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Are You Happy with Your Money? Money and Happiness Through Different Life Stages

“Happiness is simply the absence of desire.”

This is a quote that I recently read in James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, and it was one of those phrases that made me pause and really think.

He goes on to say that happiness is this feeling of contentment. If you are lacking in desire (which is really a state of wanting to do something to change your current state), then there is no reason for you to take action in order to move from one state to another.

This feeling is also fleeting. We are human after all, and we will always have desires that need to be fulfilled. Many of these desires will need to be fulfilled by using money as a tool.

One way to think about happiness is that by desiring less, you will spend more time being happy. When you desire less material things, you will default to a state of being content with what you have, which in turn improves your general well-being.

I have learned (and continue to learn!) so many lessons from being a parent, and this concept made me think about the idea of happiness and contentment as we move through different stages in life. Specifically, how do our needs and desires change over time, and how does this relate to our use of money?

INFANTS

Those days of babyhood are a blur, thanks to the constant attention that this little brand new person is requiring around the clock. They are constantly needing the very basics in life, which include: 

  • Nutrition
  • Sleep
  • Staying clean
  • Comfort
  • Love

The baby doesn’t care that you’re running on fumes in order to tend to his/her needs. They certainly don’t care whether you’re buying them the most expensive or trendiest baby gear that’s out there. 

Whenever the baby has a need that is not being met, he/she will let you know immediately by crying and vocalizing. It’s up to you to bring that baby back to a state of feeling content and happy. 

These same behaviors in an adult would make us label them a completely selfish, egotistical narcissist. Because babies literally cannot fulfill these needs on their own, this is considered normal baby behavior, and we do our very best to make sure we provide them exactly what they need (easier said than done!).

BASIC NEEDS: Provided completely by the adult/caregiver.

MATERIAL WANTS: NONE.

TODDLERS

Ah….now your baby is walking and verbal. They may be constantly falling and barely understandable at times, but they are now starting to separate themselves from you. They’re going to start forming their own opinions and voice their desires outside of the basics mentioned above. 

In terms of material things, what do they care about? Do they care about status and quality at this point? NOPE. They just want whatever toy happens to strike their fancy in the moment, based on the latest commercial that they saw. 

The concept of money is still vague; they don’t quite understand that money is used as a transactional tool in order to buy something from the store. They don’t understand where the money came from, or that there is a limit to this resource. They simply know that when they want something, they want it NOW.

BASIC NEEDS: Learns how to feed oneself, use the toilet, get dressed, (hopefully) sleep without the assistance of an adult. The adult is still responsible for providing the environment in which the child can fulfill his/her basic needs.

MATERIAL WANTS: Usually toys or other items (books, movies, clothes, games, etc) that appeal to their favorite (fill in the blank).

Financial responsibilities: Up to the adult/caregiver.

FROM PRE-SCHOOL THROUGH COLLEGE

There is a LOT of growing and changing that happens through these years, and you’ll notice that as kids get older, the more and more they will be influenced by outside peer pressure and societal pressure.

Little kindergartners, who want nothing more than to wear the same outfit emblazoned with their favorite cartoon character, eventually morph into high schoolers who are constantly monitoring their peers, wondering whether they “fit in” or not. Your clothes, your shoes, your hair, your accessories, your video game collection, your academic standing, your athletic abilities, your circle of friends, your extracurricular activities, and your social media all play roles in how you view yourself as an individual.

This is a far, far cry from that little baby, who wanted nothing more than to be fed, clothed, and loved.

BASIC NEEDS: Social status and need for belonging within a group becomes more important over time. There is also a significant need for self-worth as the child becomes more and more independent. 

Adults continue to provide financially for the basics needs of housing, food, and clothing.

MATERIAL WANTS: Anything and everything that has a price tag.

Once children start spending more and more time outside the home, their “wants” are now more influenced by their social group and their environment outside the home. It can be difficult for children to know exactly what it is THEY want as an individual, versus what they want in order to fit in with a group. Keeping up with the Joneses starts early.

They may have their own spending money at this point, through sources such as an allowance, gift money, or a job. It’s up to the adult to fund anything else that the kids want that they do not pay for themselves. 

Financial responsibilities: Mostly the adult, but children can start contributing to varying degrees.

POST-COLLEGE TO INDEPENDENT ADULTHOOD

These are the years that many of us were racking up student loan debt in vet school. Financially, you can see quite a range here: everyone from the student who is still 100% dependent on their family to pay for everything (tuition, living expenses, etc) to the student who is now completely independent and relying on student loans and a mix of jobs in order to make ends meet. 

Eventually, we all get to this next stage….

(TRADITIONAL) ADULTHOOD

This is the adult that is now living completely on their own, paying their own bills and no longer relying on any outside financial assistance to live their lives. This is the traditional definition of adulthood, but it’s changing.

This stage has been delayed quite a bit due to a variety of reasons: the need for more education to enter the workforce, increased cost of living, increased student debt burdens, etc. It’s not uncommon to see young adults financially dependent on their parents at an age where in previous generations, that person would have already been married with children.

However, there is a point where adults will be living without the financial assistance of their family. This will also be a life stage where there are a LOT of competing financial obligations, and even when you’re bringing in a decent income, your cash flow situation may feel tight.

BASIC NEEDS: “Adulting” means that you are now completely responsible for fulfilling your own basic needs and having the financial means to do so. You decide what to eat, what to wear, how much sleep you get every night.  You make choices about the environment you live in, the jobs you take, the people you surround yourself with. Just because these are basic needs doesn’t mean that they’re easy!

MATERIAL WANTS: Again, anything with a price tag. The big difference is that now YOU have to foot the bill. 

This is a big shift, and one that many of us are not prepared for since money is such a taboo subject. The topic of how to manage your money is still not taught or modeled. It is up to each of us to define exactly what it is that we desire and using our own money as a tool to fulfill that desire. Due to the variety and ease (hello Amazon!) in terms of what we can buy, it is incredibly easy to overspend with little to no effort at all, and our spending may not even align with our priorities if we’re not intentional.

Financial responsibilities: Completely up to the individual.

ADULTHOOD IN RETIREMENT

For those that are no longer earning an income, this can be a scary time. Now you have a lifetime’s worth of savings and investments from which you need to decide how to best fund your lifestyle. The decades of saving and accumulating assets transitions to a stage where you need to start withdrawing from that nest egg. Whether or not it’s enough will depend on a variety of factors.

BASIC NEEDS: Same as above

MATERIAL WANTS: It is at this stage that you need to be very clear about your priorities and how you want to best utilize your money as a tool to live the life that you want.

Hopefully by this stage, you’re in tune with what’s important to you and you have the means to fulfill your desires with what you have. The more restricted your fixed income, the more frustrated you may feel if you’re barely having your basic needs met (food, clothes, shelter, medical) and nothing left for your wants.

Financial responsibilities: Up to the individual. If there is a shortfall, they often turn to family members to help support them financially.

NEEDS VERSUS WANTS

As you can see, the general trend as we grow from infants to adults is that our desires, our wants, increase. We become more aware of what we want as individuals and what the outside world can provide for us to fulfill our wants. We are influenced heavily by our environment and the people that surround us. There is a limitless supply of products that can fulfill any desire that we have, and this can be overwhelming. 

Have you noticed that the line between needs and wants is not clear-cut? As you can see, our money needs to provide for both basic needs AND wants. In fact, many of our “wants” are actually fulfilling our basic needs.

Everyone needs to live somewhere, but this can range from your parents’ basement to a multi-million dollar property in a very high cost of living area. Everyone needs to eat; you can choose to eat rice and beans or dine out every evening. Each choice is not inherently good or bad- it all depends on your personal situation and how much you can actually afford. 

But that last missing piece, the happiness piece, is whether your spending is actually in alignment with your values. If you are spending your money in a way that aligns with your values, then you are decreasing your “wants” and spending more time in that place of contentment, which is the absence of desire. 

WHAT ABOUT MY BILLS/DEBT?

Of course, we all have bills to pay, and you can argue that these bills aren’t aligned at all with our values (hello student loans!). 

Remember, the bills that we’re paying right now are a reflection of 1) past circumstances and 2) choices that we have made up until this point. As you can see in the timeline of needs and wants, the older we get, the more we’re responsible for the financial choices that we’ve made. There is no magic wand that will allow us to “undo” these circumstances and choices. 

So you can do one of two things. You can either continue to feel a host of negative thoughts about your current financial situation and not take any action, or you can vow to do the best you can with what you have NOW and make plans to improve your situation going forward with a more positive attitude. Which would you rather choose?

Although not easy, people have changed their living situations to lower their housing costs. Student loan payments can be lowered by refinancing. Subscriptions or memberships that you never use can be eliminated. You can find ways to cut down on your food costs or use a different form of transportation.

If you want to take action now, then you can do a full audit of your current financial situation, such as determining your net worth or looking at your budget, and decide whether you need to make any changes.

Don’t forget about the other side of the equation, which is to increase income. There’s only so much you can cut before you start feeling completely miserable. But there is so much potential on the income side, and you can’t rule out increasing income as a way to improve your financial situation so that your spending is a better reflection of what you truly value.

CONCLUSION

So, is happiness really the absence of desire?

If you define happiness as a state of contentment, then yes, not having any desire would certainly bring you to this state.

Should we aim to be happy and content ALL the time?

I don’t think that this is a realistic (or even achievable) goal to have. We’re all human, after all, and we’re all bound to have our ups and downs. That’s just life.

But we can certainly aim to live a better, richer life. A life where we are desiring less and content with what we have. A life where we replace desires with gratitude. A life where our happiness is not dependent on how much we’re spending. This is an ongoing process that will constantly need tweaking and adjustments as we go through life.

Remember, even those with negative net worth can live a rich, happy life while on the flip side, those with a lot of money in the bank can still feel an insatiable need to have more, never being happy with their current situation. Children who are fed, clothed, safe, and loved are in a state of happiness that so many adults with financial means crave and desire.

If you’re not content with your current financial situation, then get real with your numbers and see where you can make some changes. Is your spending reflective of your values? Do you see areas where wants and desires can be decreased so that you spend more time in happiness and contentment? Use this information to your advantage so that you can start living a richer life sooner rather than later!

Are you happy and content with your money situation? If so, was it always this way? If not, what steps can you take towards more happiness and contentment with your money? Comment below!

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