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Stress-free Finances: What Do You Want?

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?

9 thoughts on “Stress-free Finances: What Do You Want?”

  1. I’ve always thought that when I can comfortably afford to outsource things like cleaning the house, doing the landscaping, snow removal, and everything else, that I’ll be ‘good’. Those things represent the opportunity to free up time for my wife and I to spend with each other and our kids. Having the money in place to do so is of course the way we track the ability to reach goals, but the experiences and memories that the money could potentially create are much more of a motivator than the money itself.

  2. DH and I have more than enough stuff…which is why we do not exchange gifts with one another on birthdays and Christmas. (When we need something, we plan for it and then purchase it; otherwise, we tend to be content with purchasing little wants from time to time).

    It’s also why we have asked relatives for the last 3 years to skip exchanging w/us as well at Christmas. We still enjoy getting together at holidays and are fortunate that we all live w/in driving distance.

    Makes the holidays far more peaceful and enjoyable, IMO!

  3. I’m with you on the stuff. The less unnecessary stuff the better!! I believe TV and advertising con us into believing that we need more and more stuff to lead a beautiful contented life. If I had more money I’d travel more and maybe get some help in the house and garden. I would buy more ready prepared vegetables and salads. Perhaps I would cut back on the number of hours I work each week and spend more time studying and volunteering. I’d get my eyebrows trimmed, my legs waxes and my hair done more regularly. I’d have a large emergency fund.
    Still I enjoy the dream of having these things and strive to achieve some of them and meanwhile try to practice the virtue of accepting just where I am today.

  4. Thanks for the mention.

    For me, it isn’t about the stuff I can do with that kind of cash it is the control I can have over my life. I see the accumulation of that kind of nest egg (earlier than later) as freedom. Freedom to work on a Friday or not…Freedom to take a certain job or not…etc.

    That freedom is my drive not the stuff I can buy with it.

    Notwithstanding that proclamation I already told The Wife if her next car is a minivan this guy is upgrading to something German lol but I’ll chalk that one up to keeping my sanity

    • Oh the freedom not the work on Friday! My bed is already made with a huge mortage and a son in first year in college, but maybe some time in the not too distant future!!

  5. Just between you me and the lamp post I’d like to be comfortable enough where I have a little cushion for occasional car issues and the unexpected $4900 vet bill for a ruptured disc in our mini Dachshunds spine. At my age and working curve that’s not going to happen as the money is not coming in like it did 10 years ago. So when I die Visa and Mastercard will just be SOL on collecting from beyond the grave. (We have a family Trust)
    Getting old presents problems that are unexpected and many are unprepared for.

  6. @ George: Ain’t that the truth!

    That’s one pricey pooch you’ve got there, George. Don’t know that I could bring myself to pony up 1/16 of my year’s living allowance on vet bills.

    There are several types of trusts. Which one(s) protect assets from creditors?

    • I was curious about that too many people believe revocable living trusts protect from creditors when they usually do not since most people fail to properly fund them (and during life they are not protected from creditors unless they irrevocable and the situs is in certain states that allow for Self Settled Trusts).

  7. I didn’t understand that, either. From a brief web search (ah, the Internet! It’s the Hypochondriac’s Treasure Chest and the Poor Man’s Law School), I gathered you would have to fund it with virtually all your assets, and that the laws regarding a trust’s obligation (whether revocable or irrevocable) vary from state to state.

    On the other hand, I have the impression (that’s all it is, folks!) that if you die with no heirs and few assets, a credit card company has no recourse. Presumably a surviving spouse would inherit the debt — surely that would have to be true in a community property state.

    But somewhere I read that a deceased’s children have no obligation to pay a dead parent’s credit-card debt. So in theory they could inherit and not have to pay off your cards?????

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