The dictionary defines contentment as happiness with one’s situation in life. It defines discontentment as longing for something better than the present situation. Benjamin Franklin, the man whose face graces the $100 bill said, “Contentment makes poor men rich; Discontentment makes rich men poor. Personal finance expert Dave Ramsey said, “Contentment is the most powerful financial principle; for with it getting out of debt, saving and giving becomes easy.
Since Thanksgiving is traditionally a time of the year to express thanks and gratitude for the things and people we appreciate in our lives, I thought it would be fitting to illustrate how being content or grateful on a more consistent basis can free us of envy and worry, help us to make good decisions and allow us to experience happiness in its purest form.
A couple of years ago I met with a family who had a natural glow about themselves. They appeared to be happy and at peace. This wasn’t a phony let’s put on a happy face for the financial adviser vibe. These people were sincere. As I probed them about their most pressing financial concerns, one of their concerns struck me as odd. They wanted me to show them how they could live off 10 percent of their income and give 90 percent away. While the majority of us don’t even come close to giving 10 percent of our income, they were giving 25 percent and wanted to give more. They were in their late 40s, had two teenage children, and earned a respectable $90,000 annual income. They were completely debt free—no mortgage, car loans, credit cards or other debt. They had nearly $200,000 in savings and investments. Although I was the financial expert in the room, I knew I could learn some valuable life lessons by observing their priorities, the way they spent money, and how they thought about life in general.
Lesson No. 1: They had a sound spiritual base. They didn’t come across as the “holier than thou” type. However, you can sense that they believed in a higher power and they tried to do what was right. If memory serves me correctly, this was the only financial planning session I’ve conducted where the family wanted to say a prayer before and after our session. They humbly mentioned how blessed and appreciative they were for the various things, each other and their children during our meeting.
Lesson learned: Pure happiness comes from being appreciative of the good things and people you’ve been fortunate enough to accumulate in your life. Too often we get so caught up and miserable about what we don’t have, we undervalue and neglect to appreciate the good things that we do have.
Lesson No. 2: They were not chasing bigger and better. They had a nice medium-size paid for home worth approximately $200,000 that accommodated their family. They had two cars that were about five and seven years old, respectively. These cars were in good condition and were reliable and dependable. While the average person moved up to a bigger and better house every seven years and moved up to a bigger and better car every three years thus increasing the size of their mortgage and car loan and extending the time they’re in debt, this family marveled at the idea of spending the rest of their living years in a paid for home. They reasoned that they should be able to get another five or more years out their current vehicles.
Lesson learned: Constantly chasing bigger and better can lead to poverty and void of happiness. Bigger and better can make you feel good for a moment. After the novelty wears off, you’re left with a big bill and a feeling of emptiness. You end up back on the grind chasing bigger and better seeking the temporary joy and happiness the next bigger and better thing will bring you only to repeat this cycle time and time again.
Lesson No. 3: They were not concerned with brand names. I recall the wife getting visually excited as she talked about the good deals and quality items she was able to purchase at various discount and thrift stores. I’m reminded about how shocked they were at the price of the tennis shoes their son’s basketball team decided to buy. Prior to that purchase, they’d only bought shoes that were marked down.
Lesson learned: Good enough is good enough! Brand names don’t necessarily make it better. It’s the marketing behind the brand names that makes you think its better. It’s okay to seek quality in every purchase that you make—even if you have to pay a premium price. The problem arises when you’re seeking brand name for status purposes.
Being content isn’t being void of ambition. One should strive to obtain and do all that their heart desires. Being content is about being grateful for the good things and people in your life right now. It’s about enjoying and loving on those people and things in this moment and time. Because right now, this is all that you have and you have to make the best of it.
Being content will impose self-discipline and self-respect. Being content will erase envy.