Money is a powerful tool in our society.
It allows us to pay for basic needs like our rent or mortgage, groceries, utilities, clothing, and medical care. It can also be used for education and to save for retirement or specific goals.
Sometimes, after all the necessities are covered, there is money left over.
Psychological research has shown that spending that money in certain ways can make us happier. However, buying material goods – like a new car, a laptop or a pair of designer shoes – will not bring you lasting happiness. It may bring you temporary pleasure, but we quickly “adapt” and return to our previous level of happiness. This concept of adaptation suggests that we each have a basis of happiness that we usually return to after a positive or negative experience. Fortunately, research has also shown that we can increase our overall level of happiness (and therefore our base level) with intentional actions.
So if buying more “stuff” won’t make us happier in the long run, what will?
Spending money on family and friends: Recent studies have indicated that maintaining close relationships with friends and family is the most important factor in our happiness. The “Harvard Study of Adult Development” began by studying 238 men in 1938, and the research continued for more than 80 years. Current study director Robert Waldinger presented a TED Talk (available at www.ted.com) titled “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness. Several factors were studied, but Waldinger summarized the results by stating that “good relationships make us happier and healthier. People who were most satisfied with their relationships at fifty were healthiest at eighty.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it harder to see friends and family often since the start of 2020. Perhaps you decide to plan a family reunion. If travel costs are prohibitive for some members, consider covering their expenses. It’s a great way to spend money to strengthen your relationships with family and friends.
Spend money on experiences: Experiences make us happy, and planning, anticipation, and remembering all provide added benefits. Summer is coming, and that often leads to more outdoor activities. Invite friends over for a barbecue or potluck. Plan a day to meet up at the zoo or botanical garden. Attend an outdoor concert. Plan a mountain hike with friends. Take a day trip to a nearby town. Go to a farmers market to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.
Note that planning experiences with family and friends provides the benefits of topics #1 and #2 above. Experiences also include travel, and many families are planning road trips this summer.
Spend money on your health: The saying “our health is our wealth” is true. When I have worked with financial planning clients for many years, the saddest experience was when a client fell ill and their quality of life was affected. It can’t always be avoided as we age, but there are many things we can do to improve our health, such as eating healthy foods and exercising regularly. Small changes can reap big rewards.
If you want to improve your health, consider spending money to improve your health. Hire a personal trainer or join a gym. Consider a physical therapist who can teach you body-strengthening exercises. Buy a bike or new running/walking shoes. Go out and enjoy nature. Notice the cacti and wildflowers blooming. Buy fresh fruits and vegetables or buy a food subscription service if it leads you to eating healthier meals.
Spending money on others: Having a purpose and helping others has a positive effect on our happiness. Perhaps you could volunteer a day (or half a day) each week. Research what your community needs and what you might appreciate.
Consider donating generously to the charities you select. Not only will it make you happier, but you’ll help others in need.
You can choose to give money to adult family members who are going through difficult times. In my opinion, a few requirements must first be met. You need to be sure that you will have enough money to support yourself until your death and that your family members are acting responsibly. Also, the recipients should express their gratitude for the gift. It works best when you and your family members have a healthy attitude toward money and when money is given out of generosity and love.
Spending money to have more free time: Outsourcing chores around your home can free up time to do more of the things you love. For example, if you pay someone to clean your house, you might have more time to garden, read, or exercise.
Spend money doing what you love: Some of us know what we like to do. If you don’t, take time to think about what would make you happy. Consider one of the following or create your own list: Play the piano or another musical instrument. Take lessons. Be a lifelong learner and take a course in art, photography, or another subject. Read more. Garden. Call friends and arrange to play golf or tennis. Write a thank you note to someone special. Call an old friend. Play your favorite song.
Money is an important tool. And by spending it wisely — and intentionally — we can become happier.
Donna Skeels Cygan, CFP, MBA, is the author of “The Joy of Financial Security”. She was a paid financial planner in Albuquerque for more than 20 years before retiring in 2021. She welcomes readers’ emails at [email protected]