How many of you good people have [formally or informally] entered contests to see how little money you can spend during a period of time? Like those “No Spend” months?

If you read enough personal finance material, those money challenges are common. But, I haven’t entered a single one of them. 

Not because they’re useless. Not because they are harmful. 

It’s because I don’t need to enter a contest to see how much I can scrimp to get by in a certain area of my life.

That’s not the point of early retirement. Or financial independence

These competitions have a way of “encouraging an assumption” that we need to do certain things or believe in specific philosophies in order to achieve our financial goals. 

Things like:

  • Early retirees don’t spend money on clothes (they do)
  • Early retirees never spend money at restaurants (they do)
  • Early retirees never buy new cars (they do)
  • Early retirees always own instead of rent (they don’t)

In reality, financial independence and early retirement looks different to each and every one of us. We all spend money differently, and I’ve met early retirees who go out to eat regularly, or lease cars, or rent their homes instead of own. Homeownership is overrated.

The rhetoric that you hear isn’t necessarily wrong.

It just doesn’t speak for everyone. If you do things differently than the rest of us, that’s okay. Just because you love going out to eat or buying that Starbucks coffee doesn’t mean that you’ll never retire early. 

Our Airstream at sunset in Nevada | Spring 2017

Early retirement = Quality over Quantity

Here’s the biggest problem with these contests. They make it seem like simply spending less money is a major accomplishment. Like, “Yay, I didn’t spend a dime on such-‘n-such item for a whole month!“. 

That’s great, but here’s the issue:

These competitions ignore the happiness part of this equation

They only focus on the dollar amount. Meaning, spend $0 for a period of time, then spend whatever you want to spend after it’s over. 

In the same way that “The Biggest Loser” contestants regain the weight they lost after the competition, so too does spending tend to increase after the competition is over. 

In other words, spending diets are temporary. Many nutritional diets are, too – unless they become an integral part of your lifestyle.

Here is what we know about financial independence and early retirement that applies to almost everyone:

  • It begins with a desire to solve a problem.
  • It takes fundamental lifestyle changes that we develop, nurture and tweak over a period of time.
  • We begin to understand that spending less money helps, but maintaining (and improving) our level of happiness is the key.
  • Financial independence and early retirement results entirely from understanding what makes you smile and having the discipline to both reach for it as well as take it.

“No spend” months might be fun, but they also don’t really address the larger point of FIRE. This is about happiness, not not spending.

Why happiness trumps competition

While I admire the intentions behind these no-spend competitions (a “cold turkey” stop to a spending habit), they also miss the mark on why we’d even want to compete in one of them.

This business about financial independence and early retirement (and, yes, happiness!) isn’t about not spending money for a set period of time. It’s also not about following a pre-defined playbook about how it’s done. 

This is about reaching deep down inside of ourselves and finding what actually makes us happy. Genuinely happy. Then, it’s okay to spend our money on those things. Really, it is!

Even if those things are clothes or restaurants. Or car parts. 

Here’s a super-interesting infographic that I found on Happify on the relationship between money and our happiness. Caution: The results might surprise you. 

A few of the more interesting findings:

  • Homeowners are no happier than renters
  • People enjoy spending money on cars and leisure activities
  • Salaries above about $75,000 don’t make us any happier
  • There’s no relationship between car price and happiness

Whatever makes us  happy, that’s what we all should focus on. 

Instead of competing to see how little money we can spend on certain items, try instead to compete to see how happy you can be over the course of the month. I’m talking super happy. 

Like, so happy that it’s disgusting

For the vast majority of us, the things that make us the happiest are also the things that cost the least. 

For example:

  • I’m super happy taking walks mid-morning
  • I love reading John Sandford novels at night before bed
  • I thoroughly enjoy watching re-runs of Seinfeld
  • I am addicted to writing and blogging (can’t you tell?)
  • I like trying new breweries on our travels

Okay, the breweries habit definitely costs money, but that’s also where moderation comes into play. And, I also know that’s only a single component of my overall happiness make up.