“Money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver.” — Ayn Rand

Every December 31, I like looking back over my dividend income for the year, and comparing it to those previous. For the core stocks in my portfolio, the ones I intend to hold during retirement as a source of income, I reinvest the dividends via DRIP. While it’s very satisfying to see the month over month and year over year totals going up, that’s not the primary reason I track my investment income. I want to make sure I’m making progress toward my ultimate financial goal — financial independence.

My Path to Defining the Meaning of Money

I began investing 10 years ago. At that time, personal finance was my secret passion, not my day job. What got me started on this path? A book I read that completely changed the way I thought about money.

It’s called Your Money or Your Life, written by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. The basic idea is that through our paid employment, we are constantly trading our life energy — our time, mental effort, and emotional focus — for money. Then we use that money to buy stuff. And we will be making this trade-off until we no longer need to work for money. If we reach that state while we’re still alive, we call it retirement.

The idea that I was trading my life energy away for stuff — even stuff like groceries and a roof over my head — came as a shocking realization to me. At the time, I owed thousands of dollars for student loans, auto loans, and credit cards. If I wanted to take a vacation, or handle an unexpected expense, I just charged it on a credit card.

Even though I made my payments on time, the outstanding balances never seemed to get any smaller. And like roughly half of Americans, I had nothing saved for retirement — I couldn’t even imagine how I could save anything. I was basically living paycheck to paycheck, month to month. Thinking about money just made me feel bad, so I didn’t think about it.

But this book opened my eyes. I was stunned to realize both how much money I was earning and how little of it I was keeping. In that moment, I knew that I wanted to change my relationship with money. It took time and some hard work to change the negative beliefs about money I had unconsciously developed as a child growing up in my family. Slowly, I dug my way out of debt, built up savings, and began investing. In a few more years, I’ll be at the point where I’ll continue working because I want to, not because I have to.

What I Learned on my Financial Journey

The most important thing I’ve learned about having a positive, healthy relationship with money is this: money is just a tool that allows you to live a meaningful life, based on what you truly value. I want to have money so that I can spend it in a way that brings me true satisfaction and be able to meet the life goals that are important to me — traveling, supporting efforts to make the world a better place, spending time with friends, pursuing intellectual interests. Having a handle on what really makes me happy makes it easier to figure out what ‘enough’ means for me. And to make a road map for how to reach my financial goals in the service of my life goals.

So, as 2018 has come to a close, I encourage you to think about your own beliefs around money, examine your spending and savings habits, and then reflect on how you can better align where your money goes with what you truly value. On behalf of myself and Emperor Investments, I wish you pleasure, meaning, and joy in 2019!

Martha Brown Menard, PhD, is a research scientist, financial coach, and dividend income investor. She takes a smart beta approach to building her own portfolio, and likes seeing her income stream grow.