What If You Already Have ‘Enough’ Money?
I’m a little skeptical of the trend of telling people — especially women — to do less. It seems like we’re saying that people should lower their standards or feel that it’s wrong to want more. How is your message different?
As a hyper-driven person, when I first came across this concept of “achieve less,” I wanted to snort. Like, what kind of smart, ambitious person would have any interest in that? But what I want to emphasize is it’s not inconsistent with working toward the results that you want in your life. Permission to do less does not mean that you should take your goals off the table. If you want to be a CEO or an entrepreneur, you’re not taking those off the table. Instead, I want to question society’s reverence for this constant busyness. I want people to understand at a visceral level that their self-worth should not be tied to being super-busy. When someone says, “How are you?,” it’s not healthy when you answer back, “Crazy-busy.” A lot of people are proud to say that, but that is not how you achieve a life that’s full of professional and personal experiences that you’ll feel really proud of when you look back.
We see this in many studies: that putting in more hours does not directly result in better-quality work. The reason people come up with great ideas in the shower is because their minds are quieted and disengaged from thinking about the actual problem at hand. Giving yourself permission to achieve less questions society’s reverence of always being busy and the subliminal message that the answer to anything that ails us is to do more, earn more, be more. Instead, you want to take into consideration the kind of life you want to live.
The “do less, achieve more” concept is very appealing, but it’s very difficult to put into practice. How do you identify and weed out the less important stuff?
It’s a constant process. For example, when I got divorced seven years ago, I moved to Portland, Oregon, with very little — my books, my clothes, and my small car. I didn’t have a fork. I didn’t have a plate. I didn’t even know many people. I left all that stuff behind. From that point forward, I was very deliberate about every single thing and relationship that I brought into my life. It worked great for the first three or so years. Then human nature kicked in. I’d gotten back on my feet postdivorce and I was feeling better about life, so I started buying more. Pretty soon, my 1,300-square-foot condo had stacks of stuff all over the place. My first thought was, I need more storage. Maybe I should do a little remodel to build in cabinetry to hold all this stuff. Then I caught myself and realized that the best solution was to go through all of it and get rid of what I didn’t want. I gave it to good homes — friends that could use it, shelters, Goodwill. I probably eliminated about 25 percent of what I had. I’d like to eliminate even more.
When I can see what I have, I enjoy it more and I’m not constantly running out to buy something new. For instance, I’m doing a ton of podcasts right now, and some of them have video. You can get the fancy stands that put your computer at just the right angle. But instead, I just got different-size books and created my own stand out of things I already owned. Sometimes a thing can make your life easier. But more often, you can solve your problem with the resources you already have. And it’s satisfying. It carries over to other areas of your life, too. You don’t want to clutter up your space or your brain with extraneous things to take care of.
In your book, you reference the work of Leidy Klotz and his book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less. Klotz points out that a lot of us think we need to add more — or do more — to solve our problems when really, the solution might be to take something away. How do you know the difference?
The idea is we all have two limited resources: money and time. I want everyone to think about how to remove the things that are currently costing you money or time that are not contributing to your happiness. Let me be very clear: I don’t think that spending money is bad. A lot of what you read about money tells you to spend less — period. But I think that spending money can be great and important. We can spend it to get out of bad situations, like jobs we hate or relationships that aren’t working. We can spend it on things that make us feel strong or pretty or healthy. The point is that it’s our choice. It’s not about deprivation. You just need to learn the skill of spending in a way that balances your financial health with your emotional health.
What are the ways to build that skill?
I have three tools that I use. There are tactics that have worked for me, personally, and that I’ve used with clients for years. Every single person comes back and says, “Wow, that made a huge difference.”
The first step is taking a close look at where you’re spending your money right now. Most people hate doing this, so I try to reframe it — I call it a “joy audit.” You write down everything you spend, ideally for a month. Or start with just a few days or a week. I encourage people to do this exercise on paper. I know it’s easier to keep track digitally, but it’s more visceral to do it the old-fashioned way. It’s like why spending cash feels different from using a credit card. I keep the list inside my wallet. You want to include everything — even automated stuff like your rent.
Then, after you’ve done this for the allotted period of time, you take a highlighter and you highlight anything on that page that did NOT bring you joy. Of course, the most common ones will be stuff you can’t really do anything about, like utility bills. But you will also identify things that are seemingly benign — like drinks out with friends that are expensive and then you got home and you realize you didn’t even have fun. Or you’re taking your kids to soccer lessons, and they hate the coach; you hate driving there. It’s liberating to realize you can cut that stuff out. There might even be big ones. Like, maybe you look at your mortgage or rent and think, You know, this place was great when we first moved in, but now I’m in a different stage in my life. It’s time to think about downsizing. So it might result in you making some pretty major life changes. It may also involve spending more. My joy audit resulted in purchasing something. I bought a tiny cabin in rural Maine, and now I live here half a year. I realize that’s not something most people are able to do, but it’s an example of how this exercise can be illuminating.
The second step is to do the hourly-wage test, which is a Vicki Robin concept from her book Your Money or Your Life. Basically, you want to look at the dollars you spend through the lens of how many hours it took you to earn them. I use this one a lot. You take your income and divide it by 2,000 hours, which is roughly how many hours most of us spend on work-related activities. So if you’re bringing in $60,000 and you divide that by 2,000, now you’ve got $30 an hour before taxes. Then when you see something that costs $300, you’ve now got a useful ruler. You can say, Is this worth more than ten hours of my life’s energy or not? The beauty of this is no one gets to tell you what’s the right or wrong answer there. You get to decide.
The final tool is useful for online purchases or even tangible things you want to buy. Before you purchase anything, I encourage people to take a photograph of it and let it sit for a week. Then, after that, come back, and if you still want it, you can buy it. It’s a form of protection against the fact that our society is constantly telling us that more is good. The messaging around any shopping experience, online or in real life, is urgency. There’s targeted ads, countdown clocks, or music and smells in stores that make you want to get more and get it now. That urgency is almost always manufactured.
I even make different folders on my phone for things I might like to buy — one for artwork, one for outdoor things, one for kitchen items, one for furniture. I so enjoy looking through those photos. It’s like curating my own coffee-table book of things I want in my life. But also, it helps me realize that you don’t always need to buy them.
In some ways, you can think about shopping as going to a museum: You can look at things and enjoy them without actually owning them. Also, if you walk into a museum and there’s crap everywhere, you can’t see it. Instead, there is white space around each of the artifacts on display. That’s what we’re missing when we’re constantly seeking more. Whether it’s with our activities or with our purchasing habits, we need that white space to appreciate the things we love.
In your book, you talk about how certain status objects, titles, or accomplishments can give you a false sense of self-worth. But how do you know the difference between one of those things — you call them “flawed self-worth anchors” — and something that’s actually very gratifying?
The difference is whether the thing brings you intrinsic pleasure — it’s not that you feel it adds to who you are or to your value as a human.
Earlier in my life, when I was buying purses that cost four digits, I felt that they increased my value as a human, which was obviously not true. I’ve gotten rid of most of them now, but I kept four that have meaning and significance to me. The reason I keep them, even though I use them very rarely, is that I think they’re beautiful. I’ve had them for over 20 years now, and they’re so well made they still look new. They’re almost like art in a way. They bring me such joy to look at. If I had 20 of them, like I used to, it would be so cluttered I wouldn’t even notice or see. But, also, those bags no longer make me feel like I’m more of a person. Of course, people do respond to you in a certain way when you’re carrying a Chanel bag. I’m not unrealistic — when I carry it in New York, people treat me differently. But when I carry that bag in rural Maine, people roll their eyes at me like, What an idiot. But that doesn’t mean that you have to feel differently about yourself. That’s the key. Another litmus test to identify your relationship with that object that you’re thinking about buying or that accolade you want to get is to ask yourself if you would see another person who has it, if it would raise them in your eyes. If so, you might want to reexamine your relationship to that thing.
Accolades and awards and titles are hard to detach from! Especially when everyone else finds them important, too. How do you question that?
Busyness with work, busyness collecting things, busyness getting accolades — it’s transformational to ask yourself, For what? Obviously, I know that it’s important to make money, because the absence of money will make you miserable. But the point is that you need to consider the equation, which is both financial and emotional. Before you do something or buy something, you want to ask yourself, How does this factor into my relationship with life satisfaction and the way I’m using my money? It’s not rocket science that many of us are overwhelmed. But the piece that’s missing from a lot of people’s lives is understanding why we feel like we have to be so busy. It’s about finding a balance between your money and your emotional health and what works for the resources that you have available to you.
It can be hard, but one way to really focus on what’s important is to think about what you will remember in the future. I have a long list of poignant, important things I missed, like weddings and funerals for family and friends, because I was working. Now I look back and I cannot remember a single thing or project that I was working on that seemed so important at the time. But the handful of family events and weddings that I did make time for I will remember always. That’s one way to weigh importance.
I also want to address the idea of having “enough” money. Most people objectively would be better off with more — they could pay down debt, feel more secure in their lives, and afford to work less. But I also understand that the hedonic treadmill is powerful. How do you know when you have “enough”? How can you get to the point where what you have feels closer to “enough”?
Because of the lack of safety nets, and certain professions not paying people close to the value that they provide to society, about 30 percent of Americans do not have enough money, objectively. They are not making a living wage. These are systemic problems. You can’t just think your way out of it — it’s not a mind-set issue. I want to be clear in acknowledging that. We can calculate a living wage. We can also calculate, for people who are making a living wage, how much money they need to make each year in order to spend the way they want to spend and still save enough to retire at a certain age. So there are numerical answers to “What is enough?” that are fairly straightforward. “Enough” is a function of how much you want to spend relative to your income and your net worth. But that’s only part of the equation.
The underlying question is does your spending actually maximize your fulfillment and happiness? And if not, what would? Maybe you need to spend more or less, but what’s more likely is that you need to spend differently. Maybe if your job wasn’t so stressful and exhausting, then you wouldn’t need to pay for all those massages and all that therapy. Or maybe you should spend more on those things. I say this all with zero judgment. These are very personal decisions.
There are people who do not have enough money to be financially healthy. Mathematically, they may not have the income to pay off their student debt or their credit-card debt; they can’t save up for emergencies or for their future. But there are also a lot of people who are struggling and do not need to be. No matter which camp you fall into, sometimes we overemphasize the mathematical part of the equation and we don’t look at the emotional part of it. Emotionally and logistically, we can all do better with our limited resources: time and money. It benefits everyone to question and be more mindful about what “enough” would feel and look like. And there’s no right or wrong answer. It will constantly shift.