My family lived in South Georgia when I was in high school, about 40 miles from Florida. Just over the state line, in Monticello, the Jefferson Kennel Racetrack held live greyhound races almost every night.
One night, my older brother headed to the track with a few friends, and came back with a big smile and $600 in winnings. I was amazed—and a little jealous! Not long after, I headed down to check out the races and make my own fortune. What I found instead was a pretty depressing environment. I left sad and without placing a single bet.
Years later, I can still picture the dogs chasing that iron rabbit around the track.
The rabbit wasn’t even real, but the dogs were trained well to chase it with all their might. In the end, the reward they sought would never be realized. The only winners were the spectators who happened to pick the right dog and the track owners selling overpriced drinks and pocketing the (mostly) losing bets.
Unfortunately, a lot of us fall into this same trap of “chasing the iron rabbit” at different times in our lives. We get caught up in the idea that material wealth, or prestige, or that next career milestone is the most important goal to chase down, sometimes at the expense of the things that really matter—like family and relationships or our faith and health.
I’ve been thinking about this analogy a lot the past few weeks while planning a family trip to Italy, something we’ve wanted to do for a long time and had put off for various reasons. Planning has been a mess of details, and it feels like we’re hemorrhaging cash! Part of me is thrilled that we’ve been able to set aside the time and resources to spend two weeks together and see a new part of the world, and part of me really struggles to shift my focus away from work and the day-to-day of our business. Even after being diligent stewards of our finances and putting in a lot of hard work, spending on something like this experience feels a little extravagant—and, honestly, a little irresponsible. As those thoughts creep in, I remember the iron rabbit and recognize that some of the most important things I can do with the time and resources I’m given are intentionally planning and spending them with my loved ones to create some awesome experiences.
In an effort to shift my perspective and not let the iron rabbit continue to distract me from the bigger picture, I decided to revisit a great book called Younger Next Year (read more about the book and what it has to teach in my article Optimism, aging, and creating your ideal life). It has some great lifestyle and health advice, and I was struck by one of their rules for living “younger next year”:
Spend less than you make.
Pretty basic, right? Everyone knows if your outgo exceeds your inflow, your upkeep will be your downfall. Being old and broke is not a path to living your “ideal” life. I was pretty sure we spend less than we make, but with all this “outgo”, was I certain? It was time to check the facts and validate the planning instead of letting the iron rabbit dictate my thinking about the investment I was about to make in my family!
By fortunate coincidence, Ashley and I recently began working with a great local organization called Homestretch. The program provides valuable assistance to homeless families and individuals by providing access to temporary housing for 18-24 months. As part of the program, participants are paired with two mentors—a family mentor and a financial mentor—to help establish and work toward goals in these areas. Ashley and I were paired with a young mother and her two daughters, a wonderful family for whom Ashley serves as the family mentor and I provide the financial guidance. While Ashley counsels the family and takes the girls to fellowship each week, I work with the mother to manage her spending, tracking every expense down to the dime. This detailed budgeting and tracking helps her be certain that she’s using her resources in the most valuable ways possible.
Since we’ve had higher than normal expenses this year, that process got Ashley and me thinking that maybe the same exercise would help us be sure that we too were making the best financial decisions for our family in planning this trip. Having been blessed with an abundance of resources, it had been a while since we really took stock of our spending on such a granular level. Together, Ashley and I decided to start tracking our spending.
In doing this, we realized we’ve been great at paying ourselves first by funding our retirement and savings plans, paying our bills, and tithing. We’d been spending the remainder, though, without much thought. By writing down every expense (including what we’re spending on our trip to Italy), there was no more guesswork. And because the facts were at my fingertips, I could finally take my eyes off the iron rabbit and focus on enjoying the experiences, knowing that we are being responsible and can wisely invest our time and resources in this way.
My hesitancy here was never about whether the time with my wife and son would be worth the expense. The questions went beyond that. Am I investing my time, talent, and treasure in the things that matter most? Am I working hard and building a business for my ego, or to create value for others and meaning for me? Auditing and tracking our expenses helped me find the answers. If you find yourself chasing the iron rabbit, I highly recommend this approach as a way to get focused on the things that matter most to you—and to create the clarity and confidence you need to live your best life.
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