Seizing the Day vs Investing in the Future

My little girlThis month marks the beginning of my last semester of graduate school. We’ve been here in Minnesota long enough to witness a road work project from start to completion, barely; long enough to have three babies, none of them twins; long enough to have lived in three different apartments, and to have a toddler grow up into a kindergartener. But, soon, hopefully, I will finish my PhD, at which point we will move on with our lives.

Finally – that’s the first word that comes to mind. Finally, I’ve finished school. Finally, I can start a career. Finally, we can find a home and establish some roots. Finally, we can make friends that we won’t say goodbye to as soon as we get to know them.

The problem is, life is full of finallys.

I think we all struggle at some point with the grass-is-always-greener mentality, sometimes in combination with the best-is-yet-to-come mentality. As a result of this combination, there are multiple fences and multiple lawns, the current one worse than the next. Another lawn is often greener than our own because our sprinklers are aiming over the fence.

We have to water our own lawn.

There’s nothing wrong with planning ahead, saving for tomorrow, investing now in something that will pay off in the future; unless our happiness gets tangled up in the saving, investing, and putting-off; unless we sacrifice so much of the present that the future loses its meaning or its value; unless the future never actually becomes the present.

Too often, we put happiness, good times with family and friends, thank yous, I’m sorrys, and I love yous, on hold, until tomorrow, the weekend, graduation, or summer vacation. Instead, we have to be happy now, enjoy the journey, carpe diem. We have to invest in today.

My wife and I started college and our family at the same time, a decision we’ve never regretted. But in my first couple years I reasoned that studying for 12 hours, only to spend a few minutes with my wife and kids each day, was a necessary sacrifice. I was investing in myself, in my education, so I could get a better job, and hopefully have a more flexible schedule and more reliable income down the road, at which point I’d spend more time with my family. I’ve since changed my strategy.

They say that regular stock market investments early in life are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more, in the long run, than investments of twice the amount later in life. So, I think many of us weigh the trade-off in this way: work hard now, work less later, versus sacrifice family time now, enjoy family time later. The assumption is that the financial future is more important, and more valuable, than the family present.

The problem is, the same forces at work with financial investments also apply to investments in family and friends, and life; as with money, compounding interest creates rich relationships with loved ones as well. This is all theoretical for us, since we’re pretty new at the family thing, and the life thing, but I suspect that the preschool years are just as important as any others, both for us and our children.

I think, and hope, that spending quality time with my kids, now, will help us build a relationship that will weather adolescence, fingers crossed. So, rather than having financial security when my kids reach high school, I’d prefer to barely get by in exchange for some family security. Hopefully, we can have both. But I’d rather err on the side of family.

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