The bread and butter of personal finance articles is how to max-perform money by growing the number of zeros in front of the decimal point and signature-managing the IRS with the smallest possible tax bill. This week, let’s step back from that genre and consider some of the best non-traditional investments.
For those of you with six-pack savings abs, and beach-worthy frugality muscles, growing net worth may as easy as:
“Buy low, sell high,” or “Buy now, sell never,” or “Invest in what you know.”
Endless investing axioms, followed properly over the decades, usually have impressive mathematical results. But what if growing big piles of ducats, doubloons, or hay pennies isn’t the best use of every available dollar?
What are you Solving for?
Yes, we need to ensure we can sustain the basics when we enter the work-optional phase of life, a.k.a. the “R-word,” a.k.a. retirement. We need enough income to feed, house, clothe, transport, medicate, and heat/light/cool ourselves, but you read personal finance articles, so there’s a good chance you’ve got the basics on course, on glidepath.
If you have the minimum needs covered, maybe it’s time to hike up the Maslow structure a bit and focus on happiness.
We’ve heard the cliches–“Money can’t buy happiness,” and seen the disproving studies saying it can… if you make enough… and not too much.
Money can buy comfort, time control, and if you let it, a sense of well-being. Those things can underpin long-term happiness. But neither Walmart nor Sax Fifth Avenue sell such specific items. You’ll have to look elsewhere for those purchases.
Investments in Happiness
The following are three of the best non-traditional investments that truly can bring happiness, but might be harder to start pursuing.
- A Counselor. It would be swell if all of the stigma around mental health dried up. I suspect we’ll see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton hugging and burying the hatchet before that happens.
When your back is sore after a BFM surge week, you nor any of your squadron-mates bats an eye at a trip to the flight doc, physical therapist, or masseuse. Our norms allow you to conspicuously consume care for your body, but not your mind. Hog wash!
The ideas that “counseling is for others,” or “I just don’t need it yet,” or “my marriage is doing just fine” are nothing but unforced errors and limiting beliefs—head trash that clutters our thinking and gets in the way of taking care of ourselves.
Talking to a counselor periodically and especially during stressful or crisis times is a phenomenal way to invest in happiness. There are things we probably aren’t going to say to friends, family, or even spouses. But sorting them out with a professional helps us move past and solve our problems.
We don’t think twice about getting care for a sprained joint. What’s the harm, especially when it no longer bears on your security clearance, in talking to a professional? Hint: None.
A counselor can also be a great outlet for kids. Middle school and high school can be about as comforting as a battle scene from Braveheart. Our kids carry a lot of heavy weight around and talking to us geezer parents isn’t always their preferred outlet.
Breaking the taboo early by helping your kids grow comfortable talking to counseling professionals may very well set them up for a life of dealing with emotional complexity in a healthy, proactive manner rather than bottling things up until the pressure is unbearable.
Potentially the best part about investing in counseling is the price. If you’re still on active duty then you likely have access to a growing list of resources on base. There’s the MFLC (Military & Family Life Counselor), the chaplain, and a behavioral health clinic at most military treatment facilities. Military OneSource has other resources too.
Tricare also covers counseling without a referral. Family members can seek a local counselor and pay only the co-pay, which is likely less that running a family of four through the Chic-fil-a drive through.
It’s long-past time we as a society re-orient our view on the proactive value of counseling and see it as an investment in our happiness.
- Find your passion. I’ve written before about Ikigai—the Japanese concept of purpose in life that comes from finding and doing that which:
- You love to do—you’d do it without getting paid
- You’re talented at—it’s no fun to always struggle with competence
- Earns a living—at least while you still need the income
- Brings good to the world—Dr. Evil would have qualified up to this point…
A 20+ year career in the military, often fairly narrowly focused on warfighting, leaves most of us strongly identifying with statements like:
- I never really had time for a hobby.
- I spent my (limited) free time with my family.
- I’m not sure what I want to do next, probably the airlines or contracting.
Military service is less a job and more of a lifestyle that includes employment and a social center of gravity. Early in one’s career, using time for a hobby competes directly with extra time building technical excellence.
Yet, we know we should seek balance in life. Perhaps not every day, week, or month can be balanced, but over the seasons of life, we’re likely to be happier diversifying our time and energy.
Intentionally starting a hobby combats burnout. Building expertise in multiple activities allows us to carry novel thoughts into other areas of our lives. Exploring other ways to spend time helps us imagine what we may enjoy after our last fini-flight.
It’s this last benefit that deserves focus in the twilight of our military careers. If you want to fly for the airlines, of course you’ll read Cockpit to Cockpit and get your ATP. That path is well-worn. If you want to work for a defense contractor, you’ll polish up your Linked In Profile and grab some extra business cards at the next AFA convention or WEPTAC Industry Night.
If neither of those options appeal, how do you find a path to your passion in Life 2.0? While there can be no single answer for all of us, I can tell you what worked for me.
First, I admitted that I couldn’t fly forever. My back and neck got a vote and it was thumbs down. Second, I begrudgingly gave myself permission to walk a different path. Third, I Googled, read books, and, interviewed people doing jobs that seemed interesting to me. Finally, I enrolled in a course that could start to build a credential in a new career path.
This last act was both non-binding and a commitment device. I knew that I could always divert to other options, including fallback career paths. But paying for, and more importantly, devoting time on the calendar to studying for a new career path put some accountability in place.
I spent the last three years of my active duty service preparing for my second career. I don’t know that it had to be done that way, but it certainly gave me plenty of time to consider whether or not I really wanted to pursue this passion.
Investing the time and money in finding my professional passion feels like one of the best investments I’ve ever made. Giving myself permission and then intentionally exploring options turned an idea into a reality.
- Volunteering. While I don’t recommend it, turning on the TV will quickly convince you that the sky is falling. True, our world has problems. It always has and the trend data indicates it always will. Admiring the problems by shouting into the void on Facebook, Twitter, NextDoor, etc., can only solve so much.
Giving our time to those in need and causes greater than ourselves helps others of course. But we benefit too, perhaps even more.
Volunteering gives us agency. We actively make our world a better place instead of despairing on the sidelines.
Volunteering calibrates our own problems. We know that our problems are first world problems, but the visceral experience of helping others drives it home, putting our own challenges in better perspective.
Finally, volunteering helps shape our children into better citizens. More is caught than taught. Our children are much more likely to spend time giving back over their lives if they see us doing so with a smile.
Cleared to Rejoin
Investing dollars is necessary but not sufficient when solving for happiness over a lifetime. Investing our time in high-payoff activities can ensure that our future selves can enjoy those invested dollars. Counseling, finding a passion, and volunteering are three great investments that may not even cost a dime, but can truly help build a happier life.