What do you want, financially? What should you want? Me, I know what I don’t want: I don’t especially want to be rich. I’m content to live in modest comfort, with no debt obligations to anyone.
Owning more money and possessions than I need doesn’t interest me, though I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more cash in savings now than I estimate it will take to carry me through to the end of life.
Obviously, this is a subjective thing: each of us needs to weigh what really matters in our lives and decide what will make us content. Our friend Evan, for example, premises his excellent blog on his goal of reaching multimillionaire status. Yet we see that as he celebrates his thirtieth birthday, he reflects on treasures that have nothing to do with money.
There’s a difference between contentment and happiness. Would I be happy if someone gave me a million bucks? Well, sure: I’d be tickled. Would I like to have a Jaguar and a cute little BMW roadster sitting in the garage? I suppose. (Ever had to take care of a Jag or a BMW? You need an apartment over the garage for the live-in mechanic).
But would those things make my life better? I doubt it. How would a fancy car that requires constant upkeep improve on an eleven-year-old Toyota that after 106,000 miles still runs like a top and gets me where I need to go with minimal maintenance? Would a million dollars buy peace, or just give me something else to worry about?
Contentment is being at peace with one’s surroundings. It’s a long-term thing, whereas happiness is a short-term thrill.
What I want is to reach a state of serendipity. By that I mean I wish to reconcile what makes me content with the demands of the culture around me. To the largest extent possible, I would like to be free of those demands, or at least to be able to pick and choose the demands worth complying with. I can do without being badgered to pay bills, to pay taxes, to drive through homicidal traffic every day to show up at a miserable job, to care for a lot of unnecessary junk, to respond to this and that and the other requirement imposed by someone else.
While having some money helps to achieve that goal, having a lot of it is irrelevant. At some point, it’s not money that matters; it’s attitude.
To my mind, one crucial way to spring free of societal demands is to get free of debt. All debt.
Another is to reduce your psychological and social dependence on the possession of things. If debt is slavery, stuff is the slave-master.
“We got more places than we got stuff. We’re gonna have to buy MORE STUFF!” The other day a friend who’s a mortgage broker spoke of some incredible bargain a client landed when he bought a 12,000-square-foot house in the present depressed real estate market. Think of the amount of STUFF that lucky purchaser will have to acquire!
The time wasted chasing down the stuff.
The energy wasted cleaning and maintaining the stuff.
The landfill space wasted when the stuff wears out.
Of course, if you can afford a 12,000-square-foot hovel, you can spare some of that square footage for the Jaguar mechanic who lives over the garage. And you can afford a staff of house cleaners to dust and polish your stuff.
Now you have to hire, pay, remit taxes for, and supervise those people. And you get to deal with the mountains of paperwork, workplace rules, and taxation the come the way of every employer in this country. If stress is your pleasure, now you’re in paradise: there’s nothing like management and HR tasks to add stress to your life.
How much more peaceful to own only what you really need: to have just enough around you to fit a human-sized life.
To my mind, money is another form of stuff. It’s something that has to be acquired, stored somewhere (not under the bed but in arcane spaces like the stock market, bonds, real estate, and bank accounts), and managed. It has to be dusted off, cleaned, and put back away—often by paid agents with whom, like household staff, you have to deal in ways that consume time, attention, and energy.
It’s not that we don’t need money, nor that we don’t need a little stuff. Obviously, we need a roof over our heads, a table to eat dinner at, and some pots and pans to cook in. My point is that none of us needs more than enough provide a comfortable home just large enough to house us, a healthy diet, adequate transportation, and the tools to educate ourselves and stay in touch with the people around us.
That amounts to a great deal less than a pile of junk sufficient to fill 12,000 square feet. Or even, for most families, 3,000 square feet. Or 2,000 square feet. Stuff may make us happy, but that’s temporary. Contentment is permanent, because it’s based on the things that matter.
The things that matter are, by and large, free: a growing child, a bouncing puppy, a good friend, a beautiful day, a lovely sunset. And freedom from stress.
What, really, do you want?