There seems to be a trend in society, particularly among the ‘millenials’, to shift from being money-minded to money-conscious. To see money as an enabler for a certain lifestyle rather than an object of life itself. This cultural shift belies the fact that our fundamental attitude towards money remains unchanged: money remains at the forefront of our minds and thereby our choices.
I don’t want this to be the case and so I have chosen a different approach: to not accumulate money at all. Since last year, as a rule, I donate at least a third of my pre-tax income, save little and do not invest. This initiative comes on the back of years of reducing the meaning of money in my life and has liberated my ‘life’ choices from being money-conscious, enabled me to follow my passion and (better) live by my principles. I would not be living in Kenya were it not for this.
Disclaimer: It is very important to note that I can take this approach thanks to a great deal of privilege I have been lucky to receive: no ‘living’ responsibilities (other than my house-plants), no debt, a family that can support themselves as well as myself in case of an emergency, a citizenship that guarantees a basic livelihood and safety, employable skills, good health and (although not a privilege as such) no partner.
Money =/ Happiness
The adage ‘money does not equal happiness’ is bandied about quite often and contrasted with decades of American post-WW2 materialism, the current rise of ‘Minimalism’ could easily be considered a cultural shift. I am not so convinced.
Buying things, owning things, consuming things isn’t wrong or bad or unhealthy. Our tendency to rely on consumption for balance, for nourishment, for happiness, however, can be.Colin Wright
Materialism lives on, disguised in other forms. People eschew the buying of objects and then lose blood, sweat and tears to own a house. For some, this even extends to owning a second home, bi-annual overseas holidays with the family and a retirement plan of globe-trotting. Gold chains may no longer be popular but the desire to accumulate experiences to show others remains. What is Instagram but a display cabinet for positive past experiences for everyone to see?
The materialism of today also takes the shape of numbers on a screen: money. Money itself has become the materialistic thing to possess. Even for those just entering work, discussions revolve around ‘making the right investments’, ‘switching banks for the best rate’ and ‘saving for the future’. Life choices, career choices, happiness choices are made with a heavy weight on salary or salary potential. One can see this reflected in the many who, despite being among the most privileged and having the choice, continue to work in high-paying jobs they do not enjoy. In the City of London personal dreams are traded in for their weight in gold; each ‘disruptive’ start-up promises to make billions and those not playing in crypto-currency are fools.
Stuck in this future conditional tense, we lose focus on enjoying today. For those who only want to surpass some ‘retirement threshold’ and forget about money, making it a daily pre-occupation gives money huge significance in our lives. Devoting this time and effort to money makes it central to our lives regardless of our intent. Applied to any other facet of our life, we would characterise it as an obsession. An unhealthy one.
Many don’t seek money but nonetheless feel the need for it to achieve a ‘security’. But if one were to break it down, the figure we ‘need’ for such security would likely be a lot smaller than we are working towards. Studies have shown that the positive correlation between income and happiness disappears after a threshold. A prominent piece from Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman places this threshold at $75k annual income for a household (£50k or €58k).
However, as Deaton & Kahneman note, whilst “income and education are closely related to life evaluation, health, caregiving, loneliness, and [not] smoking are relatively stronger predictors of daily emotions.” Our energy would be better spent improving these facets of our life rather than on the accumulation of money and often the latter comes at the expense of the former. This figure also depends heavily on context as well as expectations – both within our control, a caveman would not have needed $75k to be happy!
Low expectations are the key to happiness in lifeChristopher Miller
The beauty and curse of being human is that we adapt: our desires are relative to our wallet but our happiness is not. This is powerful and liberating. We should do more work to challenge our desires rather than immediately seek to fulfill them. When confronted with a desire, I try to question the value of the item or experience, rather than if I can physically afford it. Why do I need new trousers, maybe I should just knit the holes? Why do I feel the need for a lighter bike, maybe I should simply train harder?
Questioning Money’s Worth
My greatest issue with money, or security, as a goal is that it remains hopelessly vague. Money becomes a nebulous goal: a cavernous hole that we cannot fill and thus endlessly pursue. In our society, accumulating personal wealth without justification is deemed acceptable so we can explain our money-minded choices so we can ‘buy a house’ without specifying what house, where or how costly. We explain we want to reach ‘financial independence’ without calculating what this might cost.
Such an opaque goal is convenient because we can hide behind it to ignore the deeper questions of what we are accumulating for and why. Why is it that I feel a need for ‘that house’ to feel ‘secure’? How much do I actually need? Is it a desperate need? Is it my need? At the end of the day, what is my purpose in life if it is not accumulating objects, experiences and numbers on a screen?
I would not dare to suggest I know the answers to these questions but they are worth confronting. Allow me to pose one more question: if we truly believe this is a ‘need’ to make us happy, what are we implying for all of those not privileged or fortunate enough to reach that amount of money in their lives?
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