AS I GROW OLDER, I find I become ever more deliberate in how I spend my time and money. How can I get maximum happiness from the dollars I have? How can I get the most from the years that remain? As I wrestle with these questions, six notions have come into much sharper focus:
1. Fewer hassles mean greater happiness. When I was in my 20s, I owned a series of clunkers that turned every trip into a nail-biter. Would the car overheat? Would the electrical give out? Would the duct tape keep the front bumper attached?
Today, I own a 2013 Honda CRV. It won’t draw any looks of admiration. But unlike the cars I drove in my 20s, I’m fully confident it’ll get me from A to B. The CRV may not be a source of happiness, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be a source of unhappiness—and, in my mind, that’s a more valuable trait.
Think of it this way: The unhappiness associated with going from “working” to “not working” will likely be greater than the happiness associated with going from “working” to “working great.” A functioning bathroom will make your family far happier. A luxury bathroom will soon barely be noticed.
2. I’ve written often about how we get greater happiness from experiences than possessions. To be sure, both offer the chance for eager anticipation—an underappreciated source of happiness.
But experiences also deliver two additional benefits: They’re often enjoyed with others—which isn’t always true of possessions—and they can leave us with fond memories. By contrast, possessions offer not fond memories, but “lasting value,” which means they hang around and we have to deal with their maintenance and repair.
Did I mention the crummy cars I owned in my 20s?
But while I believe experiences trump possessions, I also believe we see this with greater clarity as we age. Partly, it’s because we finally learn from the spending and misspending of countless dollars. But partly, it’s because we already have a houseful of stuff—and, unlike those who are younger, we simply have less time to enjoy any new possessions we acquire.
3. I think money can buy happiness—but I also believe it can buy unhappiness, and not just by purchasing possessions that we later have to watch deteriorate.
In particular, try to avoid two pitfalls. First, whenever you spend money, ask yourself: Are you purchasing something you truly want—or are you spending to impress others? If it’s the latter, you’ll not only hurt your financial future, but also you’ll end up with possessions that are a constant reminder of your earlier foolishness.
Second, however you spend your money, you’ll get far more pleasure if you can easily afford the cost involved. Trust me: The food always tastes better if you aren’t worrying about the size of the restaurant bill.
This isn’t necessarily a problem solved by greater wealth or a higher income. If your desires are modest, you can be happy on a low income—and if your appetite is insatiable, you’ll likely be financially stressed, no matter how much you earn.
4. Bad news is unfortunate, but it’s better than uncertainty. We tend to adapt not only to material improvements in our lives, but also to changes that have an element of finality about them.
An example: In my 40s, my ability to run was hampered by persistent feet problems. The uncertainty of whether I could run, and how much, nagged at me for years. Eventually, a podiatrist told me I had insertional tendonitis and wouldn’t ever be able to run again with any frequency. It was bad news—but it had a finality about it, allowing me to adapt.
5. I greatly enjoy editing HumbleDollar. But that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally wake up in the morning and think, “Why don’t I just chuck it all in and embrace a life of blissful relaxation?”
The funny thing is, I have such thoughts even though I know that, if I really did chuck it all in, I’d be restless and unhappy in a matter of days. A life with purpose is a happy one, while a life devoted solely to fun likely won’t be.
6. Three years ago, we moved to a town just north of New York City with a great school system. Our immediate concern was my youngest stepdaughter’s education. But we also loved the town. The view across the Hudson River from our apartment never gets old and, indeed, I make it a point to stop a few times each day and admire it. We can also walk out of the building and immediately immerse ourselves in nature. We see hawks, deer, the occasional eagle and fox, and magnificent trees, some more than 150 years old.
But while nature can be a source of calm and wonder, my wife and I have decided it’s more important to surround ourselves with people than trees. (Profound, I know.) I’m not claiming this is true for everybody. But as my wife and I discuss where we want to spend the final stretch of our lives, we’ve concluded we’d be happier in a more urban environment, where we can see parents pushing strollers, folks sitting in cafes and couples dressed up for a night on the town.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @ClementsMoney and on Facebook. His most recent articles include Developing Story, Where It Goes and Down the Drain. Jonathan’s latest books: From Here to Financial Happiness and How to Think About Money.