Does Money Buy Happiness? Sure Does, but not in the way you think.
The pursuit of happiness is a path riddled with potential missteps. You must truly understand how best to utilize money and the most valuable resource it can purchase. It’s not the house, fancy cars, exotic vacations, gadgets, designer clothing, or anything similar that will bring you lasting joy. I’m fairly certain, everyone will agree that this one thing is the best investment money can buy.
The following is a letter to my children and the exercises we used to evaluate what truly makes us happy. Feel free to use similar methods and…
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Dear Seekers of Happiness,
Does Money Buy Happiness?
Sure it does, but probably not in the way you think. Money buys the most valuable and limited resource in existence, TIME. Did you know that you can buy time? You can buy your life and the freedom to do what you want when you want. It’s the best investment one can make. We’re going evaluate some of our attempts to buy happiness and live the “American Dream”.
By default, many Americans chase the same set of goals and follow this linear path. Go to college > Start a Career > Get Married > Buy a House in Suburbia > Have Children > Work until 65 > Retire. There’s nothing wrong with chasing this lifestyle. It’s actually a great privilege to live this way and I consider our family quite blessed to be in the position we are. Everyday I try to be grateful for what we have:
- Two wonderful children
- Excellent town with a great school system
- Supportive and loving extended families
- No major health problems
- Relatively lucrative careers
All things considered, we should be a happy family right? Then why did it come to a point where Mom decided that there’s too much negativity in the house and implement a “thankful chart?”
We wrote down something that made us happy each day. Our thankful topics seemed to trend month over month and were related to family and friends, health, food, vacations, and weather. I often ask what’s missing that we had to remind ourselves of the “things” that brought us joy each day. I soon realized, I was only asking part of the question. The answer to the first part was simple, “Time”.
- Time to be with family and friends
- Time to do enjoyable and healthy activities
- Time to go on vacation
- Time to enjoy those nice weather days
- Time to create delicious and healthy foods
Time is the only thing preventing us from experiencing more activities that bring us the most happiness. Your mother misses half the family gatherings and sporting events due to her work schedule. It devastates her constantly and she feels guilty. Finding time to exercise and play sports is challenging. Vacations are limited to only a couple weeks a year. The nice weather days always seem to fall on working weekdays for some reason. Our busy lifestyle forces us to indulge microwave cuisines more than we should.
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network for the United Nations recently revealed Finland as the happiest country in their world happiness report. I’m sure the mandatory 5 weeks of paid annual leave might have something to do with it. In contrast, the United States has no such laws. Unlike Finland, we need to buy our time. Instead of making choices toward financial independence, your mom and I attempted to buy happiness in other ways.
Buying Happiness with a Huge House
I previously assumed, a bigger house would make us happy…but that apparently didn’t happen. Our family moved to a nicer place to be sure, but the negatives had more of an impact than the positives.
We attempted to buy happiness with a larger house, but at what cost. Our mortgage payments went up 2.5x. This added additional years of time spent working. That’s thousands of hours of our life lost, just to live in a place with more square footage. We spend most our time sleeping in the house anyhow. Along with the cost came stresses that didn’t exist before.
- The yard work tripled to maintain the landscape
- Utility costs went up adding additional working hours
- Home repairs and maintenance skyrocketed
- Time spend cleaning also increased 2.5x
- Taxes and insurance costs tripled
The first year in the new house came with a great sense of pride and an illusion of being happier. It was euphoric in the beginning and we received lots of compliments from friends and family. During this period of elation, we doubled down on our happiness boost by installing a pool.
Let’s Buy Happiness with a Pool
We took the equity from our starter home and decided to put in a $60,000 pool. It’s a thing of beauty. Inground, diving board, heated, salt water, colored lights, sandy colored patio, fire pit…the works. This purchase would certainly buy us happiness right?
In hindsight, not the best idea. We were catering to the joy you kids had everytime we were on vacation. It didn’t matter where we were, you both always wanted to be in the hotel pool. Forget theme parks, hiking trails, beaches and the like. You guys were most happy splashing around chlorine filled watering holes. Naturally, your mom and I figure a pool would be an excellent investment toward happiness.
The reality was a bit different than we imagined. The fun times are limited by the short window of Summers in New England. Those nice days have to land on the weekend, when we’re not working, to appreciate this luxury. We also have to be home to enjoy it. Would you rather be camping, at the beach, jet skiing or fishing at your grandparents lake house? We sacrifice other potential experiences to get the happiness return on investment of the pool.
In any given year, we probably only enjoy the pool to its fullest a handful of times. Those days certainly provide a level of happiness, but at what cost. The pool not only ran $15k over budget to install, but there are so many headaches with it’s maintenance.
- $200 more per month in utilities
- Hundreds of dollars worth of chemicals
- Opening and closing costs
- Hours of additional chore work to maintain
- Thousands worth of cleaning robots that never last a season
- Opportunity cost of the installation
When your mother cries over another malfunctioning cleaning robot and has to spend hours vacuuming manually before a big pool party, then I know we did something wrong in our pursuit of happiness.
It’s ironic that before we had ours, we’d drive to your grandparents house to use their pool all the time. Now that we have our own, there’s a lack of appreciation for it. Your desire to swim has lessened after owning the pool for a few years. I think we all take it for granted a bit and it’s capability to generate joy has diminished, but the costs remain.
Happiness is a Fleeting Emotion
The hedonic adaptation theory suggests that humans have a stable level of happiness despite various changes in lifestyle. There’s an initial boost of positivity, but the happiness level returns to a setpoint shortly after.
Desire hath no rest, is infinite in itself, endless and as one calls it, a perpetual rack, or horse-mill. – R Burton
As we move to better houses, install pools, purchase new clothes, buy bigger TVs, acquire the latest phones, etc… this theory implies that our desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. I believe this to be true and now want to focus on buying time. Time to enjoy the house. Time to enjoy the pool. Time to enjoy what we’ve discovered brings us happiness.
The Other Part of the Question
For a while I was focused on answering what what was missing from our lives that would provide happiness. The conclusion was time, but I was omitting a very fundamental 2nd part of that question. I realized that it is the presence of negative things in our life that makes us unhappy, moreso than the absence of some arbitrary purchase that makes us happy.
Upgrading from a 2009 to a 2018 BMW will very likely not make you happier, but upgrading a barely-functional bike or shitty kitchen faucet to a good one you use daily can make a real difference. – Peter Adeney
We experienced hedonic adaptation with the house, pool, and other random consumer purchases. It’s time to contemplate what makes us unhappy and attempt to buy our way out of those situations rather than ride the hedonic treadmill.
Pursuit of Happiness Challenge
We know two things for certain.
- Refocus our spending to save more and buy time
- Eliminate negative barriers in our day to day life
To accomplish #1, we want to bring our savings rate from 35% to 50%. This will not only provide a buffer should mom or dad lose their job, but also reduce our working years by roughly 8. That’s 667 days or 16,000 hours of Time to pursue enjoyable activities, rather than working. Solving #1 will contribute greatly to the success of #2 by achieving Financial Independence and removing the requisite 9 to 5.
To accomplish #2, we need to start identifying what makes us unhappy. I hate to focus on the negatives, but repurposing our thankful chart to a problem list may be more beneficial. Let’s experiment. We’ll be able to discover those nagging issues that bring our mood down on a particular day. We can then evaluate if there is a way to buy ourselves out of unhappiness rather than buying happiness. If it turns into a gloomy household, we’ll abandon the exercise.
I’ve gone though our expenses for the past year and used personal capital to itemized just about everything. When you look at a purchase individually, you can probably justify it. I want us to look at them against each other. Each of us were provided a list of our routine discretionary spending.
I’ve omitted the necessities, such as food and clothing. If we meal plan and bargain shop for clothes a little better, we can probably increase savings rate by 5% with that alone. We need to find another 10% of our expenses that contribute the least to our overall happiness and potentially eliminate or reduce the cost of those items that do not solve an unhappiness problem. After comparing our cost of living vs the average american, I know this is possible.
I’ve cut each expense into a little piece of paper and created 4 copies of each.
|Item||Impact if Given Up|
|Home||Move to a smaller home|
|Cleaners||More chores for everyone|
|Comcast||No more live TV or on-demand|
|Day Trips||Less day trips – beaches, parks, skiing, etc|
|Beach Trip||Beach trip frequency reduced|
|Family Vacation||Frequency of family vacation to random destinations reduced|
|Phones||Reduced cell phone capabilities|
|Movie Theatre||Reduce visits to the cinema|
|Netflix||Netflix video stream service cancelled|
|Restaurants||Only eat out or go to restaurants on gift cards|
|Hair||Cut your own hair|
|Amazon prime||No more Amazon streaming and product discounts|
|Dads Truck||Downsize truck to an older used version|
|Guys Weekend||Dad skips Guys weekend|
|Dad Shake||Find a cheaper breakfast|
|Electronics||Limit TV, PC, and software purchases|
|Audible||Dad’s commuting audio books cancelled|
|Moms Car||Downsize car to an older used version|
|Mom Shake||Find a cheaper breakfast|
|Gym Membership||Mom’s Gym Membership cancelled|
|Beachbody||Mom’s Beach Body Subscription cancelled|
|Concerts/Shows||Concerts and Theater visits reduced|
|Spartan||Mom’s Spartan Racing cancelled|
|Massages||Mom’s Massages cancelled|
|Street Hockey||Spring Street Hockey cancelled|
|Soccer Camp||Summer Soccer Camp cancelled|
|Ice Hockey||Winter Ice Hockey cancelled|
|Deck Hockey||Fall Deck Hockey cancelled|
|Travel Soccer||Spring and Fall Travel Soccer cancelled|
|Gymnastics||Sanctioned Gymnastics Team cancelled|
|Extended Day||After school programs cancelled|
- Order the list from top to bottom. Top being your most cherished purchase and work your way down comparing each item to the one above and below in order of importance to you. Think long and hard about each purchase and how much joy it brings. Also think about the negative impact if an expense was eliminated, such as our bi-weekly cleaners. More chores for all of us.
- We now have 4 personalized lists with each expense ranked against all others from our own points of view. Each item will be issued a score of 1-31 for each person. Each score will be added up and the items will be ranked lowest to highest based on the inputs from all 4 family members.
- As a family, we’ll then discuss the bottom half of the list and see where we can either (a) cut the expense entirely or (b) find a suitable replacement that is more cost effective.
The goal of this exercise is to discover what’s most important to each member of the family. Not necessarily just cutting the lower ranking items. This will open an opportunity to strike up dialog about each purchase rather than just spending blindly. Expenses seem to accumulate over time without notice and become habitual. If left unchecked, we’ll soon find ourselves spending on nonsense that does not buy what we discovered to be the true generator of happiness, TIME.
Complete this exercise with your own family and come to a consensus on what is most valuable in your own family.
Kylven Ross is the owner and primary contributor of theFIway.com. He has been married for 17 years and is father to a son and daughter living in New England. Professional accomplishments include a bachelor’s degree and industry certifications in the cyber sector. He has spent the last 18 years working in the U.S. Defense Industry and as a Military Police Officer.
He discovered the concept of Financial Independence (FI) during a rather stressful year in the compliance space. After fully absorbing the benefits of FI, he has since committed to turning his household’s finances in the right direction. His experiences are documented as a series of letters that are used to educate his children and others about money. He does not want the next generation to make the same mistakes, but rather achieve financial freedom and find happiness.
Kylven is not a financial advisor, tax expert, or investment professional. Investment and retirement planning activities should not be considered professional advice. Consult a licensed financial advisor for questions regarding your own situation.