Are you tired of grubbing for money?
The financial media is gloomier than ever about the prospects of saving enough for retirement. Every day we’re admonished that we’re not saving enough, that we’ll need millions of dollars, that we can’t retire until our 70s, and that we can’t even be sure whether any of today’s numbers will turn into tomorrow’s reality.
Americans are also rumored to be suffering from frugal fatigue. We’re expected to be alert to every little latte factor while using an overwhelming plethora of tools to track our spending, our budget, and our progress toward financial independence.
But when can we start being happy? Are we there yet?
Laura Vanderkam claims that we have more than we think, and we just need to spend it more creatively. Instead of saving all our lives for happily ever after, we can find more ways to deliver little bursts of happiness now. It’ll actually make us feel more satisfied with our progress in saving for retirement, and it will help our lives feel less like deprivation.
Part of the psychology of our relationship with money is that it’s a status marker. We use money (or, more realistically, we borrow it) to show our level of wealth and to compare our progress to the rest of society. Of course the reality-show media has become very good at showing how celebrities are far ahead of all of us and we’ll never catch up. We’ll never have the big mansions or the luxury vehicles– we might not even have the fancy clothes or shoes. After a few years of trying to save for your “future”, you’re tired of being reminded that you’re the only one who seems to have given up your present lifestyle for a future fantasy.
However, it’s just as easy to compare our status to the rest of the world as it is to compare it to “celebrity world”. The global median household net worth is only about $2200, and $61K puts you in the top 10%. Yet in 2007 the American median household net worth was about $120K. Globally, we’re closer to the 1%.
If you’re a servicemember or a veteran, then you already understand that happiness status is relative. You many never spend your life in a mansion or drive a luxury vehicle, but you know exactly how you feel when you don’t get to sleep for two days. Or when you’re living in the field and digging your own toilet. Or when it’s your turn to take a submarine shower– next Tuesday. Or when there’s no fresh fruit for the rest of the month. When you come back to “civilization” then you feel pretty rich for a while, right? Even today, two decades after my last submarine deployment, I still remember an awesome rainfall showerhead in a hotel in Yokosuka, Japan, although the hotel is long gone. I still feel guilty about letting food go to waste. And, yes, I can make lettuce last for six weeks. My spouse says you don’t want to know.
Another psychological issue is the hedonic treadmill. We all tend to have a certain setpoint of happiness, and it’s not affected by money for very long. Interestingly, it also doesn’t take very much money to bump up our happiness level for a little while before it returns to its “normal” level. Research has shown that a thousand dollars won’t boost our happiness level much more or for much longer than a hundred dollars. However, the real advantage of a thousand dollars is that it can be used to deliver ten jolts of hundred-dollar of happiness as well as just one huge jolt.
I read a lot about personal finance and consumerism, yet Vanderkam brought up two examples that I’ve never considered before: weddings and yards.
Everybody “knows” that fiancées are entitled to a diamond engagement ring worth “about two months’ salary”. We’re supposed to spend the “right” amount on wedding rings, the wedding ceremony, the reception, and the honeymoon. We joke about the American version of a wedding dowry, but I didn’t know that the entire industry didn’t really ramp up these “traditions” until the 1930s. States had abolished their 19th-century “breach of promise” laws which enabled women to sue men who didn’t follow through on promises of marriage. When the promise of an engagement lost the force of law, women began to seek a more concrete demonstration of a man’s commitment– just as the diamond industry was struggling with a glut of overproduction. DeBeers persuaded Hollywood to show their stars wearing diamonds and acting out engagement scenes, both on film and in real life. Within one generation a diamond was considered a “traditional” part of an engagement, and the entire wedding industry jumped on the bandwagon. Today’s wedding-planning website TheKnot.com perpetuates the legend with statistics– and a huge online store for planning every detail, right down to personalized (yet perishable) Hershey’s Kisses.
But what about after the honeymoon is literally over? A wedding is one (very long) day but a marriage is a lifetime of challenges. If the average couple spent $5392 on an engagement ring that proved their worth to each other, how else could that “concrete commitment” help their hedonic treadmill? The money could buy over a hundred nights of babysitting alone. The $12K spent on the “average” reception could also pay for nearly five years of housecleaning (until toddlers are hopefully old enough to start cleaning up their own messes). The $2000 wedding flower bill could also buy two hundred $10 bouquets– a monthly flower surprise that could go for well over a decade of inflation-adjusted blooms.
Vanderkam isn’t suggesting that we stop spending money on weddings– only that we spend it more thoughtfully. Buy the engagement ring if it has meaning to you, but avoid the Olympian challenge of matching society’s “average” amount. Have a fun ceremony, but don’t turn it into a major logistics operation stressful day of drama and hysterics. Treat yourself to some time off together, but don’t feel obligated to “do the honeymoon” straight out of a bridal magazine. If you plan your wedding well, then you’ll deliver a great boost of enjoyment to your hedonic treadmill. However, if you also manage not to blow all your assets on that one event then you’ll be able to keep boosting your hedonic treadmill for years. Whether you spend $500 or $50K on the wedding, the boost will deliver about the same amount of happiness for about the same length of time. But if you only spend $500 on the wedding then you’ll be able to spend it on other things that will deliver the same boost– again and again and again.
You can imagine how Vanderkam feels about the American fixation with “as much house as you can afford”, including a green carpet of perfectly manicured grass. If you’re contemplating a weekend of yardwork, then read her “Laughing at the Joneses” chapter first.
She also debunks a popular myth of early retirement: “You can’t retire early if you have kids“. Instead she shows that the marginal cost of the third child can be nearly zero– unless you try to raise each kid as if they’re the only one. Admittedly “marginal cost” is a terrible reason to have children, but “cost” is also the wrong reason to stop having them. Most families make the right decision about the number of children they want (for the right reasons), and Vanderkam shows you how to make the finances work for your family values whether the number is two– or six.
So if you’re spending smaller amounts of money in favor of more frequent doses of happiness, can you retire yet? It depends on your budget. Vanderkam starts with a chapter titled “Don’t Scrimp More, Make More“. When I retired a decade ago, I kept a white-knuckle grip on the purse strings. I “knew” the statistics and the risks, and I was going to make sure that we didn’t overspend a nickel of our budget.
But I should have paid attention to our daughter’s approach. She was only 10 years old at the time, and the word “scrimp” was not in her vocabulary. If she wanted something then she saved up her money until she could afford it, and then she bought it. If she wanted something NOW then she went out and earned more money doing dirty jobs (at home and for the neighbors) until she could afford it. She’s carried that thinking into college, where she earns her “special treats” by giving $12/hour campus tours. She doesn’t have to walk backwards for a few hours just to afford a nice dinner with friends, but she enjoys bragging on her campus and meeting new people. The extra money is a pleasant bonus, and she sees these income opportunities everywhere she goes.
Vanderkam applies the same logic to her chapter on “Rethink Retirement“. She’s not one of the hardcore “Never retire, rewire!” crowd, but she points out that it’s simplistic to expect that your work week will go from decades of 50+ hours to decades of zero. Instead you’ll replace your office environment with self-directed entertainment, and some of those activities might earn you money as well as fulfillment. Or you might completely overhaul your lifestyle to spend your time doing things you enjoy instead of spending money to get things done.
It all sounds so deceptively simple, doesn’t it? In “The Military Guide“, it boils down to ignoring society’s standards and “aligning your spending with your values”. In Vanderkam’s book, it includes an eight-page handbook of exercises to jumpstart your thinking. You have the tools and the supplies– what you really need is the time for thoughtful contemplation and the creativity to find the solutions. “All The Money In The World” is a very pleasurable way to reflect on your own situation and recover your creativity.
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