Last year as I faced my 33rd birthday, it seemed like a good time to sit down and make a list of financial goals. Some were instantly doable, like spending less on food. (Goodbye, $7 organic strawberries.) Others were more ambitious: sock away enough cash for a down payment on an apartment; build a savings account for fun grown-up stuff like buying last-minute plane tickets to Tahoe.
The problem: These things required more money than I was making. The other problem: In this economy, it wasn't realistic to expect a huge raise. Suddenly, my future started to look like an ever-narrowing tunnel. Without a big increase in cash flow, how was my amazing life supposed to start? Obviously, I was doomed.
I loved my job, I loved my boss, but I'd spent my 20s closing up shop at the office every night when I knew I should have been playing harder and taking more risks. I'd built a career I was proud of, but realized I couldn't view a paycheck as my ultimate reward.
Finally, I made an executive decision. I'd give myself a happiness raise and bring into my life more of the good things that money can't buy (and that I'd been denying myself), and less of the stuff that didn't have much real value.
The first step was to do a serious accounting, calculating where I'd been spending my time and energy and noting how much joy I was netting on a daily basis. The results didn't surprise me: so many have-tos and must-dos, so few moments of real bliss.
I instituted a new rule: Anytime the word should flashed across my mind, I hit the brakes. Did I really want to attend this baby shower or join that book club? Often I didn't—so I respectfully said no, and found that the world didn't end.
Then there was my health. I'd been trying to lose weight for years, and I'd had some success, but at the expense of my happiness (and my bank account). I dutifully joined a gym and then stopped going. Because that wasn't a big enough source of shame, I spend more money to join another—and didn't go there, either. I finally let myself admit that I hated boot camp classes and pounding along a treadmill, so I quit and sign up for $12 Greek dancing lessons. I got back in the pool and swam laps, giving my body a taste of weightlessness. I also stopped counting the calories in blueberries. I threw out my scale. The result: I dropped four dress sizes. When I focused on pleasure in other areas of my life, I had less time to think about food and more desire to get up and move. And it wasn't torture—it was fun.
Once I stopped wasting energy on things I didn't want to do, I suddenly had headspace for all those things I used to say I didn't have time for, like a love life. The idea of dating—the thought of losing my independence, letting someone else see my imperfections—really scared me. But I pushed past the fear and created a profile on EligibleGreeks.com, the Match.com for Greek people. The first man who e-mailed me and didn't seem completely crazy lived across the country in Southern California. There was a time when I would have let his message wither in my in-box. (He's from L.A.! Long distance never works! He wears those weird wraparound sunglasses!) But this time I wrote back.
We traded messages for a month, and then an unexpected work trip brought me to L.A. (Side note: When you invest in your happiness, the universe has a way of matching your contributions.) We planned to meet for dinner; I planned to have no expectations. But once I got over my initial nervousness, I talked more easily with him than I had with anyone I'd met in years. The night went so well, he asked me to extend my trip.
Our story didn't have a fairy-tale ending, but no matter. I had taken a risk and learned that if I needed to, I could get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Even more important, I realized something I think I'd known all along: "I'm not made of money, and neither is my happiness". And I don't need to add to my bank account to invest in my life.
Margarita Bertsos is a writer and editor in New York City.