A thought exercise on the recipe for happiness and where your dollars should really be deployed to achieve it.
I love January. As a Type-A planner type who measures all her financial goals on a calendar year, January is pretty much like waking up to a Christmas tree surrounded by gifts. I get to set new financial goals? I get to make a new budget? I get to dump a bunch more money into my IRA? Yes, please!
This year in particular, I’ve got a lot more fun stuff on my plate. The Hubs and I are expecting our first kid soon. I’m taking several steps on a financial level to prepare for the kid (more on that in a future post). It’s also led to some interesting conversations about priorities. The other night I was lying in bed next to my husband, and I asked him what he wanted for our son’s future. What I was asking, essentially, was, “What are the ingredients for a happy life for our son?”
Here’s what we came up with. We hope he:
- Is relatively healthy
- Is an honest, earnest, giving person
- Finds things to engage his interest in life
- Develops a mentality that fosters positivity and gratitude
- Is of at least average intelligence (because being below average would cause a lot of friction and challenges in the world)
- Can financially support himself in life (having a secure home, enough to eat, healthcare, etc. is important)
- Finds and fosters strong relationships (with family, friends, and perhaps one day a romantic partner)
- Learns to be persistent and tries things that might seem intimidating at first (because I’ve seen in my own life that these often end up being the most rewarding projects)
I racked my brain for more, and really everything else I could come up with just seemed like a second order issue. When I put myself in the role of a distant observer, these were the things I knew with conviction from my own experience were the recipe for a happy, fulfilling life.
Then it occurred to me.
Didn’t I deserve the same?
If this were the best recipe I knew for happiness, and I was striving for happiness myself, shouldn’t I be fostering the same things in my life and ignoring all the rest? How good was I at prioritizing the elements in this recipe when it came to myself?
I’ll turn the same question to you. Are you actively fostering things that engage your interest in life? Are you investing time into nurturing relationships?
A Heartening Revelation: Happiness is Highly Accessible At Any Budget
As I look at this list, something very interesting jumps out at me:
Most of the things on it are absolutely free.
Even for things that aren’t free, there are plenty of inexpensive ways to foster them. Spending time with family and friends doesn’t have to involve $300 nights out. They could be a casual board game night at home. Fulfilling and engaging activities tend to be activities where you produce rather than consume, which means they can be started inexpensively.
In other words, happiness is actually pretty cheap.
There’s no excuse not to be executing against them, because all it takes is your decision to do so and an investment of your time and effort. You have everything you need to achieve it.
How To Spend Your Money Effectively For Happiness
Examining this recipe suggests a second important question. When it comes to how we spend our money, how good are we at deploying it against the things that actually matter?
When you map what you spent last year and what you budgeted for this year against the list above, is the majority of your money going towards facilitating the things on that list in all the ways possible, or are they being siphoned off into things that sounds important when zoomed in on the day to day of life, but seem completely trivial when taking the bird’s eye view?
For example, are you spending your money on education to facilitate stronger ways to financially support yourself? Are you spending you spending money on experiences with loved ones, or to help you pursue activities to find truly engaging and fulfilling as opposed to those that give you a short-term high?
Here are just a few ways I see that manifesting in our lives today.
Honesty, Earnestness, Giving
My husband is the kind of guy who will agonize for weeks about whether to treat himself to a $20 game (because it’s full price – and if he just waits 8 months it will surely go on sale!). He will walk 20 minutes in 10 degree weather rather than pay for a $6 cab because there is nothing functionally wrong with him and “he’s not that cold.” And get this: he refuses to buy mittens even in this frigid weather, instead opting to put a pair of black socks on his hands. He argues they are functionally the same – seriously, out there in NYC there is a multi-millionaire walking around with socks on his hands, so if you see this person do me a favor and tell him he deserves some legitimate mittens.
So we order takeout on Christmas Eve and my husband, despite his general frugalness, wants to leave a big tip. He’s always been adamant about treating service staff well. I say that’s cool, I get it, it’s a holiday. Be generous. He leaves $8 on a $25 delivery order. The guy won’t spend $8 on some cheap mittens for himself, but he doesn’t hesitate to spend that much to make someone else’s day. Sure enough, our delivery guy came to the door all smiles and good cheer.
Recently I’ve started learning how to cook, and I find it so enjoyable to invite friends for dinner at our house and hang out rather than go out. I’d rather pay for the entire meal for all of us and have a homey experience at our house than go out and only pay my share because the environment is so much more conducive to good conversation. Often it ends up costing me as much or more to cook for the group than my share would cost at a restaurant. But it allows us to linger, it allows me to put effort into the making something that I can watch my friends enjoy, and a host of other fringe benefits.
I’ve also found it incredibly rewarding to send my friends just-because gifts as well as to be the recipient of this kind of gift. People may expect gifts during the holidays or during birthdays, but oftentimes these gifts are perfunctory. Gifts with meaning tied to them hit an entirely different level of bonding. Some friends of our brought us this amazing housewarming gift the first time they visited our new place. It was a little tool set to help us with all the exciting activities of homeownership, and we’ve used that set at least a dozen times in the last four months. I think of them every time I pull it out.
When I was engaged and shopping for wedding rings, my mother really wanted me to consider bands with a little more bling to them. She brought out a few of her own treasured rings, and ended up offering me one from her own collection which I had often seen her wear and which was very well loved by her. That ring became my wedding ring, and now every day I see that ring, I am reminded that it symbolizes family; yes, my bond to my husband as my new family, but also a reminder that the two of us are part of a larger family and support network that love us. Pretty rad.
I can think of many ways to spend my money fostering the items on the list above. I can spend money on educating myself or helping my kid developing and practice his analytical skills. I can spend money on hobbies that might turn into more (after demonstrating commitment and having tested the waters out at low cost for a while). I can spend money to eat healthier and do what I need to do to kick-start a more consistent exercise regimen.
These seem like a lot more rewarding avenues than budgeting money for another ipad, a fancier car, or the name brand pair of shoes.
Taking a bird’s eye view of what really buys happiness may cause you to re-evaluate how you want to budget your spending for this year. Don’t settle for less for yourself than what you’d want for a kid or other loved one in life. You will find this probably costs less than you think to achieve, and you can pack those savings away to something I know you value highly – your financial freedom.
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Would you tweak anything about the recipe for happiness above? How does your spending in the past year line up with those categories? How much disposable income did you spend that wouldn’t fit any of those criteria?