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A few years ago, my two best friends started to play golf more regularly. It seemed like they were hitting the course almost every Saturday morning. We normally hang out altogether so it was only natural for them to encourage me to join them, even though I didn’t play golf. 

They invited me a couple of times and I turned them down.

I had played once as a child with my grandfather and I was terrible. But that wasn’t what was holding me back this time – or at least it wasn’t my excuse. I told my friends that golf was too expensive.

The conversation stopped and started over many separate gatherings. They’d press me and I wouldn’t give an inch. I was content with getting together after golf or having other shared hobbies. And more importantly, I wasn’t ready to start paying money for a hobby.

Eventually, the conversation got very practical. We started talking about both the upfront costs of buying equipment (clubs, bag, etc.). We also covered the ongoing costs of playing on the local courses (green fees) or going to the driving range. 

The biggest obstacle was that I would have to buy some clubs before I knew if I would enjoy it.

The conversation shifted when my wife and father-in-law offered me his old clubs. He had an old set of irons lying around the house that he wasn’t using, and he was excited to ship them off to me.

My upfront investment to test out a new hobby changed. I was then left with buying a bag, a few accessories, and a couple of used clubs that I found online for $60 for the pair. 

I bought the bag from Costco, a store that has a great return policy in the event that I did not enjoy it. That’s how uncertain I was that I would enjoy it, and also how uncomfortable I was with spending money on discretionary items.

My History with Spending Money

I wasn’t always so apprehensive about spending discretionary money.

As a child, I was quite the hustler. I was earning money before I left grade school. It started with washing cars and doing some extra chores around the house. I soon ventured out beyond my parents as the only source of my income.

I started babysitting for a neighbor and mowing lawns around the time I entered middle school. While there is something satisfying about earning money, it was never about that for me as a child. Earning money was always about what I could buy.

I remember washing cars in the summer to earn $5 or $10 so that my brothers and I could buy another Nintendo game. There was a phase where I bought nerf guns left and right. I eventually had enough that I could supply each of the neighborhood children with a nerf gun.

Later it was electronics. While still in middle school, I purchased my first laptop with my hard-earned money. It was a used laptop off of eBay for a few hundred dollars. It lasted me a few years before I purchased a brand new Dell laptop in high school to replace it.

As a child, I understood a fundamental truth about money – that it was a tool. It was all about how I could use it for things that I wanted. It wasn’t the end goal, but a means to an end.

But something changed after I graduated from college. 

After graduating, getting married, and moving to the suburbs of New York City, I shifted my mindset. Looking back, this was out of necessity. As a child, I had a support system and all my spending was discretionary. As an adult, there was no guarantee that I’d have my basic needs met.

We graduated in 2009, in the middle of an economic recession. Money was tight, and it was a challenge to make ends meet. By monitoring and limiting our discretionary spending, we made it work.

We’ve talked about these early years many times on the blog – in large part because they were defining years for us. Yes, we avoided student loans and jump-started our careers, but with a cost.

This was not easy. Somewhere amidst the ongoing struggle to pay our bills in these early years, I forgot the fundamental truth about money from my childhood. Our financial situation required me to repress my desires.

As our financial situation improved, it only proved that what we were doing was working. Instead of loosening the reins on our spending, we increased our savings rate and fast-tracked our journey to financial independence.

What I have come to understand now is that I developed an aversion to spending money on discretionary items. We kept some discretionary spending from the beginning (like a week-long vacation celebrating our anniversary). We even added one or two like spending more on food sneaked in with lifestyle inflation, but we avoided almost everything else. 

I was so vigilant to avoid unnecessary spending that whenever an opportunity came up, I would immediately shut it down.

How Golf and Other Hobbies Helped Me Spend Money

After I purchased a starter bag to hold my starter set of clubs, I hit the driving range several times.

I embraced trying out a new sport and hobby and giving it my best shot to see if I could enjoy it. The start was a bit rough. My natural swing produced a consistent slice and in fairness, I had no idea how to swing a club. 

I went out to my first golf course a few weeks later and scored 60+ for 9 holes. But it was a starting point. 

In those early days, I had a lot of bad shots. But every once in a while I would hit a great shot and that would convince me to keep working at it.

I wish I could tell you that those days were the beginning of a path to me playing professional golf… that I picked up the sport and excelled. That’s not the story here, but I did find that I enjoyed myself.

One of my favorite holes that I’ve played to date. It helps that I got a par on this one.

Golf and my two closest friends were the catalyst for me spending discretionary money. I soon upgraded my clubs when I found a good deal of used clubs on eBay. I was spending money, but still doing it in a smart way.

Starting to spend money on golf was not like breaking a levee or a dam. My spending did not get out of control. But it helped me learn (slowly over time) that it was good to spend money on discretionary items. Doing so helps you enjoy life.

Golf was the first step in the right direction. There have been a few other important steps.

My Experiment as a Photographer

Another one was photography. When Jess and I traveled in college and early in our marriage, I always enjoyed taking photos. I’m not in a lot of our photos because I’m often the one behind the camera.

But I was always working with inferior equipment. A few years ago I decided to buy a DSLR camera, with a few nice lenses. I did some research and asked a good friend about the best camera to buy. She helped me learn how to shoot in manual and I also used youtube and online resources to figure out the rest.

When I bought the camera, I remember thinking that it seemed crazy to spend $800 on a single lens to help me capture a particular type of shot. But it wasn’t about the lens itself, but about the opportunity to discover a new passion.

Photography never took off for me. I don’t obsess over it as I have other hobbies, but I do still enjoy it and I don’t regret the purchase. When Jess and I started our journey to financial independence, she picked up the camera and lenses and also explored photography.

She too learned how to shoot in manual mode, and even learned how to take some cool long exposure shots. It’s now a shared hobby, although not one we do often.

Nintendo Switch

Another huge step toward spending money on enjoyment was buying a Nintendo Switch last November. Some of our closest friends had a gaming system and would invite us over to play video games every once in a while.

I grew up playing video games and have always enjoyed them. They invited me to PAX, which is a gaming convention that I didn’t even know existed. Again, I enjoyed myself.

I got to the point of wanting to buy my own system. This time the upfront investment would be several hundred dollars. I narrowed in on the Switch because it was versatile and would lend itself to party games, to which I knew Jess would be more amenable.

When I bought the Switch and bought several games at once, there was a bit of a shock at how much money I was spending. But, that has slowed down. We no longer buy games as often. 

We’ve gotten our money’s worth and then some. We’ve had a lot of fun playing with friends. And it’s been helpful to fill some time during this pandemic. Between the two of us, we’ve now logged about 270 hours of gameplay in the first 6 months or so of owning it.

There are many strong feelings about playing video games as an adult. I enjoy them and have leaned into doing what I enjoy. Another positive of playing more video games is that we also watch less TV than we used to watch.

How Slow FI Helped me Spend Money

These hobbies have been instrumental in easing me into spending discretionary money again. But they haven’t been the only thing helping me shift my mindset. Writing for this blog and our focus on Slow FI has also helped.

Jess and I had the fundamental ideas of Slow FI from day one. I still remember writing down some of our differentiators when we were brainstorming our blog. This includes how it is okay to spend money while on the journey to FI.

But there’s a difference between having an initial idea and truly understanding and embracing it.

I am a planner and like to prepare for the future. This has often been at the expense of living in the moment. I’m often too busy focusing on the future and dreaming about what we can do that I forget to embrace the moment.

I used to be so focused on the net worth goal of financial independence. Instead of focusing on the freedom that makes a target number so important to strive for in the first place. Understanding Slow FI better has allowed me to shift how I think about spending money.

Discretionary spending used to be a trade-off or something that is preventing us from achieving our long-term goals. Now, I see it as us utilizing incremental freedom that we have gained. 

Instead of putting my head down and focusing on saving as much as possible for a future that may or may not come, I’m choosing to enjoy life now. This doesn’t mean going crazy or giving up on our saving goals, but finding a happy balance.

In many ways, the newfound hobbies and mantra of this site have helped me re-learn what I knew as a child. Money is not the end goal, but the tool. And it doesn’t just have to be a tool for a distant future. 

By spending money now on discretionary items now, I’m opening myself up to new adventures and opportunities. I may not be buying nerf guns anymore, but I’m sure as heck having a lot of fun.

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