You Don’t Need a Lot of Money to be Happy

Imagine yourself being retired right now. Imagine yourself having been retired ever since your early 30s. Financially secure & comfortable for the rest of your life.

You wake up in the morning, any time you feel like it. You have a nice, leisurely, long breakfast. You go for a walk along the beach. You come back to find the rest of your day completely open, to do anything you feel like doing. You go to the gym & workout briefly. You curl up on the couch with your choice book for a few hours. You catch up on all your favorite TV shows & movies. You go outside & volunteer with your local community.

You spend time with your kids, your spouse, and talk to your parents on the phone for an hour. You spend the evening with your friends, drinking a cold one, joking about the day’s events. And you still find a few hours left over in the day to learn a new language, play an instrument, write for a blog, and pursue any hobby, interest or passion that you’ve always dreamed of. You finally go to bed at night, smiling, knowing that the next day will once again, be completely yours.

What if I told you that this didn’t have to be an idle dream? That it could be your reality. That it is, in fact, someone’s reality right now.

A few months ago, I was reading the papers & came across the story of Pete. Pete was a regular guy, who used to lead a regular life. He was an engineer, working for a big company, drawing a regular engineer’s salary. He was married with a lovely wife & an infant toddler. Just a usual guy… except that once he reached his early 30s, he did a very unusual thing. He retired.

During his decade-long career, he lived frugally, saved a lot of money, and invested every cent of it. Before long, he had saved up ~$400,000. He then invested it on a rental property & a stock/bond portfolio, that provides him with a yearly income of ~$35,000. This proved sufficient for him to retire from his career, move to a small, peaceful town in Colorado, and live the rest of his life doing all the things we had earlier dreamed of.

When I first came across this story of Pete, I found myself profoundly inspired. His lifestyle may not be for everyone, but it really shows the limits of what is possible. It shows us that there is more to life than the oft-mentioned rat race. That there is more to life than spending 40 years working on a job that you may not like. That there is a real alternative to a life of consumerism, materialism and wealth hoarding.

Now don’t get me wrong; I do enjoy my career, and I’m sure a lot of others do as well. But there are too many among us who think of making money the way a batter thinks of scoring runs. They see it as a game, a scorecard; one that reflects on their character & life success. In truth, money isn’t any of those things. It doesn’t reflect on you or your character at all. Money is simply a necessity of life, just like water, food and air. We need money to live our lives and achieve our goals, but it doesn’t reflect on our character any more than drinking water does.

Whenever you ask someone whether they wish they had more money, you’ll always hear the same response. “Of course I wish I had more money.” Ask them why they wish for more money, and what they would like to do with it, and you’ll often get answers referring to “fancy spacious house with a gorgeous view” or a “fancy sports car that can go 150 without breaking a sweat” or “fancy clothes with designer labels & Louis Vuitton bags.”

Interestingly enough, psychologists have done lots of research on exactly this topic, and they’ve found that these fancy materialist goods do not make us happier at all. To be more specific, they make us happier for a few weeks. But eventually, our brain simply gets used to them, and stops noticing them entirely. If you ask them again a year later, it will barely register on their conscience.

Personally, I wasn’t at all surprised to hear of this. Think back on the moments in your life when you felt utter contentment and bliss. Think about the time you spent as a kid, with your parents, siblings and cousins. The time you spent as a newlywed with your spouse, and your infant children. The days you spent with your best friends, just hanging around, going on adventures and swapping life stories. The hours that you spent pursuing your hobbies, interests and passions, without once getting paid a cent, until you reached a level of expertise and achieved something truly remarkable that you’re still proud of today. The look of gratitude and joy that you saw on someone’s face while volunteering.

These are the things in life that truly matter. These are the things that truly reflect on our character, and make us rich. It is no coincidence that they are all extremely cheap in dollars and cents. But extremely expensive in time and energy.

Personally, I only need to look back on my college days to realize how little money actually means. I was poor, lived in a cramped room that I shared with a roommate, used communal showers shared by 20 others, ate bland cafeteria food everyday, and didn’t even have a car.

And yet, when I think back on the friends that I made, hobbies that I pursued, extra-curricular activities that I led, and knowledge that I learned, there’s no doubt that those were some of the greatest years of my life. My subsequent life as a yuppie making six figures doesn’t even compare to how rich my life in college felt.

Now admittedly, Pete’s example of retiring completely in his mid-30s is a little extreme, and not one that I myself would follow. Personally, I actually enjoy my career & would like to remain involved for decades more. But his example does show us that there is a middle ground that we can all reach for. Instead of chasing a job that pays the most money, we can instead take up careers that match our interests, offer work-life balance, flexible work hours & long holidays. We could even work on a 80% or part-time basis. Ideally, our career should be an important & fulfilling part of our lives, but not one that crowds out all the others things we would like to make room for.

To quote a wise poet, “You Only Live Once.” Life is too short to waste on the things that we don’t care about. Let’s dedicate it to the things that really matter.

Related Links:
Pete’s blog where he discusses his retired & relaxed lifestyle
The Lifestyle of Warren Buffett, 2nd richest man in the world
People’s tendency to accumulate more wealth than they actually need
An ex-Wall Street banker discussing society’s “Money Addiction”