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7 Ways to Budget for Happiness

This post was written by Logan Eldridge, Head of Client Happiness at Earnest.

As the Head of the Client Happiness team, people frequently ask me how I manage my personal finances. That’s the nature of talking to people every day about their finances when they are applying for a loan.

I took a moment to reflect on how I save and spend my money while optimizing for happiness. Below are the seven key things I do when it comes to managing my money. Please keep in mind, I tend to be frugal with my finances. My first post-college experience was as a Peace Corps volunteer!

Save in four ways every month.

Coins appear distorted by pattern of glass jar. Will work as a vertical or horizontal.
Save automatically from your paycheck first.

Each month I contribute to four pots of money: home, retirement, education, and my emergency fund. Home is pretty straightforward. I set aside money for a home purchase. My retirement contributions are optimized with employer benefits in mind. For retirement, I contribute to an IRA and a 401(k) plan. If my employer offers contributions matching, I try to max out the benefit each year.

Learning new things has always been a passion of mine, so I also set aside a little each month in an education fund to enable lifelong learning. I’ve taken classes like Mastering the Project Portfolio and Welding. If there are children in my future, this account will turn into a college fund.

Lastly, my emergency fund covers between three and six months of all my living expenses. For this, I allocate a fixed percentage of my paycheck each month. The months when I dip into my emergency fund, I still contribute to the four accounts, even if it means I’m dividing contents of my change jar into four piles. The point is: I do the act of saving money every month even if the amount saved is different. It’s just become a habit.

Choose a fitness program that works.

Six months ago I joined a new gym … a CrossFit gym. CrossFit is also one of the most expensive gym memberships on the market, which can cost between $150 and $250 per month depending on where you go. The draw for me is that all your workouts are class-based workouts. In a CrossFit gym, classmates notice when I’m not there. If I miss class on consecutive days, my coach will message me to see why I haven’t been in class.

“As I transferred over to my new gym and made the first payment, I calculated the cost per class.”

How is this a personal finance tip? It’s about accountability. You see, I never went to my previous gym because I didn’t like working out by myself and no one would miss me if I didn’t show up. As I transferred over to my new gym and made the first payment, I calculated the cost per class. I figured out that if I attend more than 17 classes a month, I feel I am getting the most out of my membership. Anything under 10 classes is wasting money.

Manage your food expenses.

I make coffee at home. I pack lunch. I cook dinner four to five times a week. My dining out experiences usually involves ordering at a counter and taking a number or buzzing disk to a table. The primary driver for these meals is convenience—and thriftiness. Saving money on food adds up quickly—in a good way!

That said, I do enjoy a nice meal. For special occasions, I make reservations at a restaurant I’ve always wanted to try—and then save up for the big meal. I also try to do something extra to make the experience memorable. For example, if we’re celebrating a birthday I might bring birthday hats for everyone. In other words, it’s about making the most of the big spends—and saving money on the daily stuff when it comes to food.

Plan ahead for emergencies.

budgeting for happiness emergency

There are going to be days that don’t go according to plan. A big part of maintaining happiness —and not having to spend a lot of money to dig out from a stressful event— is being able to adapt to sudden changes.

To plan for these crazy days, I:

  • Keep a meal in the freezer ready for an emergency dinner
  • Keep a change of clothes, basic toiletries and a “lunch” (jerky, dried fruit, nuts, etc.) at my work desk.  
  • Have credits at a local dog walking service in case I can’t get home in time to let the dog out.
  • Take public transportation or walk whenever I have the time—which means I don’t feel guilty about taking a rideshare service when I need one in a pinch.

Also see my first point about having an emergency fund—this is important as you never know when you’ll need to make a repair on your car or home, for example.

Invest in everyday items.

My pillow is an essential part of my daily routine. I spend (hopefully!) eight hours a day with my head on a pillow. Sleeping soundly through the night and waking up pain-free is important to me. I am more productive and happier when I am well rested, so this is something worth investing in for me. I tested out various pillow options and bought a pillow with the right materials and firmness that works for me. I replace the pillow regularly to ensure decent sleep all year round.

I’ve gone through the same testing exercise with towels, kitchen knives, slippers, and face wash. These are all things I use daily. I want to make sure I’m using the products that work best for me, and I am willing to spend money to get it right.

Make and grow things.

budgeting for happiness herbs

I have a small garden with lettuce, kale, herbs, peppers, lemons, limes and an avocado tree that will one day bear fruit. I regularly pull items from our yard when cooking because it’s fresh—but also have you seen the price of limes and basil?!

Growing food with my own two hands also makes me happy. When I have a surplus, I bring the items to work as a way to contribute to the sharing economy. I also try to make things whenever I can. Sometimes I am successful and save money in the process. Other times I fail brilliantly and learn a lot about my personal limitations. Either way, I grow and have great stories to tell when it’s all done.  

Say yes to new experiences.

Two weeks ago a friend of mine invited me to go “float” — a kind of relaxation therapy. When you float, you lay in a water chamber filled with salt water for an hour. I’d never heard of such a thing. It sounded interesting, and I wanted to share this new experience with my friend. There was just one question I needed to answer before I signed up — what was the cost per minute of this new experience? For me, my threshold is $1/minute. If it’s an intriguing new experience that I’m sharing with friends, and it’s under $1/minute, I’ll do it. If it costs more than that, I do a little more research, read reviews and explore alternatives.

I learned about my $1/minute threshold the hard way. I went up in a hot-air balloon, which in Northern California costs more than $240, or $4+/minute, for one hour. While the first few minutes of the experience were memorable, overall the hour didn’t feel worth it (in fact, the size of basket makes it hard to see the views.) I concluded from this experience that I have a time-based cost limit—I can’t enjoy an activity if I feel I am paying too much for it. (I also realized that a creative and free alternative to a hot air balloon ride is simply visiting the launch area as the balloons fill and take off!)

I do want to be open to trying new things, however. By finding my personal comfort zone around the cost to do them, I can focus on being 100% present—and not get distracted by the value or lack thereof—and get the most out of the experience.

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