In this economy, it seems everyone has something to complain about: They don’t make enough money, they pay too much in taxes, they’re angry about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, etc. But Laura Vanderkam, author of the new book All the Money In the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending, says the only person standing in the way of achieving a satisfying life on almost any budget is -- you.
She asks: If you had all the money in the world, what would you change about your life to make you happier. For most of us, it’s not a $2 million yacht. What we’d likely buy is a carefree life and financial security. The Fiscal Times talked with Vanderkam, the author of two previous books about Americans’ complex feelings about money.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): How connected are money and happiness?
Laura Vanderkam (LV): There’s a couple of ways to measure happiness. One of them is to ask, How do you think your life overall is going? A positive outlook keeps rising with income as far up as people have checked, well up to $160,000 a year. The ‘how happy are you right now’ question, and what your current mood is – that seems to max out at about $75,000 a year, which is probably the point where people have solved most of their day-to-day worries of a car breaking down, or an unexpected bill, or paying a mortgage. But past that, people’s day-to-day happiness does not go higher.
TFT: So why are some of the wealthiest people the most miserable?
LV: Some are, but some wealthy people are also very happy. There’s no data I know of on what percentage of wealthy people are miserable and what percentage are happy, so we tend to remember stories of the Scrooge type because we find those the most interesting. Overall, people’s satisfaction of their lives rises with their income.
TFT: A lot of millionaires say that they feel don’t have enough money. Why?
LV: Any person can feel that way; one problem especially in the United States is that we tend to compare ourselves to the small group of people who have more, as opposed to the billions of people on this planet who have less. If you’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians, then yes, you are going to feel poor even if you are very well off. But if you look at people living in the slums of India, say, you’re going to feel like you’re incredibly rich.
TFT: At some point, even the most modest families who have good money values can hit hard times, though, so how can we find the balance between protecting ourselves without obsessing over finances?
LV: People should save far more money than they do. Instead of saving for retirement, save for now. If money doesn’t buy you love, what it does buy is freedom. More assets give you more options in life. You have the ability to walk away from a job that’s not making you happy, and if you do like your job, if you have assets in the bank, you can push back. You can say, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ or ‘I’d like to do something else.’ What’s the worst they can do? Fire you? You don’t care.
TFT: In the years leading up to the financial crisis, many Americans lived far beyond their means. How did so many get so lost?
LV: Part of it is again comparing ourselves with the wrong reference group. But there’s also been the idea that housing is always good to own and to spend more on. Many budget advisers say you can spend one third of your income on housing and people don’t stop and think that this doesn’t have to be the same percentage, whatever your income may be. So even people who are doing very well find it normal to take on a lot of debt to buy a house.