I met with a Get Rich Slowly reader at the local coffee house yesterday.

Like many of us, Aaron got into money trouble when he was young — he made some dumb mistakes. He fell for a get-rich-quick scheme that left him deep in debt. For a long time, he floundered, struggling to find motivation, but ultimately he found purpose in religion. Aaron’s faith helped him to turn his life around, to begin making smart financial decisions. He still has a long way to go, but he feels like the worst is behind him.

“I’ve had many good opportunities to change things along the way, and that’s what I’ve done,” Aaron told me. “My life used to be about me-me-me, and take-take-take, but now I’ve changed.”

“What about you?” Aaron asked, sipping his coffee. “What motivated you to take control of your finances?”

I started to answer but, as conversations will, our discussion lost its focus. I never gave a complete response. I thought about the question for the rest of the day, though, and concluded that for me, money represents freedom. In his book Debt is Slavery [my review], Michael Mihalik writes:

Too many people hate their jobs but are afraid to leave, because they wouldn’t be able to pay their mortgage, credit card bills, car loans, or boat loans. Debt can turn a free, happy person into a bitter human being. Debt can turn you into a slave.

For fifteen years, I felt like a slave. Debt was the dominating force in my life. My choices were limited by the fact that I owed tens of thousands of dollars. For a long time, this burden only weakened me — I took on more debt in a futile attempt to ease the pain with more stuff.

Eventually I realized that what I wanted was freedom — freedom to work and live where I wanted, freedom to travel, freedom to retire early — and that the only way I could achieve this freedom was by eliminating debt. My non-mortgage debt is gone now, but this desire for freedom remains my primary motivation. It’s why I’m willing to live frugally. It’s why I want a huge emergency fund. It’s why I want to pay off the mortgage.

Each of us has a different motivation. Trent at The Simple Dollar credits the birth of his son with helping him to avoid financial armageddon. Trent’s young family gives him purpose, gives him a reason to make smart choices. For you, the motivation might be travel, or possessions, or charity, or simply a desire to obtain wealth.

Frankly, I don’t think it matters what your purpose is — the important thing is to find one. Until I discovered mine, I had no reason to change my behavior because I didn’t have a larger goal.

It was good to meet Aaron yesterday, and to hear his story. He has a healthy attitude toward the poor choices he made when he was younger. “All of the experiences of our lives — good and bad — make us who we are,” he said. I agree. I no longer regret my mistakes. I see them as a necessary component of who I am today. Without them, I wouldn’t have my current motivation to live debt-free.

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