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Happy Money

Book Reviews | By Wakefield Hare | Thu Jan 24 2019
By Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton

More money → more choices → more happiness. Right? But what about “mo money mo problems”?

What is the truth about if money can make us happy and if so, how? That’s what Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending addresses.

I had heard one of the book's authors, Elizabeth Dunn, speak at XYPN Live last September. She was the best speaker of the conference, providing numerous “that’s interesting” and “I’ve never thought of it that way” moments. Her book is simply an expansion of those same thoughts.

Does money buy happiness?

Yes. That’s it….yes, money does buy happiness. It’s true and research backs it up, and my own experience backs it up, and it’s likely yours does as well.

BUT is happiness subject to the law of diminishing returns? That’s economist speak that says more money eventually does not buy more happiness. In fact, it doesn’t take long to run out of space to buy happiness. How long? Research says that it’s rare to increase “happiness” with more money after your annual income reaches $75,000. Here’s the research if interested.

All of those findings are actually established in the prologue of the book….really, all within the first few pages. The rest of the book argues there are ways to make spending decisions that will make us happier, even after our annual income goes north of $75,000.

Happy Money lays out 5 ways to spend money research suggests will make us happiest. The book doesn’t keep you in suspense or drag out the revelation of those 5 ways. It tells you the 5 ways in the table of contents, and then again in the prologue, and then uses the chapters to elaborate on each. Here are the 5 strategies and the meat of the book:

Buy Experiences

In a culture of plastic, throw-away goods this point seems obvious. But the goods the authors emphasize aren’t plastic toys. The authors point out that bigger, nicer houses and bigger, nicer cars will deliver less happiness than if you bought minimal living quarters and minimal transportation and used the extra money to do awesome things.

Do awesome things, don’t buy awesome things. What you buy will always deteriorate and diminish, but what you do will live on as a cherished memory, that actually gets even more valuable as time passes. How cool is that….memories are an appreciating asset!

Do my experiences with clients and my own life confirm this suggestion? Absolutely. Bigger houses and, to a lesser extent, nicer cars have rarely satisfied my clients, and those two items are usually the double whammy that makes American family's budget so stinkin’ tight! Those families then feel budget pressure in all areas of their life, especially their work and the pressure created to make more money.

And another great part about buying experiences is you don’t have to find a place to store them when their finished….unless you count the videos and pictures (but that’s what Google Photos or iCloud is for).

Make it a Treat

It’s easy to believe there can be too much of a good thing. I still remember fondly reading The Chocolate Touch in elementary school. In the book, a kid loves chocolate so much, soon everything he touches soon turns to chocolate. The treat becomes a curse.

Some of our favorite things aren’t giving us the satisfaction they could because we indulge ourselves too often with them, says the research. Those things might include drinking a fancy coffee, driving a nice (or really, really nice) car, eating a nice meal, drinking soda, and more. So what’s the answer?

Simple. Take advantage of these treats on a limited basis and your satisfaction with them will go up, producing more happiness for you.

Scarcity makes anything more desirable. I see this often with my children. When there’s 10 kids lined up to say, take a go-kart ride, there’s much more desire to take the ride simply because 9 other kids also want to do so. Putting the kid on a go-kart with no one else lined up waiting for the experience doesn’t take away all the fun, but it does change the experience.

We have control over making any treat more scarce in our life, and can manipulate our own ability to enjoy our “treats” more fully.

Buy Time

Carl Richards, in his book The One Page Financial Plan, makes the point that we are always exchanging 4 resources for one another: money, energy, skills, and time. In Happy Money, the authors suggest we need to be more eager to exchange our money for more time, particularly for the tasks we dislike.

Some easy examples are to pay someone to do your house cleaning if you hate it. Have someone else do your grocery shopping or almost any task you despise for you via websites like Instacart or Fiverr or TaskRabbit

I think this principle applies the best when thinking about how we work and how much time we spend working. You can’t buy time at work like you can when you hire someone to mow your lawn, but you can sacrifice compensation to find better work.

As a financial planner, I have come to believe that the single most impactful change a family needs to consider is how they spend their “working” hours. And yes, it will likely mean a decrease in money, but maybe not, and maybe not for long. And even if it’s a permanent decrease in comp, is it possible it’s still worth it if it makes you….happier??

It’s an extremely important point that this book doesn’t focus on because they are focusing on where we spend our money, but the principles apply. Sara and I reflect on how we’re are spending our working hours at least weekly and if you aren’t doing the same, I highly recommend it.

Pay Now, Consume Later

The pain of paying is real, and it can actively steal joy away from the things or experiences we buy. The solution? Separate the payment from the pleasure.

Actually, many people in the US are already well-versed in this. They swipe their credit card, they get their goods, and they don’t have to worry about payment for weeks! But we all know that’s not a winning strategy.

How about an alternative? What if we pay for things well in advance, that way by the time we experience our purchase, the pain of paying is well behind us, almost forgotten? Research says this is the answer to more happy spending.

An example could include a concert ticket purchased months in advance of the show, or a cake you pre-ordered from a student’s fundraiser at school.

I saw this applied most evidently by friends describing their trip to Walt Disney World. My friends loved their trip and gave me some tips on how I should plan my own family Disney trip. They insisted I had to get a Disney meal plan because it made it so much more enjoyable to eat meals and get treats in the parks knowing you didn’t have to shell out the $8 for a Mickey shaped ice cream sandwich.

That family actually did have to shell out the $8, and much more, for their food at the park, but they paid it months before when planning for the trip, so they had much more enjoyment at the parks.

For the record, I still don’t recommend getting the meal plan at Disney because you’ll end up spending way more on food than is necessary for a great time at Disney parks, and you’ll end up consuming way more calories than you want to. But don’t let a curmudgeon like me get in the way of what science says equals the happiest way to spend your money!

Invest in Others

The final strategy for happy spending is to give your money away! The authors admit how counter-intuitive this seems, but their own lives and the research once again back up the principle. And I will wholeheartedly attest the principle of giving money away works like a miracle (impossible to explain, but has evident power).

The researchers mentioned in the book studied the effects of giving in multiple ways and found that being charitable with money has a whole host of benefits that are both physiological and physical. The only type of giving that wasn’t very beneficial was forced giving (where someone was required, say by an employer or a parent, to give).

As a person who believes God’s Word is true, it’s really enjoyable to see Biblical teachings confirmed by research and validated by our experiences in the world. This is definitely a point where a Christian could step in and say, “I can trust God when he asks me to trust Him, even to do a hard thing like give away my possessions.”

Simple Ideas, Powerful Application

Any one of the five strategies above could lead to significant increases in your life satisfaction and well being, a.k.a. your happiness. The book is fun and easy to read and multiple stories and studies are shared to prove each strategy.

One word of caution from my perspective and I’ll put it in the form of a question: Is happiness really your goal in life? If we did everything this book suggested in all 5 areas, and the actions indeed made us happy, would we be satisfied? Unfortunately, I don’t think we would be.

What if you followed all these principles and life was going great, and you’re very happy, but then your spouse gets diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer? Or the economy crashes and you lose your job? Or your child’s car gets hit by a distracted driver? These things are out of your control, yet they can take all your happiness in an instant.

In the past, I would have claimed that all I want is to be happy. That’s all most people want. The goal for myself though has shifted away from happiness, and onto lasting peace.

When someone has peace they are often going to have accompanying happiness. But happiness isn’t required for peace. And all of those mentioned nightmare scenarios can come, and they would steal our happiness, but they’ll never take our peace….if our peace is invested in something greater than the resources and experiences of this world.

Granted, this book could be called Peaceful Money and all the applications would still hold true (and they probably would have sold less copies). Almost the entire book agrees with Scripture on how we use our resources, particularly the investing in others strategy.

The only knock on Happy Money is the epilogue. If you read it you’ll figure out quickly why it’s difficult to digest.

The ideas of the book are strong and I do recommend reading Happy Money, however if you just want to know the key points to focus on you can get away with reading the prologue.

Always remember that the choices you make with your money, and all your resources, matter, and if you don’t have peace, or happiness, then seek help because peace is always being offered to you….freely.