ONCE I GRADUATED college and started working fulltime, I knew what my first major purchase would be: a sporty new car. I was jealous of the cars my friends drove in high school. I had just spent four years grinding through an undergraduate engineering program. I was ready to reward myself.
To prepare for the purchase, I minimized my expenses. I shared an apartment with two friends who had also just graduated from college. I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch. I routinely kept my grocery bill under $20 per week, while eating out only on rare occasions.
One year after I started working fulltime, I got a call from the dealer saying that my car had just arrived and was ready for pickup. I still remember exactly where I was when I received that call, and I immediately started the hour-long drive to the dealership, giddy with excitement.
Once I arrived, I spent another hour signing paperwork. Finally, I was handed the keys and walked over to the service bay where the car was parked. I remember sliding into the front seat. My hard work and patience had finally paid off. As I gripped the steering wheel for the first time, I prepared for a wave of satisfaction to wash over me.
But nothing happened.
Instead, it quickly dawned on me that this was just another car. Sure, it was newer, faster and had more features than my current car. But it was still just a car. I was confused. This purchase was supposed to bring me so much joy. Instead, all I could think was, “Is this really the best way to spend $40,000?”
As I drove home, I had a lot of time to think. I definitely didn’t feel any more satisfied than when I was driving my old car, though I also didn’t feel any less satisfied. That was an epiphany for me, one I’ll never forget: At that moment, I realized that if I’m not satisfied with what I currently have, I won’t be satisfied with what I have later.
Through that experience, I learned that satisfaction comes more from my mindset than it does from a single possession or a new purchase. Over the prior five years, I had unknowingly grown satisfied with working hard at school, starting a new career and learning to be frugal with my finances. The financial habits I had to develop to afford the new car had, ironically, also forced me to find satisfaction outside of material possessions.
Realizing that my car wouldn’t satisfy me has actually freed me up to enjoy it more. After six years and nearly 100,000 miles, I still enjoy driving the car. But that satisfaction now comes from seeing how long I can keep the car, rather than from pondering how soon I’ll be able to buy a new one.
There’s one story that’ll always stick with me from my first year of owning the car. I was at a gas station filling up when a man came up to me, excited to see the car I was driving. He gushed over how cool he thought the car was and asked how I could afford it.
Embarrassed by the attention and eager to shift the focus to something else, I truthfully explained that I had eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for an entire year to pay for the car. Upon hearing that, his smile waned and I could tell that he doubted the sacrifice was worth it. I love telling others that story—because it captures a timeless truth: The disciplined savings needed to afford a major purchase is often more satisfying than the item we think we want.
Austin Dorenkamp wears many hats including software engineer, program manager, landlord, husband and therapy dog handler. He’s even been called an ice cream sommelier. If he’s not giving those around him unsolicited financial advice, Austin’s likely cracking a joke or driving in a time-efficient manner.