Scott Rieckens sits at a table. "Guest Voices" written on the image.

When my wife Taylor and I met, we were both a year or two out of college with the whole world ahead of us. Young and naive, we assumed things would work out for us one day, and we were both excited to carpe diem the next 10 years while we were young. One of the things that brought us together was our mutual interests. We had a similar sense of humor, and we enjoyed travel, food, and friends.  I think we assumed that we had a similar take on what made us happy.

Our intuition was sound, but that’s all we used to make decisions. Fast forward a decade, and guess what? Things change, people change, and habits become hard to break. Now, what made us happy wasn’t so intuitive. It was time for something to change, but we weren’t really sure what that was.

I discovered the FIRE movement — Financially Independent Retire Early — in February 2017 and was immediately hooked on the concept’s promise to offer a way to understand finances and investing, which I was convinced would, in turn, make Taylor and I happier.  And we believe it did, for a while.

When my family and I started our FIRE journey, we set a goal to save for an emergency fund. Once we saved six months’ worth of expenses, I thought I would be happier. And for the moment, I was.

Scott, Taylor, and Jovie on bicycles

But I’ve come to realize happiness is fleeting. Achieving goals and becoming more educated or astute is not the way to happiness. What I needed was a more deliberate way to understand and focus on that which I am grateful for — and to design my life around that way of thinking.

I thought FIRE was a solution to our money problems, but in reality, it’s a system to improve our overall well-being because it aligns our values with our spending.

Without a clear understanding of our value system, we would be unable to curb our overspending and wouldn’t have any money to invest.

Enter: The happiness list.

A happiness list can help you define what’s most valuable to you. Creating one is important because pinpointing what brings you happiness is the first step in your journey to financial independence.

My wife and I created our own happiness lists:

My Happy List Taylor's Happy List
1. Reading to Jovie until she falls asleep
2. Listening to and playing music
3. Cold Brew
4. Working on Playing with FIRE
5. Spending time outdoors (riding bikes, going hiking, etc.)
6. Cooking dinner for Jovie & Tay
7. Reading
8. Spending time with friends
9. Laughing with Tay
10. Fishing
1. Hearing my baby laugh
2. Having coffee with my husband
3. Cuddling with my baby
4. Going for a walk
5. Going for a bike ride
6. Enjoying a glass of wine
7. Good chocolate
8. Talking to my parents and family
9. Having family dinners
10. Reading to my baby

Watch Scott’s reaction as Taylor shares her happiness list in this clip from “Playing with FIRE,” the first ever documentary about the FIRE movement.

Watch the full documentary here.

How to Make Your Own Happy List

Your happiness list is time to focus on you. But most of us are too busy or underprepared to take this step without prompting. To start, spend 10 to 20 minutes to write down five to 10 things that make you the happiest on a weekly basis. Don’t overthink or provide much context. Just sit down think of the things you love to spend your time on and things that make you excited to get out of bed in the morning. (You get the idea.)

If you have a spouse or significant other, we recommend you ask them to make their own list, too.

Now, review your happiness list (together, if applicable) and highlight anything that costs money. Also, take note of how many things are free. Then, in a column next to each item, ask yourself if that item is more important to you than the prospect of financial independence.

For example, even though we were spending more than $3,000 a month on rent to live near the beach, neither of us had the beach on our list. Even though we spent more than $2,000 a month on food, we didn’t include fancy restaurant dinners on our list either! We listed things like time with family, and the outdoors, and Taylor had small things like wine and chocolate.

Scott and Taylor with Jovie

Note: I’m guessing your list includes time spent with friends and family, travel, pursuits of hobbies or interests, and perhaps a few luxuries as well. But if your list is filled with cars, houses, vacations, and the latest gadgets, that’s ok too. The point of this exercise is to clearly define what you value the most.

You’ve made your list, but you may not have thought of everything that can boost your happiness. Studies have found that happiness increases when you …

  • Have close, strong relationships.
  • Spend money on experiences not buying things.
  • Choose more time over more money.
  • Are physically active, even if for just 10 minutes a day.
  • Are grateful for what you have instead of dwelling on the negative.
  • Get proper sleep and nutrition.
  • Give back and do things that help a cause important to you.

How can you consistently incorporate these ideas in to your life? Can you prioritize some and make them part of your daily routine?

Once you become more comfortable with treating yourself, perhaps you’ll be ready to focus on your budget. Since you’re concentrating on what matters the most to you, it will be easier to stop spending money and time on the things that you don’t value. Suddenly it should become easier to slash and burn things that are preventing you from owning your happiness. Happy budgeting!

Additional Reading:
Mr. Money Mustache’s blog entry “Happiness is the Only Logical Pursuit” was a life-changing read for me.  He explains our consumer culture and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I think you’ll see that it’s as relevant today as when Maslow created it, more than 75 years ago. Check it out!

Scott Rieckens is an Emmy-nominated producer and author. Scott has spent his career as a storyteller connecting people with ideas. Along the way, his work has generated millions of views through a feature-length documentary, televisions series, short films, and a diverse range of commercial projects. He’s currently working on “Playing with FIRE,” which explores the growing community of frugal-minded folks choosing a path to financial independence and early retirement.