When Day Dreaming & Self-Discipline Hold Hands

A really neat thing happened nearly three years ago. We found something truly magical to invest our money into: our log home. I cannot put into words how much we love our home; we really contemplated “loving” a house, but we really, really do.

It was a disaster when we bought it, but once we got it down to the blank slate of its log bones, it became enormously gratifying to turn it into our own little paradise, project by project.

We admittedly should have finished paying off our debt first (stupid student loans are the last holdout), but the enjoyment factor we get out of living in the sweet embrace of happiness is worth the delayed debt payoff (at least that’s what we tell ourselves). And we really do LIVE in it. Since we both work from home, it’s incredible how much time we spend here and the use we get out of every nook and cranny.

Having invested many thousands into renovating the inside and outside over the last two years, our sights are always on the next project. The bathrooms still need to be redone, and we have some big dreams about concrete river bottom floors and claw foot tubs, but the real temptation is the back deck.

Future Back Deck
Future Back Deck

We talk about it constantly. How nice it will be to step into the sunken hot tub. How many conversations we will have on the built-in benches around the firepit on the raised level nestled in the junipers. The water feature we will eventually install, running from the firepit, down around the side deck, and disappearing just past the dream greenhouse in the little valley in front of our home.

As we daydreamed once again this morning about the future glorious deck, I chastised us for focusing on the wrong thing. We owe $36K on (my) student loans and the interest rate is just above 7%. We really need to kill that last debt.

My spouse’s reply: What’s life if we aren’t dreaming big? We pondered on that.

Could day dreaming support the self-discipline required to realize other, more difficult, goals?

Clearly you need to maintain mostly rational priorities, but if there isn’t a sexy reward at the end of all that hard work, what is there to get you up in the morning?

In looking at ourselves, we have consistently gained traction when we drooled over the possibilities. Just this last month we tightened the grocery belt and ate pretty well as a family of four on $179. We make every meal at home, which means we averaged $0.48 per person per meal. What motivates that level of frugality? Not my student loans.

It’s the idea that every dollar wasted unnecessarily on consumable goods is one less dollar toward our goals (including the damn student loans). When I feel tempted to grab a bag of chips or some of those giant, cheesy bagels, I actually think about me sitting with a light blanket and sipping some decent coffee on that glorious deck overlooking the trickling water – the future, more financially free version of reality.

I’m a natural pessimistic worrier, so as I anxiously wondered if we were setting ourselves up to choose the deck over the debt when extra money presented itself, I put my therapist hat on. Wasn’t hope for a drastically different future the key to addicts staying in recovery?

Being frugal is immediately unappealing. My financial Achilles heel is food. I crave artisan cheeses, cured meats, gourmet coffee, and fresh fruit. Walking out of the grocery store with just milk, bread, eggs, and chicken week after week is painful for me. The same pain is present for working out, flossing my teeth, wiping out the cupboards, or organizing my closet. I would simply rather not.

Obviously, we work to repeat these uninviting and sometimes downright awful behaviors because of the long-term reward, which would suggest that the reward better be so compelling that we can see and touch every little detail in our mind.

I go to the gym so that I can wear skinny jeans and still have a great butt when I’m 50, not because heart disease is the number one killer of women.

I floss my teeth because I am terrified of the dentist, not because its good oral hygiene. I literally have nightmares about those little injections and the drilling noise in my skull.

I bypass the artisan cheese section because of the dream deck with the outdoor shower and summer evening wine parties, not because of the student loans.

As long as the dream deck is contingent on paying off the student loans, I have successfully associated painful behaviors with exciting rewards, increasing my self-discipline and willingness to sacrifice today for my own greater good tomorrow.

The Bottom Line: What’s life if we aren’t dreaming big?

2 Comments
  1. That sounds like a clever way to achieve both goals more quickly: making the deck contingent upon payment of the loans. My wife and I did something similar early on in our marriage when we had different financial goals: mine was to fund our Roth IRAs, hers was to travel. So the very first items on our budget to get funded are the travel savings account and the Roths. We don’t get to go on vacation unless we fund the Roths (or, from my perspective, we don’t get to fund the Roths unless I’m also putting away money for vacation).

    Ignoring the warped view on life that I have, in that I view going on vacation as a chore I have to accomplish if I’m going to get the reward of retirement savings, I think you’ve hit on a great motivational tool. I’m going to sit down and think of some of the things I really want, and see if we can copy your technique.

    And the deck sounds beautiful, too: it’ll go well with that idyllic log cabin in the photo. Great home you guys have there.

    1. Thanks, DB40! I love that you and your spouse were able to compromise equally. We have always struggled with that – logically you know you can get more momentum to go after what’s most important to you full out. It takes some maturity to say, “Okay, you’re goals can be as important as mine (even though I’m obviously right).”

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