self-steering hotel-on-wheels is bad math for (at least) two reasons.

1) your new wheels just lost 11% of it’s value as soon as you left the dealership and

2) the carrying cost of new debt means you have to either earn more or postpone retirement.

That’s bad math.

I know it’s not sexy

It’s not sexy to look at spending less, but it is the sure way to more wealth and happiness. As I intentionally work less, my goal is to also spend less. I don’t think I’m frugal – I love a dinner out and nice clothes – I’m just tired of working hard to pay for junk that doesn’t bring me happiness.

I hope this inspires you to spend less – at the very least make sure what you’re spending your hard-earned income on is always a conscious decision (like a trip to Barcelona.)