Reader Request Week 2021 #7: Does Money Satisfy?

Steve Calhoun asks:

Does the money satisfy? I mean this sincerely. I know it’s probably nice to be rich. And I’m personally much better off this year than I’ve been in years past but I also find that obtaining some of the things I’ve wanted while I was poor for decades don’t necessarily make me feel better. So, Scalzi, what is best in life? And what, other than 5 part guitars, do you spend your money on?

First, a clarification: It’s a six-part guitar.

Second, having been both poor and rich (in the context of being an American, and, more broadly, a member of the developed world), I can say that in my experience money doesn’t satisfy, it alleviates. In drug terms, money’s not a mood-lifter, it’s a painkiller.

What on earth are you saying, Scalzi, if I was given a million dollars my mood would definitely lift! Well, sure. Speaking from experience there is a definite short-term bump that comes from suddenly having in your possession a larger sum of money than you would experience on a day-to-day basis. But also speaking from experience, that euphoria is both short-lived (the hedonic treadmill of money moves quickly), and usually masking a wider and more complex emotional response to the money. Give most people a (to them) large sum of money — or make it possible for them to have a stable and comfortable income — and after the happy shock wears off, what they feel is often something like relief. That money can go to solve problems: rent and bills and things that can make life better and less precarious.

This is what I mean by money being a painkiller. So many of so many people’s day-to-day problems are caused by the lack of money. Lack of money causes uncertainty, anxiety and worry — causes pain. When you have money that pain goes away, and depending on the amount of money involved, that pain can go away pretty much permanently. When you don’t have pain, you don’t think about that pain, and you don’t think of all the things you have to do to manage that pain. You just… get to do and think about other things.

Generally speaking, you don’t need all that much money to avail yourself of its painkilling properties. People like to talk about a specific number — $75,000 is the number I see a lot as being the amount after which any more money doesn’t add much to your emotional happiness — but I think it’s more that when all your needs are economically taken care of, and a reasonable percentage of your wants are achievable, if not immediately at least over a not-too-onerous amount of time, then money has achieved its analgesic duty. You’re free to live your life away from a certain type of discomfort.

But it doesn’t mean all your problems are solved, and it doesn’t mean you’re happy. Money doesn’t buy happiness. It can buy material comfort, and a certain amount of security, neither of which is to be discounted. But they’re not the same thing. And like any painkiller, too much money can create problems and pains of its own, and it can be abused. If you don’t understand money and how to manage and use it, having too much of it can become a curse, especially if it is suddenly dropped into one’s lap. There’s a reason lots of lottery winners struggle with their new-found riches.

In my own personal life, I don’t notice myself being particularly happier now, when I have money, then I was when I was in my 20s and making substantially less, or as a kid when I was poor. I feel a lot less uncertainty, economically speaking, but that’s about it. I had a not great year in many ways in 2020, for example, even though financially speaking it did just fine for me. I will note that in a general sense I’m happy enough, and even in a less-than-great year like 2020 I was happier more days (and happy on average on more days) than when I was wasn’t. But money wasn’t a driver in my happiness or lack thereof. I’m not unhappy because of money issues, but not having money issues doesn’t make me happier overall.

I know people who have more money than I do, and those who have less. The happiness they feel as individuals is all over the board. There is no real correlation between money and happiness, save that the folks who have less money can be made unhappy by economic concerns. But I feel pretty sure that if everyone in the US suddenly didn’t have to worry about rent and bills and health insurance and whatever, that a year later the general happiness quotient would be about the same. It’s great not to worry about your bills! But you do find other things to be unhappy about.

So what does satisfy? I think it depends on the person. For me, I admit to finding a particular level of material possession satisfying; you could call it “upper-middle-class with weird hobby expenditures.” That taken care of, what I find satisfying in life is less tangible: good relationships with family and friends, a certain number of intellectual pursuits, the ability to write for a living. There are things I want in life, but none of them are down to money at this point. I would like to be able to play most of my musical instruments better! But no amount of financial expenditure will do that. I just need to practice more.

As for what I spend my money on: Well, most of it, I don’t spend. Inasmuch as most of our material needs and desires are taken care of within our income, and we are fortunate at this point not to have medical or other expenses that are a substantial amount of what we bring in, most of what comes in goes into savings and investments. We give a fair amount to charity on an annual basis, because we can and should. There’s the occasional splurge, like ridiculous guitars. And we improve the house a little bit at a time to make it nicer to live in. This year we’ll be redoing the master bath! I’m actually really looking forward to that.

So, no: Money doesn’t satisfy, it just can solve some problems that can make life unsatisfactory. The rest really is on the individual to do with their life what is necessary to provide satisfaction and happiness. That’s different for every person, and I wish each of us success in finding what those things are.

— JS

39 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2021 #7: Does Money Satisfy?”

  1. Money gives me choices.

    I’ve been poor and unemployed. I know how to live on rice and beans for dinner all week long. To be on the edge of homelessness, and be thankful that I have friends who will let me couch-surf. It’s incredibly stressful. Which isn’t to say I wasn’t happy at times, and didn’t have fun at times, but, hoo boy, the stress.

    Today I have the choice of turning down a job that comes with a 50% pay raise because I don’t want to trade my 15 minute commute for a one hour commute.

    I can cook up a dish of rice and beans because I want to, as a side dish. I can buy a nice steak at Balducci’s. I can even eat out at a good restaurant, or take my aunt to a nice restaurant.

    I’m actually fairly satisfied with my life. Happy much more often than not (especially after January 21 this year) and had more fun last year than I did when I was on the edge of being homeless. Heck, just being able to worry about larger problems than where I’m sleeping this weekend is awesome.

    While I’m not Scalzi-rich, I am, by most reasonable standards fairly well off. I have a one year reserve fund, and several years expenses in various retirement accounts. Not enough to retire on, but in ten years I may be able to retire. No longer seriously having to say “my retirement plan is to die at the office” is very good.

  2. John,

    Knowing a bunch of folks with income and assets well in excess of needs, your personal take on this is reflected in every similar conversation. The current “satisfaction number” is (needs met adequately)+(retirement investing)+($1-2,000/mo. play money). Then there’s the folks who pile up the money for the sake of piling it up…

  3. For most of my adult life I have had to be ‘careful’ with money. Either deferring or dropping purchases, going for the budget options and just making the best of what money I had. I worked hard and got more money but then spent it on ‘winding down’ so I had the “pain” if you like, Now thanks to age (I am retired), a simpler lifestyle, pension lump sums, bequests and some good luck I am (finallly) financially comfortable. It feels weird but nice.
    One other thing that is weird is that, because I have more than enough, I want give money away, so I do. You know what? That is a sort of happiness that I was not expecting

  4. I have a friend who’s take on money I think summed it up for me – it’s what level of unexpected expenditure causes you stress. i.e. how big a number does it have to be before it makes you do something other than shrug and go “oh well”.

    Clearly this varies – if you’re poor, it could be $10, $100, well off $1,000, stupid rich $50k – it’s the point where just writing the check makes the problem go away so you don’t have to think about it anymore, and paying the money doesn’t cause any other issues for you.

    Made sense to me.

  5. This matches my personal experience upon moving from being a relatively (to my current situation!) poor graduate student to a slightly-better situation as a post-doc to where I am now.

    It also matches the feeling I got when (frontline worker here back at our research lab since June) I got my first vaccine dose. I wasn’t overjoyed, just relieved of a big fraction of the creeping existential dread that largely I wasn’t even aware I was carrying around until suddenly I wasn’t.

  6. My wife and I were both fortunate enough to retire in our mid-50s (her 10 years ago and me 8). And although we have a low seven digit portfolio, I do not consider us to be millionaires. I believe one needs to have either many more millions of dollars than we have or a yearly income of a million dollars to make this claim. The reason why I say this is because if there were another 2008 level market crash, it’s possible (but not likely) we would no longer have a low seven digit portfolio. So that money just sits there and multiplies (oh so slowly) and we’re also fortunate that we need not touch it. Neither one of us is on SS yet (even though my wife is eligible for full benefits and I will be next year), the house is paid for, our kids have graduated college with no lasting debt, and I have a very nice pension that provides us with a comfortable life. Oh, and I had my second Pfizer vaccine shot today. Life is good and getting better.

  7. For me I have suffered from serious bouts of Depression and Anxiety. But I like to say they shouldn’t have diagnosed me with Depression and Anxiety, they should have diagnosed me with poverty. The daily struggles of being poor I have found to be quite debilitating. I did a lot of gig and temp work to try and make ends meet. I was essentially a gig and temp worker with only minor respites for 20+ years. Only in the last two three years has this changed where I finally landed a good position with a reasonable income (low middle class, which to me is double to triple of what I made previously, its hard not to feel ‘Rich’ even though most people would still think I am struggling) most of my anxiety and depression has lifted. I have some issues still of course, but not wondering how I am going to feed myself or pay rent, has changed how I feel about my life for the better. But that is my situation, everyone reacts differently to such situations.

  8. Obligatory fun-ruiner note that the “$75,000 is peak happiness” thing is not true. It’s a bad factoid-headline distortion of a study that found that mood and day to day satisfaction peaks out at a certain level (in 2010 dollars, $75K), based on poll responses from a few years earlier.

    I grump about this because there’s so often an implication, from quarters of the economy where $75K is chump change, that the little people don’t really need things like a higher minimum wage or debt relief because Science Says that they ought to be happy with less, unlike the poor sods whose lives are weighed down by the onerous responsibilities of managing investment portfolios and keeping up maintenance on the vacation house(s).

  9. You have a good attitude about money.

    We are below your magic money income. I would really like to hire people to do house renovations. But that is mostly a want, rather than a necessity.

    Some people think that what they want is a necessity and get bent out of shape because of that.

  10. As someone who felt on the edge for years – not “I have no place to live” or “I can’t afford to eat” edge, but “I can’t pay these bills this month” – yeah, money has made a HUGE difference here. We had a different situation than many people. My wife taught and worked in the school system outside the classroom for 34 years while I worked at home selling books. We went to England every summer to get the books to send home to have them to sell. So, on the one hand, not exactly suffering, but as mentioned, with no reserve and having to ration paying bills for several years. But as she got closer to retirement, her salary went up, she worked overtime which went towards her pension, we paid off our bills and loans and got ahead, and things looked better. Her friends who had retired told us that they were actually making MORE once they retired than while they were working (pension, etc.) and we said BS, but it wasn’t BS. Of course, we were lucky – right school system, right time, tier one pension, etc.

    It’s so weird if I think back, now we can pretty much do what we want, buy what we want when we want, etc. without a second thought. Not close to Scalzi money, but we just don’t spend much. No kids so no college or medical expenses, we rent so no mortgage or other housing expenses, we’re pretty much no frills people. What matters is, we are lucky enough to have each other, to have a nice place to live, to be bale to spend the winter in Florida (other than this year), and probably most importantly at this stage of life, to be in pretty good health. You can be rich as Bill Gates, but if you don’t have your health, well, all the money in the world isn’t going to make you happy.

    So my advice is, take care of your health no matter how young you are – don’t smoke or use heroin or drink to excess – because when you get to 70 (if you do) you will be so glad you did.

  11. Overall a terrific answer from JS.

    I do think there’s one thing he’s wrong about though – and it’s borne out by facts/studies – I think if everyone’s money issues went away, after a year there would be an overall increase in happiness. It might not be huge, but it WOULD be measurable. We see this in a lot of other (non US) countries (Scandinavia, Canada etc.) where there are less money issues, there is somewhat greater overall happiness.

    In fact I believe, truly, that the overall happiness quotient increase would be a very good thing. It would lower crime, lower mental illness rates etc. People who are less desperate are generally less angry/stressed.

    So I have to disagree (albeit only slightly) with JS on this one. I think there would be greater happiness, but I don’t think it would be a utopia by any means.

  12. “I’ve been rich, & I’ve been poor
    & rich is better.” –Max Wilk

  13. A man I much admired said something very useful to me many years ago (I was young and broke and carefree). “Money is infinitely scalable. First your only desire is to have any kind of car – a total beater will do. Then you think it would be nice to have a reliable, decent used car. Then you consider getting your first ever NEW car. Then you wonder if you could get a car with heated seats next time. Or maybe you could really use more than one car for different activities. Basically, you just keep adjusting your definition of what you need. ”

    I remind myself of this conversation at least once a year, hopefully to really value what I have. Young me would be astonished at my current salary, but after my divorce, I went through a decade of big debt and extreme budgeting. Which was good for me! I sold my nice car and traveled everywhere on public transportation! And when I paid off my debts, my salary seemed huge again and I started socking it away for retirement. And I bought a bunch of shoes.

  14. I think one major factor is that… scalzi is already doing a job that he loves. If I suddenly had his net worth and passive revenue stream I would be retired in approximately 30 minutes.

  15. I always say “money doesn’t buy happiness but it does rent happiness”…

  16. I agree with almost everything you say, John, and the exception is this:

    “But I feel pretty sure that if everyone in the US suddenly didn’t have to worry about rent and bills and health insurance and whatever, that a year later the general happiness quotient would be about the same. It’s great not to worry about your bills! But you do find other things to be unhappy about.”

    We’re talking about millions of people who want for enough food, decent medical care, a safe home, clean water. I firmly believe that if those folks had enough money to know that they were free from those wants (needs, really), that there would be a large increase in happiness.

  17. I’m with Lisa on this one, although I don’t know how large/not the increase would be.

    But if you remove:
    1. pain and similar misery-making insomnia-inducing health issues that can be fixed with prescription medications or physical therapy that people simply can’t afford right now
    2. continual financial stress about necessities and emergencies and never quite being able to catch up
    3. stress of the kind that comes when you can’t quit a really bad abusive job
    4. stress of the kind that comes when you have to weigh safety-of-sick-kid-alone-at-home vs. staying home with them and potentially losing your job, rendering the kid homeless in the future…

    Well. I think that if we could relieve a chunk of pain and deep stress, people would 1. be at least slightly happier on average (barring other major stressors like Global Pandemic; I do think it would be safe to say that we have not been as “averagely happy” during the last year between pandemic and the attempted overthrow of US government?) and 2. be less cranky in general (pain and sleep deprivation make you cranky! Yes, people can adjust and compensate for it to some degree, but still), which would also result in generally increased happiness.

    Totally correct that people at any financial level (or level of health) can find things to be unhappy about, and that we’re remarkably good at it. And many people have a more or less “happy level” where they’ll stay, approximately, barring drastic long-term or temporary influences. I’m just saying that for some people in America, their stable “level” where no matter how much more money they had, it’d be the same, would be a chunk higher than it is right now.

  18. What you do to make the money means a lot. If you hate what you do, you will not be made happier to have money.

    I am lucky enough to be exploiting what was once a hobby. That hobby makes lots of others happy and gives them a somewhat athletic outlet.

    That gives me the best of both worlds; my lawyers don’t have that kind of luck. All three of them hate what they do, but can’t give it up because of the money they need to make to support their egos, trophy wives and McMansions.

    I live pretty simply because I want to, I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. It is not the money that makes me happy.

  19. Further to what Roberta said, the ancient stoics would recommend that we remember how (before getting jaded or used to it) we once felt upon obtaining a new lifestyle… and then feel appropriate joy and gratitude.

    I was still referring to my “new home” ten years after I moved in.

    I like to be LBMM which, technically, makes me rich: Living Below My Means.

  20. I have never been poor, so I can’t say I know that stress, but I have been in a position where I was paycheck to paycheck for basic necessities and there wasn’t money for anything else. I’ve also had family help pay my rent and bills for a period while my husband was unemployed and we were struggling.

    I definitely think there’s a point where the lack of stress about money makes a huge difference in everything – even if you’re not at the place where you have enough money to buy everything you might want.

  21. A couple of things brought this all home to me: having to pay out of pocket for health insurance, and having exclusions for the thing that I was most likely to have to deal with, while making $9/hour, plus gig work on the side; being able to pay for a medical bill w/o stressing; tracking every penny when shopping vs. being able to go to the grocery store and not keep a running total in my head; having enough to be more generous in my donations; wondering how I was going to pay the rent if I didn’t get a job soon (I got one not long after that, after 1.5 years of unemployment, after finishing my grad degree); being able to save enough to do some home renovations. Obviously all of the above fall on different sides of the ledger, as it were, but they point to what JS said: reducing the anxiety is crucial, and likely the most important thing.

  22. The 70% bankruptcy rate of lottery winners is a myth. The NEFE has published a statement that this statistic which has been attributed to it is not backed by any research, and is not anything they have said.

  23. I’m not sure how much is enough, but I have enough. There was a point there in time where we shifted from it being a challenge to definitely less of a challenge.

    Part of that was kids finishing college (and we were not insane enough to take out Parent Loans).

    Parent of that was a promotion fairly late in my career and having a spouse who also makes a good income (from a job she got more mid-career).

    Definitely not rich, but statistics tells me we do better than many.

    So we give some away on a rather regular basis. It’s a good time in the history of our country to do just that.

  24. Money won’t buy happiness, but lack of money can sure buy misery.
    Someone above said “rich” was living below your means. I always thought “rich” was throwing around a lot of money whether you could afford it or not, whereas “wealthy” was living below your means.
    When I worked I was usually just above median income, but my pension is half my salary, and median income went up, so now it takes two of us to be about half of median income. But we’re still wealthy.

  25. I have more money now than I ever had before or expected to have, as a result of a healthy income and a modest lifestyle. By my own personal definition, I’m rich.

    I get a lot of pure joy out of it because I really enjoy the difference between the comfortable present and the anxious and insecure past.

    I also get a lot of pure joy out of giving money away. Since the pandemic started, we haven’t given much to charity; we’ve given a LOT of cash directly to people who need it more. We gave away our stimulus payments. We tip massively when we order food. I can’t fix the economy, but at least I can give someone else a measure of relief from the grinding anxiety.

  26. Even if the 70% thing were true, that doesn’t mean that money doesn’t buy you happiness, it just means that those people overestimated how much happiness they could have with the money they won.

    It shouldn’t be surprising that people who have never had much money don’t understand how to deal with a sudden influx, and with the people around them who feel entitled to a piece of it. How many people will bother to learn the ins and outs of interest rates, investment options, and tax strategies when they don’t have any money to make practical use of the knowledge? Then when the money comes, they can get confused and act out in bad ways and possibly lose it all.

    I’m reminded of Joss Whedon. He seems like a quintessentially nerdy guy, and all of a sudden he achieves fame and popularity, and is surrounded by attractive people of whom he’s the boss, and he acts like an ass instead of coping intelligently. People need keepers.

  27. In my “would people in the US be happier if they didn’t have to worry about rent/bills/etc.” math, I was forgetting about the rebound effect: when people think X will solve all their problems, and it doesn’t, then they sometimes have a crisis of sorts.

    Most commonly, I’ve seen this as people I know have retired, thinking that Now That I’m Free, Life Will Be Perfect – and actually, it’s not; you’re not magically given enthusiasm to do the projects you nebulously and vaguely wanted to do while working but were certain you only didn’t get done because of work (getting in shape! musical instruments! arts! home repair!). And they also often have the realization that if they had found purpose/self-value in their work (if someone pays you, you must be doing something worthwhile, right?…) and had an automatic set of social interactions, and poof, those are gone. So I’ve known a lot of people who more or less skipped the midlife crisis but crash out hard when retirement doesn’t make them into who they thought it would. So: adequate money to quit work: might not make most people nearly as happy as most of them think it would. Maybe.

    …I still sorta think that if you took all the financial stress off the table, though, especially for people at the lower end of the scale, that the net result would be positive even after a year or more of adjustment. Ideally society would shift its values away from “the person with the most money or the highest capacity for earning money is the most valuable” and towards healthier concepts of human beings, but even if it didn’t, being able to, say, have all necessary prescription medications and medical care would reduce pain for a segment of the population (and taking a whole lot of mental weight off a lot of other people would likely also increase their well-being on a continual rather than short-term basis; consider the collective sigh of relief in January).

  28. I think that which I admire the most about you is having an occupation that you would continue to do even if you long passed any need of additional income. I think THAT is greater than any amount of money!!! THAT is what starts to buy happiness.

  29. I had not seen that guitar before. How do you play it without super noodly gibbon arms?

  30. They say money can’t buy happiness,
    but if you’re crying on the side of the road,
    it isn’t because your Rolls-Royce stalled out.

%d bloggers like this: