I'm through fielding advice about how much I should be saving.I know, I know. Skipping things like daily lattes could help pad my retirement savings. What I really need to know is how to finance the way my family wants to live. Our actions, once in a while, would make some financial planners cringe: We spend money that we should save. Sure, I'm concerned about our retirement and college expenses for three children. But I'm also looking for the balance between planning for the future and creating memories in the present. It's been almost 15 years, for instance, since my husband, Ben, and I gazed at the spectacular blue hues of Frenchman's Bay from the balcony of our luxurious hotel room in Bar Harbor, Maine. But the memory wouldn't be ours to enjoy without spending some cash that, perhaps, would have been more practical to conserve at the time. My cautious nature reminds me that some of the best memories don't cost money. But the harsh reality is that really great memories -- such as our Walt Disney World vacation last year -- require lots of cash. Financial planning experts routinely advise saving the equivalent of between three and six months of living expenses in the event of job loss or illness. It's sensible and responsible advice for clients. My definition of planning ahead, however, also includes enjoying a few perks in life that may become unaffordable or undoable when troubles arise. We didn't know, as we admired the view from our Bar Harbor hotel, that one of us would be out of work for a few months upon returning home. Money was tight, as it would be after we bought our first house -- instead of a less expensive Hovnanian condo -- and welcomed our first child. But indulging ourselves back then doesn't seem to matter that much to our bank account today. Yes, it's critical to save, but sometimes we just have to spend too, before a problem or responsibility gobbles up our extra cash. I didn't always think this way. Ben and I began our married life in 1992 with different views about money. I viewed money as a resource to conserve, not necessarily enjoy -- a philosophy imparted, understandably, by my Depression-era immigrant grandparents. But Ben introduced me to the concept of money as a catalyst for living. He urged me to stay at that spot in Bar Harbor, with a fireplace and comfy bathrobes in our room. A motel away from the water would be fine, I reasoned, since we'd be outside hiking. We compromised, splitting our time between the two places (my choice was memorable too, for our foul-smelling room, where a previous guest had cooked seafood).
There would be other times when we spent money, instead of saving it, and reaped intangible benefits. We added a $4,000 deck to our home while awaiting the arrival of our first baby. Perhaps it would have been helpful to save that cash, especially with a child on the way. Yes, we'd have more than twice that amount today, assuming a 7% annual return. But we enjoyed many summertime meals and family celebrations on that deck -- perhaps even a better return on our investment. I ultimately decided to stop working temporarily after our son was born, thankful that we made a significant improvement to our home while we were a dual-income household. We bought pedigree dogs over the years, which we arguably don't need, but from which we derive immeasurable comfort. A recent Colorado vacation would have been less expensive if we camped instead of lodging at the Embassy Suites in Denver. We could have stashed away extra cash by settling for a $300 dishwasher that we saw at Home Depot instead of an $800 Kenmore Elite with a stainless-steel tub. Or we could decorate with furniture from Ikea, instead of from Ethan Allen, paying off a few pieces at a time. Our bank accounts may grow faster, but our living environment would not be as satisfying. We might also have a little more savings to compound each year if one son didn't play hockey and our daughter didn't look so endearing when asking for the newest-fashion shoes. However, our lives wouldn't be as rich. Our scrapbooks -- yet another way to create memories by spending money -- would not be as thick.
Savings, however, is still a reality despite our occasional transgressions. We follow the traditional advice of contributing regularly to our pension and IRAs. Our children's college funds are accruing slowly, because automatic withdrawals from our checking account ensure we won't touch the money first. We could always do more for tomorrow, I suppose, depending on how much less we're willing to do right now. I often think about that balance. But thinking about the view of Frenchman's Bay always reminds me of what I may be giving up when deciding whether to spend or to save.