Money doesn’t buy you happiness, but it buys you a big enough yacht to sail right up to it.
Putting aside advice from Mr. Depp, a famous 2010 Princeton study, and parents everywhere, can money in fact buy you happiness?
The authors of Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending say “Yes.” So, why do so few people feel happier after spending money? Because they aren’t buying the right things.
The book identifies five ways to spend money that do make you happier:
- Buy Experiences
- Make It a Treat
- Buy Time
- Pay Now, Consume Later
- Invest in Others
Happiness Versus Traditional Economics
What I particularly appreciate about this book is its clarity on this point: Its advice is often not financially or economically efficient. But the point isn’t to maximize your money, it’s to maximize your happiness, right?
The book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics, by Richard Thaler, an expert in the field, provides an amusing counterpoint to this happiness perspective. It describes the slow, grudging acceptance by traditional economists that people might behave more like Humans than like Econs (a mythical creature whose every decision is wholly informed and wholly rational…thereby making the math very tidy).
The goal of an Econ is to maximize utility (satisfaction) for the dollar. The goal of a Human it to maximize happiness. Often, these are at odds. A lot of financial advice caters to the Econ. Happy Money speaks entirely to Humans.
Buy experiences, not stuff. If you’re like my clients, you’re pretty sound on this idea, and you spend most of your big money on travel and food (and housing, of course). But here’s a nuance that can help us be happier while still being prudent with our money:
It turns out that the experience itself doesn’t matter that much. In fact, some experiences can pretty much suck in the moment. It is more the anticipation of the experience, and secondly, the memories of the experience that bring you happiness.
Two years ago, I packed my husband and two children under 5 into a minivan in Norfolk, VA and spent 3 months criss-crossing the country trying to find a new place to live. I had looked forward to this adventure for months. From my current comfortable, well-rested vantage point, this was the most awesome trip ever.
Memories of “the campground of sorrow,” yellow flies, too much screaming, and too little sleep have faded. Memories of visiting family and friends, Niagara Falls, and Mt. Rushmore dominate. Probably the only thing keeping me from suggesting it again is the sure threat of divorce.
So if you’re a travel-avore, consider traveling less frequently, but plan and anticipate the heck out of each trip. And take pictures so you can remember it afterwards!
Make It a Treat
If you’re a parent and searching for more ammunition in explaining to your child why they can’t have unfettered access to sweets and screens, this is your book. You’re actually making them happier by restricting their access to it.
If you want to continue enjoying the things you like, you have to be intentional about your consumption. You can’t have it all the time. I can tell you that since I gave up coffee (a whole 2 weeks ago!), my Monday morning latte at the coffee shop is outright heaven.
Abundance is the enemy of appreciation.
Our worlds are awash in cheap candy, videos, clothing, food. Affording it is not the problem. We need to create artificial scarcity. If you truly want to enjoy that latte, make sure you don’t pick one up on every morning commute.
“Hedonic adaptation” is at play here, the notion that we humans very quickly adapt to changes in our lives. Mr. Money Mustache has one of the sassiest explanations I’ve ever read of how this works.
Do you pay someone to clean your house? Pay BlueApron to prepare your meals? Pay a service to clean your car? You’ve figured this out. Sort of.
The “buy time” recommendation has a big limitation: Spend money to eliminate tasks that you truly dislike, but not simply to give yourself more time.
If you dislike menu planning, BlueApron is great! If you hate vacuuming, a maid service will make you happier! But if you’re just trying to fit..this…one…more…thing..into…your…day by paying someone to do tasks for you, that will not make you happier. It will just reinforce your sense of time poverty.
Focus your efforts to improve your sense of “time affluence” on these three things:
- Your commute. Long commutes make us unhappy. Be careful about taking a job for the higher pay if it requires a longer commute. I just spoke with a woman who was selling her house and gettin’ the hell out of Dodge (the SF Bay Area) and relocating to a town where the commutes would be more sane.
- Watching TV. “More than any other activity, television appears responsible for the failure of [the happiness index] to budge over the past four decades.” TV is inexpensive to watch, but you’d be better served by spending more money to do something else.
- Hanging out with friends and family. Spend money or work less in order to spend more time with friends and family.
Pay Now, Consume Later
This notion is the exact opposite of how we usually spend money, of how companies and our culture encourages us to spend money. Credit cards are Consume Now, Pay Later.
One thing credit cards get right is that separating payment from consumption is important for maximizing happiness. Payment is painful, and that ruins the experience. They just get the chronology wrong.
This is another example of happiness research contradicting traditional economics (and the financial advice that comes out of it). Economists would have us never pay well in advance (and lose all that interest!) or pay with current dollars for future consumption because (duh!) future events aren’t worth as much as current ones.
Debt Makes Us Unhappy
Debt (the very definition of “paying later”) makes people worry. Notably,
What we owe is a bigger predictor of our happiness than what we make.
The emotional benefits of paying off debt can even dwarf the benefits of building savings.
If the interest rate on your mortgage or car loan is really low, most advisors would recommend you keep the debt and invest your money instead, for the potentially higher return. That would be the economically correct thing to do. But if the debt makes you worry, then why WHY wouldn’t you buy yourself out from under that worry? Buy yourself some happiness?
For those of you wanting to buy a home, think about this: Buying a home doesn’t actually make you happier (according to studies in this book). Especially if housing is really expensive, what kind of worry and unhappiness would that big mortgage create? Admittedly, there are other considerations when buying a home.
Invest in Others
This can be as prosaic as taking a friend out for coffee (and enjoying a coffee with her!) to grand gestures like making big charitable donations. My blog post about how tech industry folks can make charitable donations in a financially savvy way reviews Happy Money’s recommendations for giving your money away. In summary, it’s all about the connection between you and the recipient.
A “Happiness Check” for Your Spending
Most of us track our expenses in some fashion. Typically, we separate them into categories like Groceries, Entertainment, Clothing, Transportation, etc.
But what do we actually get out of that analysis? Instead, let’s evaluate our spending in the 5 happiness categories listed above.
Which expenses fall into one of those categories? Of the expenses that don’t fall into one, how many of those can you eliminate or reduce? Instead of arbitrarily trying to reduce “Groceries” or “Transportation,” this is much more intentional. You’re redirecting your money towards happiness.
If you don’t have time to read an entire book, Jonathan Clement effectively summarizes the concepts in this very short piece on happiness.
Question: What could you buy more of to make yourself happier? What are you spending money on that isn’t making you happy? You can leave a comment below.
Are you interested in aligning your spending and other financial choices with what makes you happy? Reach out to me at or schedule a free 30-minute consultation.
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Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner and/or an accountant for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Meg Bartelt, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.