Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Liberty And the Pursuit of Happiness

I was reading Steve's blog this morning, and I tried, several times, to add a comment, but every time, it just kept getting longer and more convoluted ....

I heard that whoever said, "And that's different because ...." So, not funny! Okay, a little funny (*grin*).

Based on an article he'd read, he was pondering the money/happiness connection and concludes that money and happiness are not complements.

If you've been reading my blog for any length of time, you know I'm all about downsizing with respect to our income and expenditures. For a long time, we've been trying to reduce the amount of money we need to make so that we can, comfortably maintain our lifestyle without having to be slaves to the money economy, i.e. Deus Ex Machina can quit his soul-sucking corporate job and come home :) and be with us, instead of just being in our presence.

So, for me, money *definitely * happiness, and in fact, I would go further to say that no amount of money results in happiness, because for most people, the more they have, the more they want (although most research supports the idea that there is a perfect amount of money that is enough, and once people reach that enough amount they are usually happy, but their happiness tends to decrease if they have than just enough).

When I graduated from college, I felt like if I just had more money, then I would be happy. I just needed more money, but the funny thing was, when I made more money I found the opposite to be true. In fact, what I found was that the more money I made, the more bills I had. It was like some very cruel alternative universe. The more I made, the more difficult it was to meet my basic needs. The harder I worked, the more money I needed just so that I could keep a roof over my head and feed my children. It sounds totally implausible, but I swear it's true.

In 1998, I left my outside employment and started working from home. In those first years, I spent a lot of time in the online WAHM (work-at-home Mom) community. There was a lot of information, and there were even more questions about how to get a work-from-home job. Every mom I spoke with, both in person and virtually, wanted to know more about my job - mostly, how I happened upon this incredible opportunity.

By 2000 home-based businesses were being touted as the fastest growing industry in the United States. Everyone wanted to be a WAHM, and I was fully aware of how lucky I was to be in the position I was in. I was even interviewed for the book The Entrepreneurial Parent.

It was all so very exciting that I wanted everyone to be able to work-from-home, if that's what they wanted, and I fully believed (still do, for the most part) that anyone who really wanted to work-from-home, could. So, I started gathering every book I could find on the topic, and I started a very niche virtual bookstore, specializing in books for the work-at-home parent. I even wrote (but didn't publish) a work-from-home workbook full of advice and information about how to get started.

Over the years of researching all topics related to working from home, I found a wealth of information. One of my favorite documents to share with prospective WAHMs (and WAHDads) was the chart that showed the actual cost of having a job. I'd never thought of it before I started working from home, but running the numbers was pretty telling. I think what most two-income families (where both parents work) don't realize is how much that second job costs, especially if childcare is involved. Unless both parents really have a very good job in a very specialized, high-income field, in most cases, - after childcare, diapers, formula, extra doctor visits (because, statistically, children who are in a group daycare setting are sick more often than children who stay at home full-time), the children's daycare/school wardrobe, the parents' "work" wardrobe, gasoline to get back and forth to work, the extra car payment (in many cases, if only one parent works, really only one car is *needed*), maintenance costs on two vehicles, lunches (and snacks) during the workday, take-out when the parents are too tired to cook, grocery store convenience food, because there's never enough time for canning or baking - it actually costs more for both parents to have a job than it would for one parent to stay home.

Living on one income can be very difficult. Deus Ex Machina and I did, and it was tough, but if we had been smarter and more thoughtful back then, if *I* had been more frugal, indeed, if I had known how to be frugal, things would be very different now for us. At the time, when I first started being home full-time, even after all that I had been through as a working mom in a two-income family, I still thought money could make us happy.

Age (and a few gray hairs) has made me wiser, and now, I know that happiness and money are not related. After all of the research I've done on working from home and entrepreneurialism, and after all of the years I've spent working from home, and after all of the time I have spent being free to pursue whatever whim takes my fancy, I know that money won't make me happy. At best, it's little more than a nice side benefit to doing something that one really loves.

The work-at-home books and the home-based entrepreneur industry are full of stories about people who turned their hobbies, the things they loved to do, into full-time occupations - often, they make less money than they were making being a slave to their jobs, but given the freedom to do what they want, they spend less time spending and much more time doing.

There's a saying, one either has time or one has money - rarely it's both. If one can figure out that magic formula of "enough" when it comes to money, one can realize that dream of perfect equilibrium, both enough time and enough money.

In this society, if we want to live in a permanent home (that is, not be transient and living in make-shift campsites), we do need to have a way to earn some money. The question becomes, how much money do we really need versus how much money we believe we need to keep living the lifestyles we live?

The follow-up question is what are we willing to give up so that we can live our authentic lives, instead of giving little pieces of our soul to a job we hate and to employers who rarely give a sh*t about us as long as we're doing they job they pay us to do?

That's the question I'm trying to get answered right now. There's a chart on the wall behind me that shows what our monthly expenses are. What it fails to tell me is why those are our monthly expenses, and whether or not there are ways that we could, if we really were following our bliss, make those numbers smaller to match our, potentially, smaller income - and there's no guarantee that our income would be smaller, but the goal would also be to spend fewer hours per day working-for-money, which means we'd probably be making less.

The smaller those numbers are, the less money we need. The only way to truly shield oneself from the violent shifts in our economy is to not play the game. In a world that is totally preoccupied with money and how to get more of it, not needing money is the liberty that leads to happiness.


  1. Wendy, that is one hell of a blog post!!! Amazing job!

    When Lee and I first knew we were going to be together forever, Lee and I agree that I wouldn't work outside the home. Many years and one child later, we remained true to our agreement. I will never forgot when my girlfriend came to visit me one day. We discussed our daughters, friends and the job she so desperately hated. She said she wished she could "afford" not to work.... the irony is that she left my 900 square foot apartment and went home to her 3,000 square foot home in an expensive neighborhood in order get ready to get back to the grind... while I spent a nice relaxing evening with the people I love most in this world. ;)

  2. It is so easy to sucked into the 'if I just had' cycle, isn't it?

    I don't consider myself materialistic, and was raised by parents with similar values, especially compared to their corporate friends and neighbours. Both they and I and my brother,and DH too, had/have jobs in the public sector- not very well paid, but ones we felt 'worthwhile'.
    But now- I'd love photovoltaic cells. They'd save us money in the long run, plus having a little energy independence. £13,000. Well out of our budget.
    I'd also love a woodburning cookstove, nothing fancy. At least £3500.

    I don't want a new(er) car, bigger TV, clothes- any of the stuff we're told we need to be happy. But even to achieve the level of independence I'd like, it's so hard not to think 'if I just had...'

    Great post, thanks.

  3. So true! So true!

    I've been stumbling on articles and studies about this and while no one can give an equation for the perfect amount of income one needs to be happy, we know that most of us are not doing it right. It really is a personal choice to be happy instead of being "needy". (Excluding uncontrollable problems like medical issues, etc)

    For the past few decades we have been raising our children not to succeed, but to excel, to "beat out" the other job candidates, to get the highest paying job possible in any given field so they can afford all the "toys". We are not raising them to be happy. It seems that the marketing agencies feed this hunger with advertisements depicting the "good life". Some of us are coming to realize what the good life really is, as you so perfectly point out - being WITH your family.

  4. Well put. Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette also does an excellent job of outlining the costs of a second (or even first) job. From there it's easy to understand her claim that a dollar saved is two dollar's earned.

    Another book I highly recommend is Better Off. It examines not just how much money produces optimal happiness, but also how much technology and how much physical labor. I think these questions are complimentary to the how much money question.

    I'm with Hazel - I think feel are very few material goods left out there that I want for their own sake. But the big ticket items that would allow us to live on less energy and less money are extremely attractive. We shelled out for an energy retrofit and a passive solar thermal system. Now the final piece of the puzzle would be some PV panels. It remains to be seen whether we can afford them.

  5. Kate - both VERY good books.

    I LOVED Better Off, and I really love that he continued to live that lifestyle, for the most part - modified a bit so that he could live in a typical urban area).

    I wish I'd had Amy Dacyczyn's books back when they were newsletters :). She started puslishing her newsletter right about the time that I started working my first "professional" jobs.

    Another great resource for how-to live well with less is the Economides family's book America's Cheapest Family. I don't agree with their overall shopping habits (because most of my food is locally sourced and I'm not, necessarily, concerned with looking for bargains on food items), much of what they say is very helpful, in particular, because they look like a very affluent, American family and someone to whom most of us would be comfortable relating (and emulating).

    And of course, we all know how I feel about Possum Living *grin*.

    As for the big-ticket items that have been mentioned, I'm not sure I'd put those in the same category as other spending. Things like the coffee grinder I bought at Goodwill wouldn't go in that category, either, because tools that help me to simplify my life will, ultimately save me money. So, the woodstove we purchased in 2008 and the PV system we will (someday) install and all of the woodflooring that will soon replace our carpets (to eliminate the need to vacuum) are all investments toward allowing us to live on a smaller income.

  6. Coming from someone that walks that thin line of "enough" it is a struggle. But, my kids know me better than most kids know their dads. The best part is I know them. That knowledge is not simply from my wife or nanny ("what did the kids do today").

    Maybe after the kids are grown I'll work a little more, but not much. That will only be an attempt to replace all the material things that I loved and are now destroyed by the aforementioned kids;) We moved here from the big city for our kids so figuring out how to spend the most time with them possible just seemed logical.

    I really want to put up a PV system also because electricity is our single largest expense. Working for a solar company you'd think I could make that happen sooner rather later.

  7. When I think about frugality, lifestyle changes, and so on, Health care always comes up as the big stumbling block. We can do a lot to downsize, cut back and be self-sufficient on things like shelter, food and transportation, but when somebody in the family gets seriously sick or injured, I think most of us still want the best - and most expensive - care available. THAT still costs a lot of money.

  8. karl - it is a very delicate balance, isn't it? It's nice, though, that you recognize the importance of your role in your children's lives. I don't think a lot of people really think about that connection. Your kids will benefit from having a close relationship with their "Pa."

    MojoMan - I think that depends on the illness/injury, and I think a lot of the illnesses that we suffer in this country are intimately linked to our lifestyles and are completely preventable. Prevention is cheap.

  9. Does that mean you don't think health insurance is something we should have? Sure, I exercise and try to eat well, but that doesn't mean that tomorrow I won't be in a car crash, cut my leg with a chainsaw or get a cancer diagnosis. Do you think that we should gamble that our kids won't get sick, and if they do, simply say: "Tough luck, that was preventable."

    Naturally, I don't think you have such harsh views, but I do think this is a serious concern and I, for one, would not be willing to take a chance on the statistics and what is statistically 'preventable.' Are you saying you don't have health insurance?

  10. MojoMan - I've spoken at length about how I feel about health insurance, and frankly, I don't think health INSURANCE is any insurance that I would be able to pay my medical bills should something catastrophic happen. In my opinion health INSURANCE is a racket, a money-making scheme, that drives the cost of health care beyond what people should be expected to pay.

    In fact, Micheal Moore produced an entire film that discussed how people who had health INSURANCE still DIED from things like accidents and cancer.

    While I respect your opinion regarding health insurance, we should probably agree to disagree at this point, and leave it at that :).

  11. I'm not looking for an argument, Wendy, just enlightenment and ideas. As you discuss in your excellent post on health 'care' reform, since we don't have employer-provided insurance we have to buy our own here in Massachusetts and for 2 of us, it's well over $12K a year with all kinds of deductibles. I think this will prove to be a major wrench in the works for all of us who are interested in living simpler, more local lives.

  12. I'm not a health professional, and I can not dispense health advice. You have to do what you're comfortable doing, and if you're convinced that you need health insurance, then, by all means, get it, but I would recommend that you look a little more deeply into why you feel it's necessary, and what you're getting for your $12K per year.

    If you want to know what I would do, it's as I said, *I* would not pay $12K per year for health insurance. I'd go without, explore other alternatives, and make some provisions for the just in case.

    There's a clinic up here that doesn't accept health insurance at all. They are a medical co-op and the cost per hour-long visit is $60 to $120. Even if I went to see them every week for a whole year, it would still cost less than paying insurance premiums, and with weekly visits, any catastrophic health issue would be identified and treated (holistically and most likely non-invasively), without costly hospital care or medications, which means I'd save on the $10,000 deductible, and all of the co-pay costs.

    But in the way of background on me and just so you know that I'm not being disingenuous: I have five children. My first was a c-section. If I'd followed the doctor's advice, I'd have had four subsequent scheduled c-sections (very costly and risky procedure). Instead, I had four subsequent VBACs with the last two being completely unmedicated and, basically, unassisted (the paramedic delivered Little Fire Faery in the ambulance on the way to the hospital and Deus Ex Machina delivered Precious here at home in our bathtub while we waited for the mid-wife to arrive ;).

    In addition, I work for a physical therapy clinic. There have been too many instances where physical therapy was the best treatment, but the insurance company wouldn't pay for the level of care the patient needed (e.g. ten visits are recommended by the therapist, but the insurance would only pay for two). And for that, we are paying $12K per year?

    The bottom line, for me, though, is that our current health care system is completely unsustainable, and we have a lot of people who are paying health insurance premiums in the hopes that they'll be able to get some level of care that they will likely never to receive. In my opinion, it's better to shove that money under a mattress in the event of a real emergency, and in the meantime, practice preventative care - a healthy diet, hand washing and good oral hygiene (do some research on the link between a healthy mouth and a healthy heart), and visits to alternative health care providers like massage therapists (which most health insurance plans will not cover).

    Yes, accidents happen, but you should really consider what accidents are possible, given your lifestyle, and check whether or not your health insurance would cover you if whatever it is actually did happen.

  13. I heard a blurb on the radio the other day about a bit of research on money and happiness. The bottom line was that more money doesn't make you happy, people tend to still find stuff that makes them unhappy, just different stuff.

    What they did find is that while having more money won't make you happier, you will *worry* about things less. The income level they tied this to was ~$75k+, I think.

    It was a radio blurb that didn't go into detail on findings, but my guess is that you worry less about things like insurance, outfitting the kids, having a car that works - that whole group of things you'd worry about if you couldn't pay for it.

    My wife and I both work and make pretty good money, but it's an expensive area (Northern VA). I do worry a lot less about the items listed above, but overall am probably not happier than when I was 19, enlisted, and scraping for beer money.

    One thing that would make me happier, even with a reduction in pay, is to move to the middle of the country... still working on that ;)

  14. Thanks for the thoughtful and detailed response, Wendy. It looks like you have enough for another whole post there!