Happy endings are wished for and earned, not granted at random. Even for Disney princesses. Think about it: At the beginning of every Disney movie, the future princess is trying to get something, do something or make something happen, right? She belts a big “I want” song about her heart’s desire. She’s not content with the status quo, whether it’s being locked in a tower or staying on her home
island or living a provincial life. She has a dream, and she keeps reaching for that dream against all the odds.

That’s how Disney princesses get their happily-ever-after, prince or no prince, fairy godmother notwithstanding. They work for it. They resist the paths set before them and fight for what they want. Yes, these are just movies, but they teach us a real lesson about the power of knowing your dream and stepping off the preordained path.

In the real world, we’re (mostly) not singing to bluebirds or battling a magical curse, but we do tend to have a series of milestones we’re trying to hit on the supposed road to happiness. Too many of us follow that path without listening to our inner voice. We don’t take a moment to know ourselves or our dreams. We don’t have any “I want” songs to sing. It’s not until we’re pretty far down that path that we may realize we don’t even like it. Hello, midlife crisis.

The default path is not the only one available to you. The path to the best version of your life is out there – but only you can chart it. No one else can or will do it for you. If you want to raise the odds of living out your dreams, then you have to design your life on purpose. And only then will your money truly serve you in creating joy and abundance.

This doesn’t necessarily mean doing more, working more or constantly striving for more and more and more. It just means being in tune with what a good life looks like for you. Instead of wandering through your days with no clear sense of your values or living for other people’s values instead of your own, you can walk in alignment with who you want to be in that moment and who you want to become in the future.

If you’re struggling even to picture a big dream right now, that’s okay, and that’s normal. Most of us aren’t trained to see the whole realm of possibility. The specific steps on our predetermined paths might look different, depending on what we’ve been taught to see as “success.” But whether the steps are high school, college, career or settling down, getting married and having kids, there’s always something laid out. There’s no step for pausing and considering if we’re even moving in the right direction. There’s
no option to try out a different direction, or loop back and take a left turn, because those are seen as
failures. There isn’t often space for self-reflection at all.

It’s time to make that space for yourself. You can get more comfortable with trial and error, and learn what lights you up through experience. You can get attuned to that inner voice and discover what matters to you deep down. Because if you’re not living with intention, you’re living by default. Many people believe that they’ll be happy only when they’ve hit certain financial milestones, that if they work hard enough and save up enough, there will come a time when they’ll simply stop worrying about money. Only then can they think about things like dreams and goals. As a result, they end up with hollow victories; they’re making progress on their finances, but something still feels off. They don’t feel as satisfied as they thought they would.

If you’ve found yourself in that situation, it’s not because you’re acting against your best interests. You’re not self-sabotaging or actively squashing your dreams. You’re probably just doing what you think is right. Somewhere, you picked up the idea that the way to be a real adult/a good parent/a responsible citizen is to be practical, to not chase your dreams. And you further picked up the idea that the way to be practical is to follow money rules — because. If you have a partner or children, you might even feel obligated to put “family first” and give everything you can to the family unit (and this is true for men and women alike). I want you to know that whatever road you’ve been walking or see before you isn’t the only one. I want you to know that it’s okay to have dreams that are big and ambitious and exciting and all your own. I want you to start recognizing that inner voice, the one that tells you what’s working and what’s not working. I want you to shape your everyday life and your long-term goals on purpose, not by default. Because you only get one life. When you think about that one life you have, that one life that’s all yours, you can start to see how staying on the default path doesn’t make sense. The default path expects you to spend all your energy and time on reaching those predefined steps. It tells you that when those boxes are checked, then you can make your own plans. Then you can start dreaming of where you truly want to go. But it’s your time and your energy, neither of which you can get back once you’ve spent it. It should go toward building what you want it to, every step of the way. Your time and energy should always move you closer to where you want to go. The default path, by definition, is never personally tailored. But it’s not enough just to jump off that default path, either. You still have to define where you want to end up. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never know when or if you arrive. No one gets in their car and says, “Well, I don’t know what I need, or where to get it, but let’s see what happens if I fire up the engine and start driving.” You need a destination before you pull out of the driveway, whether it’s a quick errand to the store or a cross- country road trip. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of gas. Again: You only get one life. Your time is limited, just like everyone else’s. Money helps you make the most of your time, but it can’t make you more time. There are limitations at every level of financial success, and even the richest person in the world cannot have everything. Because you only get one life. No one ever gets to stop thinking about money, or making trade-offs, or prioritizing. But when you can make those trade-offs, when you’re comfortable with what you want and what you value, that’s when abundance sets in. When you’re clear on your values and goals, you’ll be able to tell if any given choice is getting you closer to that finish line, and maybe you’ll choose differently. Making trade-offs isn’t always easy or comfortable, and that discomfort is why many people don’t set their own value system when it comes to financial decision-making. Perhaps they suspect that honestly answering the question “What do I really want?” will open a can of worms. Knowing what they want might mean they’ll feel compelled to go after it. They might have to make changes — maybe a lot of changes. They might have a certain level of financial security and not want to rock the boat. Or they might have a modest income and not feel equal to the task of earning more to support their ideal lifestyle. They might just have to face the fact that everything is a choice — their job, their house, their children, their partner or spouse — and they aren’t maintaining that status quo because they have to but because they choose to. With all that on the line, it can feel safer to tell yourself you have no agency. That the future is when you’ll finally be able to enjoy life, not right now. But it is possible. It’s also essential, and it’s empowering. Every stage of life has its unique moments of beauty. But if you’re focused only on getting to some imagined future, you can miss them rather than being present while they’re happening. When I was a new mom, I was always thinking about what was next. I was planning and taking action for later. I didn’t have everything I wanted yet. But I was able to remind myself to enjoy the little moments. I loved being with Alexis, pushing her on the swings, snuggling her little baby face, drawing pictures together in her nursery, entertaining her. All that was happiness. I was living a life I loved. That was possible because of my circumstances, not in spite of them. I was out of the cockroach- infested apartment, but money was still tight. No expensive toys or outings meant spending more time with Alexis one-on-one. I knew she wasn’t going to be a baby forever, and my human experience wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t make the most of the time we had together, just the two of us. It was an empowering time, too, because I knew that in each moment I was choosing what I wanted. I was both finding joy in my day-to-day and laying the groundwork for the years to come. That’s what I mean when I say that we only get one life: Seek balance. Enjoy the now and look forward to the future. It’s a natural tendency to look at a future destination that we need to reach in order to be happy. Many of us don’t even think about the present except to compare it to an imagined future. We don’t want to deal with here. We wish they were already there. What we’re wishing for is an impossibility. You can’t get to “there” any way except through all the years in between. But the bigger wish, the wish for a life of abundance and joy, is possible. Life isn’t a fairy tale, but there is magic to be found in every part of your journey. It’s just up to you to discover it. Every day is an opportunity to be intentional with how you’re living right now. Because you get to enjoy every moment of your life, not just the moments when you’ve accomplished a goal. Learn to live richly — right now. Remember to enjoy your whole life, every year and every season, because no one knows how many years we’re going to get. Most of all, know that you can create a life that looks and feels exactly the way you want it to, no matter how much is in your checking account right now. You have the power to do that. It’s going to take time, but you can start in this very instant. Consider which trade-offs you can make immediately to completely transform your life — not tomorrow, not today. It is possible to enjoy your life at every stage of your journey, while still working toward that idealized vision of your future. All you have to do is start. Reprinted with permission From IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY by Scarlett Cochran, published by AVERY, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Scarlett Cochran.