Sunday, December 5, 2010

buying happines

This is old news, but could I just take a moment to say how much I love this New York Times article on money and happiness?

It took me a long time to get my finances under control in the first place. I was a bit of a miser in my youth, saving the money earned at summer jobs for some unknown opportunity or responsibility. And then in the summer before I studied in Paris, I panicked about the unfamiliar climate and the city’s cosmopolitan tastes, and spent the money on elegant coats and high heels. It all proved to be too dressy for a student’s lifestyle, and instead of having money to spend on weekend trips, I had a closet full of unworn merino wool.

My new spendthrift ways followed me through my early twenties, when I stressed constantly about my dwindling bank account and rising credit card debt. Being in an equable relationship with a fiscally responsible adult has forced me to change that, thankfully – but so has having exciting goals for my money.

This article has become a mantra to me. I affirm its message when I want to buy another sweater or liter of Aveda shampoo. I honestly believe that it’s taught me, in a small but practical way, to use my money to “buy” joy instead of stuff.

The gist of Stephanie Rosenbloom’s article is that money can buy happiness, if spent right. A living wage can secure you a stable home, school for your children, and food on the table – all things that give satisfaction and ease stress. But the happiness afforded by meeting one’s basic needs obviously caps out at a certain income bracket - around $60,000 a year, says one researcher.

But while extra cash may also contribute to happiness, Rosenbloom affirms that keeping up with the Joneses does not bring contentment. In fact, spending on status items can actually lead to more stress, as it often begets “a constant cycle of one-upsmanship” – an endless pursuit for the next new thing, or for that brief rush begotten by a big purchase.

Spending money on experiences, on the other hand – like French lessons, a vacation, or dinner with a friend – sticks with us, and confers knowledge and memories that we can savor. The bottom line, says one researcher in Rosenbloom’s article, is that “it’s better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch.” The same goes for a new refrigerator versus a road bike – the bike may save you from a stressful commute and add to your overall health and happiness.

But if we do buy things, it’s better to save for them. As we save, we relish the idea of the purchase, anticipate it – and increase the time that we benefit emotionally from it. The minute-long high of an impulse buy doesn’t fulfill us, and buyer’s remorse and credit card stress often follow. Spending your rainy-day money on friends can also make you feel better than buying for yourself.

I’ve come to realize that the things I covet – an endless supply of copper cookware, a blown-glass chandelier, and more stylish footwear – just stand in for a real desire to spend time in Paris and Venice again. Even more than I want that beautiful cashmere coat, I want to visit my brother, who lives overseas, and move to a better neighborhood, where I’ll enjoy walking the dog more. And those things really will make me happy. Just like the inexpensive dinner that I shared tonight with someone I love.


  1. Amen! We have a fairly complicated (read: self-induced disaster) fiscal background which has added up to no money, but lots of hope, and a clean debt slate thanks to a small inheritance and a lot of hard work.

    We're evaluating our next housing decision. We love being renters. It seems so immature, but we are ready to do some traveling with our children and not do yard work or worry if we're going to exchange a life experience for a random plumbing disaster.

    *sigh* a designer, yes, I want a new sofa. But I can have that, and a pretty nice rental in a terrific area, and go on a nice trip and not worry about the real estate aspect of the whole thing. It's not perfect, it's not "ours", but the owner trusts most of the painting/landscaping/surface decisions I make, so it's personalized to our tastes, if less than custom. There is so much to be said for experiences...they are worth pursuing. They are permanent.

  2. True happiness isn't bought, Liz . . . it's built. In your backyard. With a too-tall roof. And without a door. Do you know what I'd give for 400 square feet of garage?

    I've got a copy of this book laying around if you want to read up more about the sciencey stuff behind happiness: