Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Buying Happiness

Whenever I hear the old saying "money can't buy you happiness," I think two things:
  1. A lack of money can sure deliver a lot of unhappiness
  2. If you're in the top 5% or so of households by income and you're not happy that money is not increasing your happiness, chances are you're doing something wrong.* 
OK, that second one is a bit harsh. I can come up with plausible scenarios in which your household income could be more than $165,000/year and you would not be able leverage that money to make yourself happy. You could, for instance, have a large mortgage on which you are upside-down and then suddenly find yourself the guardian of a cousin's two young children, thereby finding that you must spend large sums of money on day care. Or you could be paying off the loan your brother foolishly took out from Vinny the Loan Shark. Or... you get the idea. I allow that it is possible to have what appears to be boatloads of money and find that it is not quite enough. (Although I still agree with Scalzi that you would do well to not complain about how hard it is to meet your monthly wine budget or replace your three-year old Mercedes in this case.)

But most people could take that money and make themselves happy. And yet, clearly a lot of people can't figure out how to use their money to buy happiness, or else that old saying wouldn't be an old saying.

Now, I'm not saying that the only path to happiness is money. There are plenty things in my life that make me happy and cost no money whatsoever- going to the beach, playing with my kids, and reading a good book come to mind.

I also use money to buy happiness in the conventional sense: I buy things and experiences that make me happy. Travel, good chocolate (OK, just about any chocolate), and cute yet comfortable shoes come to mind.

But I think the secret to buying happiness isn't to buy things or experiences. It is to buy freedom. Things and experiences bring happiness that is often fleeting, and skates across the surface of our lives, making it easily disrupted by the daily stresses of life.  But the happiness that freedom brings goes deep, and it lasts.

I realized that I buy happiness by buying freedom as I thought about the work-life scenarios Laura Vanderkam invented for a recent post. This post was itself triggered by my earlier statement that I use money to buy myself out of a lot of work-life balance problems. That is definitely true. I solve the problem of not wanting to spend much of my free time cleaning by paying a housecleaning service. I solve the problem of not wanting to spend my evenings or weekends shopping by buying a lot of things online, even if that is more expensive. Frankly, I don't know if it is more expensive or not, because I don't comparison shop. I don't need to, and I don't enjoy it, so why bother? In short, I buy a lot of time, and that contributes to both my work-life balance and my happiness.

But as I thought about Laura's post, I realized that the biggest way I use money to make my work-life balance better and to make myself happy is to use it to buy freedom, namely freedom from my job. Don't get me wrong- I'm not independently wealthy. If I quit working altogether, we'd drop several rungs down the income ladder. But I do not feel like I have to keep this particular job, because my husband and I have a hefty buffer in our bank account.

We initially set it up as self-preservation, after I realized just what it meant to work in a volatile industry like biotechnology. But that self-preserving move has had an unexpected pay off. I don't feel trapped in my job (and my husband doesn't feel trapped in his). I know that if I get fed up and quit, we have enough money in the bank to keep us solvent while I figure out what to do next. That is an incredibly liberating thing. Little obnoxious policies at work don't bug me so much, because I know that I don't actually have to put up with them if I don't want to. I feel free to speak my mind without worrying too much about the consequences, because the worst that could happen- they fire me- doesn't scare me. I don't worry about setting my schedule to fit my needs or pushing back (politely, of course) on that annoying director who keeps trying to schedule meetings that run until after I usually leave to pick up the kids from day care. In short, keeping a fair amount of money tied up in this buffer buys me happiness because it buys me freedom from a lot of unnecessary stress.

Obviously, our buffer is not infinite. At some point, it would run out. But my husband and I thought about the level of risk we're comfortable taking, how much we would be willing to trim our lifestyle if necessary, and how quickly we think either one of us could find a new job or start something up independently and have it make a reasonable income. From that, we settled on the size of our buffer. We have sized our buffer and set our lifestyle such that we could continue to live a minimally changed lifestyle for a year with only one of us working. Different families will need different buffers, but I suspect that just about everyone would find having one liberating.

The great thing is, you don't need to be in the top X% of incomes to achieve this, although obviously, a higher income makes it easier to achieve, as long as you don't go nuts and insist on buying a new Mercedes every three years. I know other people who have achieved the same feeling of freedom via a buffer, but who make far less money than my husband and I do. For that matter, we first set up that buffer when we made almost $100,000 less per year than we do now. We've kept it through a destination wedding and a four month trip around Asia and the Pacific. We've kept it through maternity/paternity leaves and, most recently, a period during which I was not working. Obviously, our buffer shrank a bit due to each of those things. Once those events passed, we made building it back up a priority, ostensibly because it is the sensible thing to do.  But I think the real reason was that we've realized just how much happiness that buffer buys.

*(Note: I changed the wording here, because a commenter pointed out that the original wording was offensive. I don't normally edit posts after they go up, but it seemed the thing to do in this case. I left the original wording in, with a strike through.)

Update: Reading the initial comments made me realize that I ended this post poorly, and took a post that was supposed to be about one way relatively well off people can use their money to buy happiness- and often don't- and made it sound like I think EVERYONE could do this. That is not true. I completely understand that being able to have a buffer requires an income sufficient to live beneath your means- and not everyone has that. But I think a lot of people who could set up a buffer don't.

Also, I left out an important caveat on using money to buy happiness- there are some problems money can't solve. For instance, no amount of money would have made the stress we felt when we thought Petunia might be seriously ill go away. However, our money did make it easier to deal with that stress- we were able to take time off work without fear, for one thing.

Anyway, apologies to anyone I inadvertently offended. Rest assured that unless you are making heaps of money and complaining about how trapped you are in your job because you HAVE to replace your fancy car every three years... I didn't mean to offend you. And even if you are in that group, I really just meant to make you think about your choices.


  1. A lack of money has never been an issue for me but I've still managed to be less than absolutely happy for various periods, like now.

    Certainly things are easier knowing there are options available, and I don't mind throwing money at problems sometimes, but the kinds of problems I have/have had don't relate to a lack of money so they aren't solved by more money (take infertility. Money helped solve it, but it was still a problem).

    In fact some of my main problems were caused by too much money (e.g. the money to make a big international move.) But sure, I also have the money to make a move again if that's the solution I go for.

    Having money makes the problems I do have easier to solve and less serious, of course. Money helps but doesn't cure-all.

    You're dead on about the freedom angle. Lack of money is more of a roadblock than having a lot of money is a boon, and that's because with money you have more options.

  2. well obviously barring sad things, such as diseases or horrible relationships or whatever, yes I think $ facilitates the process of finding happiness. I called my "buffer" the eff u fund.

  3. That's kind of the secret to the book Your Money or Your Life. How you can use finding "enough" and building a buffer to find freedom and security.


    (And yeah, there are a few other ways money doesn't buy happiness-- if you're married to a sociopath or if there's certain kinds of illness etc.)

  4. Unfortunately, a lot of people - even people with good money management skills - have a lot of trouble setting up that buffer. If your income is low - and it can be even if you're "professionally" employed (I know plenty of professional people with master's degrees and good skills who make $30K a year, such as, for example, myself - some fields just have sucky pay) - that's tough. When my husband was a graduate student, we had NO wiggle room in the budget. I considered it a major accomplishment to live within our means.

    The studies I've seen suggest that below $75K annual income (for an individual or a household? I'm not sure) makes a big difference in happiness. But after that, it's all the same, whether it's 100K or a million.

  5. @flea, I definitely agree. You don't have to be rich to have a buffer, but you do have to have wiggle room in your budget. I had no buffer when I was in grad school- like you say, I considered it an accomplishment to live within my means.

    I'm thinking more about the people who are comfortably well off and still can't find a way to be happy. And the comfortably well off people who live with no buffer- there are a surprising number of them. I have a lot of sympathy for the people whose incomes just aren't sufficient to allow a buffer and the freedom it brings. In fact, one of my major charities is one that works with people on the low end of that range when they have an unexpected expense that knocks them off course. I have a lot less sympathy for people who are making more than $100k/year and complain to me about being "trapped" in their jobs!

    @antropologa- yes, I agree, some problems can't be solved with money. I've been reading along with your unhappiness in Sweden right now, and haven't commented because I don't really know what to say. Although... something just occurred to me. Have you checked into Seasonal Affective Disorder (I think that's what it is called- when lack of sunlight basically makes you depressed)? The winters in Sweden are dark. I have a friend for whom that would be a real problem. Even in San Diego, she sometimes has to use the fancy sunlight replacement lights.

  6. Thanks for linking! As I've been thinking about money and happiness, I've realized that a "buffer" (or emergency fund, or FU fund, or whatever we wish to call it) is key to my enjoyment of life. As you put it, you can push back against anything, because what are they going to do? Fire you? They can - it won't ruin you. I spent a year out of college in a very low-paid internship, taking home $1200 a month. I still made a point of saving. I always lived on less than that, and I freelanced on the side. The net result was being able to spend some time traveling in Asia and then financing a move to NYC with no job lined up. That freedom was totally worth not owning a car, packing lunches, etc. That conservatism has occasionally been problematic in other ways (I put off hiring as much childcare as we needed because it was "expensive") but on the whole it's made me better able to take risks with the goal of building a better life.

  7. Unusual, thought-provoking, and dare I say judgy post! I like!!

    "I'm thinking more about the people who are comfortably well off and still can't find a way to be happy." Rich Folks, Come on Get (Buy) Happy! Yes, they intrigue me, too. Like others have said, I'm not referring to the ones who are unhappy because they're grappling with health issues, etc.

    Small sample size alert - I happen to know 3 unhappily well off couples in this category.

    What they seem to have in common are passionless marriages, a tendency to be too cheap, and having 3 or more kids of whom at least one is a preschooler. I think that's the general recipe for unhappiness (among Americans in the $300K and up but not super rich income range.) And I know for a fact that's what they make.

    The ones I know don't spend enough couple time away from the kids, even though they could easily afford sitters. (Perhaps it is an organizational issue? Can't be bothered to set that up?) They refuse to seek out the marriage counseling they could easily afford and painfully need - even though have the insurance coverage for it anyway. (Denial that they have a truly shitty union?) I'm convinced that being too cheap relative to what is affordable for them is a huge, huge factor in their unhappiness.

  8. I finally posted my thoughts re: work / life balance for those w/ lesser financial means. I think I have more to explore on that topic!

  9. Anonymous10:05 AM

    Money certainly can't buy health, as some of us have found out the hard way. You are very lucky if you have never dealt with a serious extended illness that leaves you mostly incapacitated, or suffered through the crushing depression of losing a child or family member to one. Diseases like cancer etc affect all of us, regardless of income bracket. Just look at Steve Jobs - he might not have been so happy when he was, you know, dying. I like your blog in general, but I don't think this was your most well thought-out post. There are just some things that money simply can't buy, and too few people think about it until they have to live with the aftermath.

  10. I understand the health issue, but I will say that having a health issue and having money to pay for the insurance, co-pays, buy the prescriptions, take time off of work without worrying about how you will pay for the groceries, makes having the illness...not better, certainly...but less stressful.

    I read a blog by a (married) woman who had a condom breakage incident and took Plan B (which was a really big expense for her...maybe $50). She said that it was so worth it because they were one (uninsured) pregnancy away from a foreclosure. For me, an unplanned pregnancy would be a surprise - not a disaster (a seriously unexpected surprise what with the infertility and whatnot but a dare I say happy surprise nonetheless).

    I'm notoriously cheap, but I get pleasure from the self-denial that comes with my cheapness. Or maybe I get pleasure from the freedom from worry because we don't worry about money. We spend what we spend (we have no budget but we're both tightwads so the spending is not so big) and the rest is tucked away for a future rainy day.

  11. OK, folks- I clearly didn't put enough caveats on this one. I'm talking about using your money to increase your happiness. I.e., buy more happiness. I think a lot of you are reading it as a "you can buy yourself absolute happiness no matter what" sort of thing, which isn't the post I thought I wrote. Maybe the title was a mistake?

    Obviously, being seriously ill, losing a loved one, etc are things that make us unhappy and money can't fix.

    But from the baseline of whatever happiness your health and other related issues allow- I think money can buy you an increase in happiness, or at least it can do so more than a lot of people realize.

    If you are reading this post as "you suck if you're unhappy because you're sick" I'm sorry if that is how it came across. It wasn't my intent. I didn't say anything about illness, etc., because that wasn't what the post was about.

    If you are reading this post as "everyone, even someone who is scraping by on minimum wage can us this method to be happier" I'm sorry if that is how it came across. That also wasn't my intent. I didn't say anything about people who can't afford to buy freedom with a buffer, because that wasn't what the post was about, either.

    It was about people with plenty of money who could buy themselves a little more happiness, but fail to do so. I'm positing that they fail to do so because they are trying to buy happiness in THINGS when my experience is that it was buying freedom that truly made me happy. Basically, I am saying "here's what happened to me" and "maybe this might be relevant to some other people".

    And finally, I'll say one more time- writing a post about me and my life is not a judgment on you and your life. I really am starting to think I'll put that as a header on my blog. This is true even when I generalize a bit and offer a little advice. It is advice, not judgment. You can ignore it, because obviously I don't know squat about you and your situation.

    To the extent that I have any judgment in my heart on this topic at all, it is for the people who don't realize just how much comfort their money buys them. I run into a surprising number of those people. I didn't write directly about that, though, because I thought Scalzi covered it better than I could.

    @Anonymous- you have no idea what I have or have not experienced. If you think nothing bad has ever happened to me, you are wrong. But I don't need to put that in this post because (1) it is my blog and I'll write what I want and I choose not to write about some things and (2) it isn't relevant to the post I was trying to write.

    I'll take the feedback that this post was clearly not as well-written as it could have been, though. And I'm glad you usually like my blog.

  12. Anonymous12:09 PM

    @Cloud - Same Anonymous again, thank you for the clarifications and caveats. I really am a fan of your blog and have been reading for a while, which is why some things about this post surprised me so much. To be honest, I think your opening of "If you're in the top 5% or so of households by income and you're not happy, chances are you're doing something wrong" rubbed me and probably others the wrong way. I've had a pretty unimaginable year health-wise due to illness (long story). Definitely learned the hard way that when you are so incredibly sick, you realize there are only two things that truly matter: 1. good medical insurance and health care (here is where money helps), and 2. having supportive family and friends, bosses, etc - to help you when you are literally unable to take care of yourself. Even then, of course, you have to deal with the sheer hell/discomfort/stress/etc of illness. Given all that I'm actually relatively happy for the circumstances, because such an ordeal certainly shows you with stunning clarity what really matters - and I was very VERY thankful to have both those conditions above met, especially such an awesome husband, friends, and family.

    But I've also had two friends give birth to babies - who ended up being too sick to ever leave the hospital despite weeks/months of NICU - and seen the resulting grief and devastation that comes from losing your babies. Again, money helps cover the medical bills in these circumstances (and perhaps buys therapy), but I don't need to point out that money can't buy true happiness here.

    I do realize you were trying to write a post on "Money can help make your life less stressful by buying time, buying solutions to alleviate stress, and having a financial buffer alleviates mental stress that might come from unexpected loss of income etc" - in line with your usual posts. Therefore I do realize that this comment is going off on a bit of a tangent. But after opening your blog post with "If you're in the top 5% or so of households by income and you're not happy, chances are you're doing something wrong" - I thought someone needed to point this out. And I didn't mean to imply that I knew anything about your life/circumstances/etc... hence the "You are lucky IF..." But honestly, given what I've been through and seen though the past few years, I think I'd be almost physically unable to make such an opening statement! I've definitely learned that money can make your life easier and alleviate some stress in horrific situations, but true happiness is something else altogether. In general though, I am a fan of your blog, but in the spirit of discourse, I had to bring these up.

  13. Thanks for coming back and clarifying, @anonymous. I'm sorry to hear you've been so sick.

    I think in retrospect, I should have phrased that "If you are in the top 5% of incomes and are unhappy because of your job, chances are you are doing something wrong."

    That more accurately reflects my thoughts, although it doesn't quite capture them, either.

    I guess I think about happiness in terms of a "what things that I control, would bring me more happiness" and not as a discrete "I'm happy/I'm not happy" thing. I have very little- if any- control over many terrible things that could happen. But I truly can't think of any terrible thing that has happened or could happen to me that I'd be happier to face without money. In my life, having money always increases my happiness level, and I think that is at least in part because of the fact that we've chosen to use a fairly substantial portion of our money as a buffer.

    It is clear from a lot of these comments (not just yours) that other people were reading the post as "this is the path to absolute happiness" which of course it is not. If I were to write the post again, I would make my incremental approach to happiness clear, and maybe then I wouldn't have offended so many people by saying something that I thought was pretty non-controversial: having money should increase your happiness, and if it isn't you should perhaps change how you think about that money.

    I read your line about "You are very lucky if..." as code for "shut up, because you don't know how lucky you are." So, I misinterpreted you, too.

    Of course, you'd be welcome to tell me that, too, but I'd react exactly as I did in my last comment.

  14. Anonymous2:01 PM

    @Cloud - Great, thank YOU for clarifying! Sounds like something like "If you are in the top 5% of incomes and are unhappy about a situation where you could buy a solution, chances are you are doing something wrong" (or something along those lines) might more accurately reflect what it sounds like you're trying to say.

    A few other thoughts (slightly tangential):

    -I really meant the "You are very lucky if" as a "you are very lucky if". It wasn't meant as any sort of assumption about you etc, or even just about you, more of a generic "you". I was very lucky before I got sick, and I did know that then, but I have a deeper appreciation for it now. I don't think everyone realizes this. (Not about you at all, just a reflection on people I encounter in everyday life who complain about the smallest of things...)

    -Another general comment (not about you) is that sometimes scientists in general seemingly think that if a life-type situation hasn't happened to them, it can't happen at all... even rare situations do happen to someone, and even Ph.D.-level scientist someones, unfortunately. Which can sometimes lead to a lack of understanding in the workplace. I've been on both the good and bad side of this, and the difference is astounding. Life does interfere with work sometimes, whether you want it to or not. (Think I'm preaching to the choir here)

    -Re: money and happiness: I agree that having money should increase your happiness (at least to a point). Something I've been thinking about recently is if my happiness from an expenditure is in proportion to amount spent on said expenditure. I think many people fritter away money on things that have little to no bearing on their overall happiness (sort of like what they do with their time). For instance, a $3/day Starbucks habit or something (though some people really do love their coffee that much). On the other hand, my happiness when my magazine subscriptions arrive in the mail is completely out of proportion to the $10-$20/year I spend on them. Ditto for the $7 bouquet of gorgeous fresh flowers. And the $10 I spent on that REM CD in 1995 has certainly earned its keep. I'm not saying I'm perfect in this regard, but I'm in the process of thinking about this and evaluating this now - an interesting process. Basically, trying to spend money on things with a significant impact on my happiness/life/mood, and cutting money from things with negligible impact.

    Anyway, this is getting tangential. I really do like and respect your blog in general - and you seem like a pretty open-minded, good-hearted, level-headed, insightful type of person - which is why I took the time/energy to comment and discuss. If I really don't like/respect a blog/blog post, I just don't bother to comment, and/or stop reading all together! I've definitely learned a lot from your insights on work/life balance etc in general, so thank you for that!

  15. That's funny, I posted about monetary changes today.

    I think that having a chronic lack of money can cause an enormous amount of stress to anyone. As for having money, if you're not intrinsically okay with who you are, all the money in the world doesn't matter.

  16. @Anonymous- let's put it all down to misunderstandings. And maybe I should be more careful when I write posts. In this case, I decided to change the offending phrase to (hopefully) better reflect what I meant.

    Tangents, discussion and arguments are always welcome here. I wish I had more time to answer your tangents right now- but it was a hectic day at work, and my in laws are in town, so... well, anyway, you said some interesting things and I'll try to come back and comment on them later.

    @oilandgarlic- I really liked your post. I commented there, but I'll put a link here because I think yours is a voice often ignored in the discussions of work-life balance: http://oilandgarlic.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/a-precarious-balance/

    @SteveB- oooh, I'm jealous of your refinancing! I think one big difference between our situations (besides the fact that we're probably more underwater than you were) is that you're a rung up on the company ladder, so it is really, really unlikely that you wouldn't see a change in job status coming. In your shoes, I might be a little more daring with depleting our buffer, too.
    Everyone- Steve's post is an interesting counterpoint to mine today: http://stevebetz.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/easy-go/

  17. Great post, and I really like the edit at the top - definitely clarifies the situation.

    I totally agree with the idea of having a buffer. I've noticed several people who, upon acquiring their first decently paying job, immediately go out and start spending the money that they're going to earn but haven't quite yet. Now, obviously sometimes there are expenses associated with a new job - clothes, transportation, childcare - that you might not have had previously, but if you can postpone those long enough to get your first few paychecks in your pocket it can help a lot. Or at the very least let you see how much that huge new annual salary actually translates to on a monthly basis after you've covered your bills. My strategy coming out of university was to continue living like a student for a few years until all the loans were paid off and there was a bit of money piling up in the bank. I think it is very easy to get ideas into your head like "People who make $100,000/year wear tailored suits, drive new cars, and go on expensive vacations" and decide that because their salary has gone up that they can simply step into the lifestyle.

    Of course it really helps to have a partner who is totally onboard with the amount of buffer that is realistic.

  18. Anonymous5:51 PM

    Laura Vanderkam's "All the Money in the World" has some interesting thoughts on "buying happiness".

  19. great post. I came across ur blog thru one of ur guests post. I completely agree with you. I (or for that matter most of us) can't control/predict what life will throw at us. In such situation having buffer will allow you to focus on life problems rather then money problems.
    I am saying this from experience and not general philosophy. I loved ur blog in general of whetever I have read so far (2-3 posts). Going to continue reading u.


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