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Happy Go Money: Spend Smart, Save Right and Enjoy Life

Contents

Introduction

Buying Happiness

1: Banking on Happiness

2: F*ck the Joneses

3: More Stuff? Stuff It

4: Buying Happiness (for Real)

Check Yourself before You Wreck Your Wealth

5: Watch Your Friggin’ Language

6: Worries B-Gone

7: Your Default Settings

8: Sorry Not Sorry

Feel Like a Million Bucks (for Free)

9: Train Your Happy Ninja

10: Invoke the Dollar Lama

11: Invest in Bonds

12: Eat, Play Snooze

Take Stock, Make Gains

13: Balance the Bills and Thrills

14: Check Your Worth

15: Goal Digger

Happiness for Later

16: Save Right

17: Make That Money Work

18: Make the Silver Fox Happy

19: Hooking Up with a Financial Advisor

Make It Rain

20: Show Me the Money

21: Happy Hustling

22: Couch Cushion Cash

Happiness Assassins

23: Debt — The Big Killjoy

24: Bulletproof Your Happiness

The Life-Changing Magic of Giving a Buck

25: Give to Get

Happy Ending

Connect with Me

Acknowledgements

Resources

Index

About the Author

Copyright

To Jet

If someone put a dollar figure on how happy you make me, I’d be a Kardashian.

To Mom and Dad

You gave me everything and more. I hope I make you happy.

Introduction

Dumplings. Spinach cake. The psych ward.

Sounds like the plot for a cooking show gone wrong, but each represents a period in my life that showed me the connection between happiness and money.

The first was when I was 29, and I was working as a crime reporter for a national newspaper. I hated covering crime so much that I fled the country. I took a three-month sabbatical and accepted a university scholarship to study in Taiwan with a small monthly allowance to cover food and rent. Once there, I lived out of a suitcase and shared a 200-square-foot underground apartment with a pack of cockroaches who kept me up at night, rustling plastic bags and flinging their crunchy bodies against the walls. My bank account, every month, was a ticker clicking from $1,000 to zero, and my new friends would join me in counting down like it was New Year’s Eve.

That was one of the happiest times in my life.

Every day, I would wander, hike, study and eat. I gained the requisite “freshman 15.” If I saw a lineup at a food stall or restaurant, I’d just join it. And as long as the food didn’t resemble anything I’d slap with my flip-flop, I’d eat it. My meal of choice? Dumplings. Pan-fried dumplings; soup-filled, steamed dumplings. There, a plate of dumplings and a drink cost about $1.25. I filled my days (and my stomach) with joy and adventure and people — and I didn’t worry about money or buying stuff.

The second period starts with a dumpling. Well, someone who I call my dumpling. My son was born in 2015 at the height of my career. I was back at my beloved newspaper, covering personal finance, and appearing on my favourite national talk show. I had just gotten a salary boost. I was two books into a self-published teen trilogy that had sold more than 70,000 copies. And then in my off-off hours, I made extra bucks teaching and performing dance. I was sprinting with no time for rest or liquids because, I mean, who has time to sleep or pee? Those boxes on my career and financial checklists weren’t going to tick themselves.

When my maternity leave ended, I scheduled a meeting with my editor-in-chief. Would I be coming back full-time, part-time or not at all? Time away to raise kids can screw with your career and your earning potential, both of which were important to me. (Mothers who took more than three years off earned 30% less than childless women at age 40, one Statistics Canada report says.)

The day before my meeting, I was still figuring out what to do and baking healthy treats for my little guy. By baking, I mean randomly mixing flour, eggs and vegetables. I’d finally found someone who enjoyed my culinary art; he obviously knows that my oven bakes good buns. Catching everyone, including myself, off guard, I decided to quit my job.

I just wasn’t ready to go back. I wanted to be at home to make my kid zucchini muffins, yam cookies and spinach cake. It cost me a $65,000 salary (and an $8,000 maternity leave top-up that I had to pay back immediately). But I bought over 2,500 more hours with my son (assuming each day I worked eight hours and commuted for two). Buying this time with my family has brought us so much joy. I can no longer say the same about the spinach cake.

Finally, the third episode in my life that taught me my most important money lesson began a few months after I got married. My husband had gotten a prescription for sleeping pills for a guys trip where they’d all be sleeping (and snoring) in the same suite. What ensued was what may be considered one of the worst times in my life — and his. My husband suffered terrible side effects after taking the pills. He quickly became buried under the crushing weight of depression and terrified by relentless anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Very suddenly, my beautiful, outgoing, make-me-laugh-until-I-cry husband disappeared into someone I did not recognize.

I made it my mission to keep a strong hand extended into a dark hole. And to be happy in the face of it. Not easy when I’ve always said that the glass was half-empty — probably because I’ve spilled milk and now I’m crying over it. Friends called me Negatron. I have a depressing factoid handy to counter every happy ending: divorce rates, crime numbers, cancer statistics. (Yes, I’m available to entertain at your next party.)

But I became a joy ninja. I learned to meditate. I pored over every book I could find on the study of happiness and positive psychology. I consumed hours of lectures from Buddhist monks and resilience gurus. They talked about mantras and gratitude exercises and anti-inflammatory, mood-boosting diets — all of which I tried — and no one talked about finances. But I knew that I could focus on happiness and my husband could focus on healing — which he had time to do because we had our money shit in order.

So, absolutely, money and happiness are connected. But not necessarily in the way we think. Everything tells us that what will make us happy can be bought. Bliss is a click away with this online purchase. The average city-dweller sees thousands of ads a day — a tsunami of commercials, billboards, brand names, pop-ups, celebrity endorsements and more. Meanwhile, social media shows us a curated checklist of lifetime accomplishments, travel destinations, meals and new outfits deserving of selfies. We drag around our student debt for years after graduating. We cower under surging house prices. We feel crappy about not saving enough, about spending too much, about not understanding our money or maybe not wanting to understand. And we just wish we had more. No matter how much we have. We just wish we had more.

The truth is more money doesn’t always mean more happiness. You could be stuffing your joy bank with coins, and yet it remains empty. Don’t worry. I got your back. I’m going to help you chart your own path to happiness with your money and life. Each chapter in this book ends with actionable tidbits — stuff you can do right away and then pat your back about. Also, I know talking money is tough, so I’ve provided questions to ask yourself or to discuss with others.

As great company as I am (I’m a fab wing girl/background karaoke singer/tucker-in-of-tags), I want you to find another means of support. This book is for you and a friend or friends because happiness is easier with a team. If you want to be happier and more successful with your goals, I encourage you to read this with your partner, bestie, office wife, a trusted group of peeps, whoever. Form a club, IRL or online — your very own “Oh Happy Money” community, which I’ll refer to as your OHM tribe.

Your OHM tribe is your happiness and money-savvy support group. I suggest that you check in with each other (once a week over email, maybe once a month over a bottle of wine) and hold each other accountable to your goals. Talk about money. Yes, money makes people weird (because it’s not about dollars and cents; it’s about your identity, family, vanity, values, etc.), so I’m not saying that you must disclose your salary or your debts to everyone, but you can announce that you have a savings goal and every week or month discuss whether or not you’ve achieved it.

Read, highlight and dog-ear the pages of this book. Make notes in the margins because your own insights define your journey. Keep me updated on your progress and reach out to me with questions or for a digital high-five (@lisleong on Twitter and Instagram).

I’m not going to tell you to give up your daily latte. I’m not going to suggest that you forgo a new cellphone or that you don’t upgrade to the bigger home or give up your dream wedding. But let’s get clear about what really makes you happy and what kind of life you want — and how to get that through smart spending, simple saving and taking control of your money. This book isn’t necessarily going to make you crazy rich. But it will make your life richer. And at the end of the day, that’s what we all really want.

Buying Happiness

How we try to spend our way to smiles, and what actually works.

1

Banking on Happiness

“If I only had a little more money, I’d be happier.”

When was the last time that you had this thought? Every day, we make choices based on the idea that joy can be bought and that more money makes everything better. We take the new job with the extra hour in traffic because it pays more. We put a coat on credit because it’s designer. We buy the big house because it has a yard for our future kids and a kitchen island that’s “an entertainer’s dream.”

To be fair, scientifically speaking, when we see something we want, a new pair of shoes or a gadget, we do feel joy; it triggers a patch of tissue in the brain, the nucleus accumbens, the so-called sex and money area. It gets activated when humans receive a reward, whether drugs, money or food. Then when we buy something, we get a delicious burst of dopamine in the brain.

That sounds sexy and yummy and all, but the euphoria doesn’t last. Then we just need more stuff. All that crap we buy loses its lustre. When the novelty wears off and the shopping high from the endorphin and dopamine dump dissipates, we’re left with a void and possibly regret.

“Why did I spend money on this?!?” we ask. Because I need it. Because I deserve it. Because I had a rough day. Because I have no willpower. Because it was on sale. Because it’s a habit. Because it was a whim, a knee-jerk reaction. But when you get down to it? Because I want to be happy.

So, what do we actually need to be happy? Let’s break down our thoughts on the subject and rebuild. This is me swinging on a wrecking ball (fully clothed) to help.

The magic number

We all need a certain amount of money to be happy. But how much?

For those of us who are on the verge of losing our homes, who fret about feeding our children, who cringe when the phone rings because debt collectors may be calling, without question, more money will make us happier. But for the rest of us, before connecting cash with joy, we need to talk about what we mean by “happy.”

Scientists in neuroeconomics (the study of how we make economic decisions) break happiness into two types:

  1. Life satisfaction: an evaluation of your well-being as a whole (the kind of happy where you’re pleased with life in general).
  2. Day-to-day mood: the highs and lows; the joy, stress, sadness, anger and affection that you experience from one moment to the next — how you feel today, how you felt yesterday. (The kind of happy that most of us relate to — the right now happiness.)

With life satisfaction, the richer people got, the more satisfied they were with their lives. In worldwide studies, people in richer countries reported higher life satisfaction than those in poorer countries. (We should also consider that wealthier countries are more politically stable, more peaceful and less oppressive — which affects well-being.) But according to a 2018 Purdue University study, there was a limit: $95,000 U.S. (pre-tax, per single-family household). Above that, more money didn’t mean that you were more satisfied. With day-to-day happiness, the threshold is $60,000 to $75,000 per household, according to various studies. The 2018 study showed that after these salaries are met, life satisfaction and day-to-day happiness actually slightly decrease with more money.

What the what?

Well, apparently, when all of our basic needs are met, we become driven by other desires such as chasing after more material stuff and comparing ourselves to others, which make us unhappy. Also, high incomes can come with high demands (more working hours, more stress and less time with family and for leisure).

This doesn’t mean that we should all go out and try to make exactly $75,000 a year — our so-called feel-good financial sweet spot. The studies are averages, and we all need different things to be happy. But all of us find joy in some simple things — kisses, laughter, getting IDed over the age of 25.

Marketing professor Hal Hershfield once told me, “Even if I have an amazing car in my driveway, a huge house and a big fat income, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll be happier on a day-by-day basis, because the types of things that influence happiness are who I interact with, how I spend my time and the things that I do.”

Think of some of your happiest times in the past week. Were you spending it with people? Were you taking time to enjoy an activity, going for a run or catching up with a good friend? Would a wad of cash have made those moments that much better?

Probably not. If you answered “yes” to the latter question, how much more do you need to be happy? Read on.

Your magic number is probably wrong

Let’s do an exercise together.

How happy are you on a scale of one to ten?

Now think about how much money you have in the bank, your salary. How much more money would you need to be a perfect 10?

Michael Norton, who teaches at Harvard Business School and co-authored Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, surveyed average-income earners and high-net-worth Britons (with a net worth of more than $1 million), and he asked them those questions. “Everybody said two to three times as much money,” Norton told me.

“Why is that a problem?” I asked, estimating the same for myself.

“That’s a problem because people at $1 million said, ‘If I had $3 million, I’d be a perfect 10. Except that people who had $3 million said, ‘If I had $9 million, I’d be a perfect 10.’”

Basically, happiness is on a sliding scale. Think about how much this sucks. No matter what you have, you’ll always want more. Even if you have millions. When you find the gold at the end of the rainbow, the pot is just too damn small, and then you’re off again, chasing more rainbows.

It’s like a curse really. It also takes the fun out of my childhood dream of winning a million-dollar lottery. That was the very first fantasy I ever had: winning a jackpot and marrying one of the New Kids on the Block (anyone but Danny). I’d have fancy clothes and we’d eat at Red Lobster every weekend. (Still my idea of a hot date today.)

But despite what we may think, winning the lottery doesn’t buy you a one-way ticket to Euphoria Town. Take this famous study from 1978 where researchers asked two very different groups about their happiness: recent Illinois State Lottery winners who scored $50,000 to $1 million and recent victims of catastrophic accidents who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic. They asked the lottery winners and the accident victims to rate how happy they were at that stage of their lives, how happy they were before the life-altering event and how happy they expected to be in a few years. They asked them to rate how pleasant they found simple activities (talking with a friend, watching TV, eating breakfast, buying clothes, getting a compliment, etc.).

Seriously? Who’s happier, the person cruising in the wheelchair or in the Lamborghini?

Yes, the lottery winners were happier in the moment. The winners reported feeling more present happiness. But the people with disabilities rated their future happiness higher. They also enjoyed the simple things in life more: they had more appreciation for the mundane pleasures of things such as hearing a joke or reading a magazine.

Actually, research shows a link between high income and a reduced ability to savour small pleasures. Experts blame it on hedonic adaptation — our tendency to just get used to whatever we have. Even a dramatic life improvement eventually becomes the new normal. You don’t smell the roses because they’re everywhere, any time of the day. And research has shown that our inner thermostats are set somewhere between happiness and sadness: they can rise and fall depending on circumstance, but they generally return to that baseline. So, if you were a miserable moaner before hitting the jackpot, you’ll likely just be a rich miserable moaner.

In another real-life example, Markus Persson, who created Minecraft and sold it to Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014, reportedly bought a $70-million mansion, complete with a candy wall, vodka and tequila bars, designer fire extinguishers (because safety first, fashion second) and 15 bathrooms equipped with $5,000 remote-control operated toilets with air deodorizers and heated seats. But in 2015, he tweeted, “Hanging out in Ibiza with a bunch of friends and partying with famous people, able to do whatever I want, and I’ve never felt more isolated.” In another tweet, he said, “The problem with getting everything is you run out of reasons to keep trying, and human interaction becomes impossible due to imbalance.”

Now this could be super depressing to you. For me, it’s reassuring. It tells me that no single event or any material thing or external factor ultimately defines my happiness. Human beings are adaptable. A million dollars or a misfortune, over time, can become the new normal. Sure, with money, you’ll enjoy stylishly fighting fire with your Louis Vuitton extinguisher, but the riches may also make old pleasures seem less enjoyable.

So remember, there’s a better use of your money than playing the lottery. The odds of winning the Powerball jackpot prize is 1 in 292 million — and odds are that more money won’t guarantee that your days will be happier anyway.

Your Happy Money To-Do List

  • If you find yourself thinking, “If I only had [insert anything], I’d be happy,” challenge it. Ask your partner or co-worker or friend to poke you (lovingly) if they ever hear you say that phrase. It’ll be like that awful baby shower game where you can’t say “baby” — but for your life.
  • If you’re relying on something (or someone) to make you happy, you’re wasting your time and energy. If affirmations are your jam, write this down and stick it somewhere: “I control my own happiness.”
  • Name three big things that make you happy regardless of money (good health or a loving partner). Now name three very specific things (sleeping in on the weekend, your jam on repeat). Repeat the exercise every time you feel crappy about your financial situation — or any situation.
  • Stop playing the lottery. Now. Next time you want to play the lottery, buy someone a coffee or put the money into a donation box instead for a guaranteed happiness payoff.

Money Talks

  • If you think more money would make you happier, how much more?
  • How would your life be better with more money?
  • Think of a time when you made less money. Were you unhappier then? How much?
  • Think of some of your happiest moments from the last week. Would more money have made those moments better?

2

F*ck the Joneses

Happiness often stems from expectations. And happiness is relative. Three of my husband’s closest friends got sporty cars. And he did too. We have a Mercedes OMG something or other hibernating in our garage over the winter. (By the time you read this, I hope he’ll have sold it, which he said he would — maybe because he finished reading this book and admits that it doesn’t make him as happy as he thought it would.)

If everyone in my group of friends is carrying expensive purses, I might be more apt to splurge on a designer purse. If every post in my Facebook feed is someone’s kitchen renovation, I might look upon my tired fridge and wish for one with a wifi-enabled touchscreen.

I’m not immune. When an acquaintance bought a new home, I pulled up in front of her house and, through the front window, I saw a shining chandelier; I stared at the cascade of silver jewels dangling from a massive shade, and a voice in my head whispered, “I must have that.” When I looked into the cost of that light fixture, the voice in my head yelled, “Holy mother of crap. That’s a lot of money!!!” But I wanted to feel that awe in my house; I wanted others to admire my crap. And if she could afford it, surely I could too.

I bought it. It cost a quarter of my month’s pay, which I now realize would’ve been better spent on other priorities. I also walk by that chandelier every day, and I don’t even notice it anymore.

I later found out that the acquaintance had furnished some of her new house on credit — one of those “don’t pay for 12 months” deals. That’s the thing. Maybe your friend has a new car but zero savings for his family’s future. Maybe your neighbours have a brand-new kitchen but paid for it on credit. You just can’t know someone’s situation from an Instagram post.

But based on our limited information, we compare, we covet and we compete. No wonder we struggle sometimes to be happy.

Beyond comparison

Would you compare yourself to a lottery winner?

No. That’s ridiculous, right? But a 2016 study done for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia found that the neighbours of lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within a few years of the big win. Whether you live in a high- or low-income area, if you live beside someone who’s won some money, you are more apt to ramp up your own spending on visible assets like cars.

Even when it clearly doesn’t serve us, we use our peers as a standard for our own happiness. Almost half of respondents in a survey of faculty, students and staff at Harvard preferred to live in a world where the average salary was $25,000 and they earned $50,000 than one where they earned $100,000 but the average was $200,000.

Also, we’re happy to do well, but we don’t like to see others doing better than us. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky did a study where she evaluated an unhappy group of people on a task and then told them how they fared against peers. They either heard A or B:

  1. “You got a crappy evaluation, but a peer did even crappier.”
  2. “You got an awesome evaluation, but a peer did better.”

Who was happier? Those who heard A. Yeah. Those who were told they did crappy.

Pretend you’re an Olympic runner for a second. That means that you’d be happier if you missed your best time and your competitor went face first into the dirt than if you had won silver.

Put away the yardstick. You will always lose in a game of comparisons. Even if you’re Miss America, there will always be a Miss Universe. And Miss Universe isn’t Miss Universe forever.

Know that your brain naturally makes comparisons. Psychologists have long studied the good and bad of our innate tendency to compare. It’s how we cope, build resilience and establish our identities, but it can also lead us to feel envy, guilt, regret. It can make you terribly unhappy and distract you from what matters, which is you focusing on you. And be aware of what you’re putting out into the world. You might be the Joneses, in which case, if people are looking at you, what do you want to inspire in them?

F*ck the Joneses (with love)

Whenever I feel any kind of negativity toward someone, I try to kill the feeling with kindness. This isn’t about being the nicest person in the country; this is about self-preservation. It’s been said that resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. That person who I’m jealous of or angry at could give two butts about me; she’s probably never going to get diarrhea while giving a presentation at the office or develop a permanent crotch itch — no matter how many times I’ve mentally wished it upon her.

I’m basically stewing in my fury, flogging myself with every evil thought about her. Think of the grudges you’ve held (or are holding). Who really suffers? Researchers at the National University of Singapore asked people to recall incidents where they were wronged and then asked them to jump five times, as high as possible, on a yoga mat. Those who had forgiven their perpetrators jumped higher than those who still held their grudges. It’s like me after an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse meal — literally weighed down by beef.

There’s a saying that goes, “Living well is the best revenge.” No. No, it isn’t. Moving on is the best revenge. Being successful just to spite someone is stupid. I remember all of these people who would go on daytime talk shows to confront an old flame or someone who was mean to them in high school; the victim would have gone from “geek to chic” or would now be rich and sexy and want to rub it in the other person’s face. I always thought, uhh, maybe that other person doesn’t give a crap about you. Maybe if you were really “chic,” you’d have nothing to prove to anyone but yourself.

So instead of adding fuel to my grievances, I imagine that my nemeses too have a story of ups and downs and that they only want to be happy. Then I drink an antidote — I’ll write an encouraging note on their Facebook wall, I’ll invite them for coffee, I’ll offer them help. For me. Not for them.

Whenever you feel the itch of jealousy, the sting of inadequacy, give yourself a shake. Quickly name three things that you’ve got going for you in your life. Anytime you feel envy, think of it as a prompt to ask yourself, “Why do I envy this person?” It might inspire some changes in your life.

I often suffer from impostor syndrome. When I was younger, impostor syndrome made me spend money on things to make me appear more professional — a suit jacket with the perfect shoulder pads, the sleek but functional work/life handbag. Today, impostor syndrome makes me vulnerable to envying someone’s intelligence or talents.

“That person is so knowledgeable!” I’ll say to my husband. “I need to be more like this guy.”

He gets so annoyed. “Maybe that guy needs to be more like Melissa Leong.”

Everyone on social media is a big fat liar

The next time you’re scrolling through social media, stop and assess. Do you feel happy? Some studies have found Facebook use to be associated with a decline in happiness. One University of Michigan study reveals that the more research participants used Facebook over a two-week period, the more dissatisfied they felt over time. Was it because their newsfeed was filled with stories about murder and mayhem (“This 10-part series about war crimes against children is a must-read”)? Or was it because their feed was filled with humblebrags (“Darn! Forgot to pack sunscreen for the French Polynesia #BoraBoraForBrains” or “Clutz alert! Just spilled red wine on my new coat”)? The research out there is still incomplete. But in the meantime, if you’re thinking, “Man, everyone is living it up except me” — it’s not everyone, it’s not all the time and it might all be a show. The internet lies.

You can rent a private grounded jet to take Instagram photos in it for about $250. In Las Vegas, while the budget hotel Circus Circus and the posh Bellagio hold the same number of people, the Bellagio gets about three times the check-ins on Facebook, an economist noted. Also, if someone owns a BMW, Mercedes or other luxury ride, they’re more likely to show it off online.

We curate our lives for social media. We filter the crap out of photos. We filter our whole lives. We crop out the unsavoury parts of our vacations. We live-tweet the music festival but not the moment when the credit card is declined at the grocery store a month later. This is not reality. This is a reality TV version of life.

So many times, I’ve recognized the falseness in my own feeds. During my maternity leave, I mostly put up photos of me appearing on TV once a month. Friends would say, “You’re so busy with all of your work,” but I spent every other day of the month in a robe being a milk dispenser. My husband would take a day off from his work (he runs his own company) to look after the kid and I would go downtown for hair and makeup and live television. One day, I was on TV talking about credit scores and, based on my appearance and the photos, you’d never know that that morning I had been at the hospital until 5 a.m. with a sick baby. (The only blip was me making up the word “imaginatary” on live television.)

Don’t base your feelings, your assumptions on a sliver of someone’s life. With the masses all putting on their own show, with some using status updates to up their social status, we’d all be better off if we spent more time in the real world (versus an imaginatary one).

Celebrity worship syndrome

A few years ago, I asked my teenage niece what she wanted to be when she was older. She responded immediately.

“A VP?” I said. “That’s great. A VP of what kind of company?”

“No, a VIP,” she said.

“What is that?”

“Someone who’s rich, gets into parties and gets free clothing.”

WTF.

In the U.S., 81% of 18-to-25-year-olds said their most important or second most important life goal was getting rich — 51% said “being famous,” according to a poll released in 2007. Incidentally, that’s the same year that Keeping Up with the Kardashians debuted. We still watch that show and the Real Housewives — of Orange County, of Auckland, of Vancouver or wherever. There are the “Ultra Rich Asian Girls” on YouTube and the Rich Kids of Instagram. And, of course, celebrities. Celebrity faces boost the sales of everything from cosmetics and clothing to movies and Broadway plays. It isn’t just a North American phenomenon; after a Yves Saint Laurent lipstick was featured in a popular Korean television show, it sold out internationally.

We worship, we obsess, we emulate.

Seeking role models isn’t unusual; even monkeys emulate the dominant primate in their group. But we’re not monkeys. We can recognize how such influence taints our fountain of joy.

But instead we obsess over these superhumans who seemingly have it all. Our goal is to also be rich and famous because then we’ll have everything, we’ll be able to rub it in our enemy’s face, we’ll never suffer again. But what’s after happily-ever-after? And who are we if we don’t achieve this dream?

I was in my early 20s when I watched Mariah Carey tour her 11,000-square-foot Tribeca penthouse for MTV’s Cribs. She glided from her living room to her lingerie closet, the decor and upholstery the colour of champagne; the walls, a shiny coral, glazed like candy. I thought, “Man, that woman has it all: talent, fame, fortune, a chaise longue in her kitchen.” (So many times, I too have wanted to lie down while eating my meals.) But around that time, the singer also famously sought psychiatric treatment following an emotional breakdown.

That’s always stuck with me. It didn’t matter how many couches she had in her kitchen or how many rooms she had for her panties. It didn’t protect her from the trials and tribulations of being human. It didn’t safeguard her health. It didn’t solve all of her problems. We like to believe that there’s a group of people who walk in the sun, who have it all, who have truly achieved — because then we have something to hope for; we hope that we too can have it all.

But envy gnashes away at our happiness. Instead of comparing ourselves to others, we need to be grateful for what we have, focus on the opportunities ahead of us and turn off our phones and get a life outside of the glow box.

Your Happy Money To-Do List

  • Spend more time with people who are uplifting. When you hang with those who are always trying to compete with you or encourage you to spend, use a mental disclaimer like, “F*ck you, Jones. But I still love you.”
  • When you feel jealous, ask yourself, “Why do I envy this person? Do I know their story?”
  • If you must compare, identify a money role model. Think about what they’ve done to succeed. What behaviours or qualities led them to where they are today? How can you be more like them?
  • Choose who you see in your social media feed wisely. Unfollow (you can mute their posts but stay friends) or unsubscribe from anyone who makes you feel crappy. And add, like and engage with people whose posts align with your goals and values.
  • If you find yourself mindlessly scrolling through your social media feeds, stop and ask, “Is this feeding my brain happy food, or will I suffer a social media hangover?”
  • Start sharing things on social media that reflect your reality — the good and the bad — and your values. Be a source of good online.
  • Unplug for the weekend or make a rule of no social media at the dinner table or set an alarm to limit your scrolling time to 15 minutes. When you get together with friends or your OHM tribe, announce a social media break after you all take pictures of each other or your food or this book and then post or tweet or like them. Then put the phones away for the rest of the time together and enjoy the company.
  • Consider using a screen-time tracker to help you limit and manage your usage. Agree to a digital diet with friends — a contest where you stay under a certain limit for a week.

Money Talks

  • Name something in life that you’re proud of. Is your pride based on your own goals or on standards set by others?
  • Describe the last time that you felt jealous of someone’s financial situation or possessions. How did you handle it?
  • Have you ever bought anything or spent money on anything to show off on social media? Have you ever purchased something that you thought you “should” have, something that would transform you into a better person?
  • Share one of your happiest memories that were not captured on social media, maybe something from your childhood.

3

More Stuff? Stuff It

My husband really, really likes stuff. The title of his autobiography should be I Online Shop, Therefore I Am. At least once every other week, I’ll come home to find a box crowding our doorway. “More orders from online?” I’ll yell into the house. So hereafter, I will refer to him with the acronym MOFO.

Ever since he was a boy, Mofo has wanted a sports car. His friends send each other car videos on YouTube and go for joy rides where they end up idling and admiring each other’s rides in a strip mall parking lot. There isn’t a material good on this planet that fills me with the same excitement. Sure, I like shoes. But I can’t imagine my best friend sending me an online shoe review and me rewatching the video three times and reacting with an orgasmic grunt. “Ohhhh, do you hear the sound of the heel on the sidewalk?”

But that’s me.

I’ve tried to relate to Mofo’s fixation on this depreciating asset (I get that it doesn’t help when I call it that). I even turned to science. Evolutionary behavioural scientist Gad Saad once explained to me that the vehicle was a status symbol, an example of sexual signalling, an ostentatious display to attract a mate, like a peacock’s feathers. That’s why men make up the majority of car collectors and why 99% of Ferrari owners in North America are guys. “Only truly high-class guys can drive an Aston Martin,” Saad says. “The young guys can pretend with their Mustangs, but they don’t have the same big tail as me, so to speak.”

“Dude, you already got the girl,” I told Mofo, relaying the science. “A frugal girl. A girl who identifies cars only by colour. Who are you trying to impress?”

“It’s for the love of driving,” he said.

But I have a study to counter that argument too. Researchers at the University of Michigan and Peking University studied whether luxury cars did in fact bring more happiness. They asked drivers to recall their most recent commute or the last time that they drove their cars for at least 20 minutes. They then asked how they felt during those specific trips. Finally, they asked them about the kind of car they drove. The value of the car made no difference in how the drivers reported feeling.

Imagine, there you are in your [insert fancy vehicle here]. Now imagine that you’re in traffic and you’re late for your meeting and construction crews have just closed another lane and you’re staring down a convoy of cars with red tail lights. Yep. You’re unhappy in your fancy car.

Commuting is crappy whether you’re in a Kia or a Cadillac, and driving becomes routine. The thrill of the new wears off whether it’s a car, the latest iPhone or a new love interest.

That’s right, Mofo. Even your ultimate purchase can lose its shine.

House of (things bought with) cards

While on the money beat for the Financial Post, I once referenced a family who bought an expensive home but filled it with patio furniture because they didn’t have money left to furnish it. It was so important to them to have that home. Maybe it was in a prime school district. But maybe it said something about them. Our home is an extension of ourselves. We define ourselves by the art on our walls, the shine of our kitchens, the potted flowers on our porch.

During my sabbatical in Taiwan, my scholarship money covered school tuition and an apartment in a bustling night market, and my main worry was that my creepy crawly roommates would sublet my orifices while I slept. The unit was the size of my current kitchen, and it was barren. I think I had one pot, one plate and one cup. The only piece of decor was a bathmat. I didn’t have any money to make it “a home.” But as someone who’s moved a lot, “home” lives in me and goes wherever I go.

Years later, the memories of cockroaches, Taiwanese minimalism and almost all of my 20s got erased when I gave birth. (It’s like my kid pushed a reset button on the way out.) Mofo and I moved into a bigger house and we just filled it with more stuff. It became a shrine to the suburban dream and a warehouse for toys and mamaRoos/jumperoos/whateveroos. We got a Costco membership. An Amazon Prime membership.

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