In his memoir, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler estimated that he spent about 20 million dollars on cocaine during the 70s and 80s, but now he’s revised his estimate down to only 5 or 6 millon.
Either way, I don’t doubt he had a good time, but I bet that with a different purchasing strategy, those dollars could have bought a lot more good times than he ended up with.
Near the other end of the happiness-per-dollar spectrum you might find the habits of my super-thrifty girlfriend, for whom a month of particularly extravagant and careless living might cost her $1200. The other day I appalled her with my anecdotes about how in 2012 I had let my personal living expenses rise to over $3000 a month. I live on a lot less than that now and I’m a lot happier, and I could still live on substantially less than I do.
I learned to be good with money overnight, just over a year ago, when I stayed up late after discovering Mr Money Mustache and Jacob Lund Fisker. Over twenty years of daily money worries ended abruptly with a simple shift in how I looked at money. In the year between then and now I’ve changed careers, become about ten times more confident in my ability to provide for myself, and I wake up happy every day.
Essentially, the realization I had is that money is permanent. You have it until you trade it for something, and then that trade is permanent — you are thereafter permanently without that money. It’s gone and belongs to someone else now. Therefore it’s important to consider the permanence of whatever benefit you traded it for.
Think about it: when you die, you will have earned and spent a specific, finite number of dollars. For you the number might be 2,193,003, or maybe it’s 8,806,550, or even 217,101,992. Whatever it is, at the moment you die, it is a real and actual number. Even if you never wrote any of your purchases down, there’s an actual list of things these dollars were traded for, and each of these trades contributed to (or maybe detracted from) the overall amount of pleasure and fulfillment you experienced in your life.
There’s an enormous range of possible things to trade these finite dollars for, but ultimately there’s only one thing you’re trying to get for your money, which is quality of life. Universally, we want the feelings in our lives to be good, and there’s really nothing else we value. If you could see your “final balance sheet” and look back on how things went, you’d intuitively know which of those transactions contributed significantly to your overall happiness and which didn’t.
This trading can be done extremely well or extremely badly. The joy-per-dollar efficiency between different trades can vary by factors of thousands or millions. Even a free six-million dollar pile of cocaine would probably remove more joy from your life than it would add, so that’s not a good thing to trade for at any price. A five-dollar coffee might add a bit of joy, but even four of them will only add up to about an hour of low-level pleasure, and then it’s completely gone for your remaining decades on earth. You could have spent those dollars on, say, a copy of Qwirkle Cubes instead, which in my life has already created dozens or hours of free, highly social fun and is virtually indestructible.
I used to think of money as something like a running fuel supply. A life simply burns dollars, and if I want a big, fast, high-horsepower life (and who doesn’t?) then I need to be pumping significant quantities of dollars into it on a regular basis. In this context money seemed volatile, short-term and scarce. In other words, my money situation was a matter of how much I had coming in right now compared to what I wanted to spend right now. My strategy was to find a source of fuel that supplied me faster than I would be burning it once I was living like I wanted to. It always seemed a few years away.
I had grown up thinking like that so it didn’t strike me as odd. Under that mentality, the money situation always seemed to be a temporary condition, like weather. There were nice days and crummy days, heat waves and cold snaps — and the fact that it rained two weeks ago seemed like it ought to have nothing to do with whether it was warm today.
One example of this mentality is the common habit of going out to eat on payday, as if the timing of the incoming money should have anything to do with whether the purchase is sensible or not. It implies an overly zoomed-in view of the relationship between money and happiness. Read More