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Monday, December 12, 2005

NEWS FLASH: THOSE SHINY, HAPpy people on the front of the 401(k) brochure? Models. Fakers. Well-paid pretty faces. In their blemishless, flatteringly lit world, money is simply a tool for building a better life, not a keeps-you-up-at-night, ulcer-making foe. Brochure people religiously track their modest expenses on the latest version of Quicken. They budget their spending and wouldn't dream of back-ordering the luxe handbag du jour because it's so darling and they just really, really want it. They don't lease or lay away or run up credit card balances as a substitute for self-esteem or meaningful relationships. Vacations and tuitions and retirements have been planned for, the stock market is easy to understand, salaries yield more than enough to get by, and cash, well, it flows.

We hate those shiny, happy brochure people.

But the truth is, we wouldn't mind being that smart about our own money. So O asked psychologists, financial advisers, social activists, and other big thinkers to weigh in on the question of why it never feels as though we have enough--and to offer answers that can help real-life people stop the money madness.

How to get the most happiness from the money you have.

Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University and director of the Social Cognition & Emotion Laboratory

One reason we keep chasing dollars and are oddly disappointed when money doesn't provide happiness is that it once did. It's a little like alcohol. You think if one drink makes you feel good, ten will make you feel better. That turns out not to be true. I think most people spend unwisely. To maximize happiness with the money you have:

You'd invest in small pleasures. That's not what most of us do. We save up for the trip around the world or the Ferrari. But we now know happiness comes from lots of good things happening, not one really good thing. When I first came to Harvard, I would have said that the greatest thing is to be here. But it turns out the greatest thing is that I get to walk to work, twice a day, every day.

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You'd also invest in disappearing pleasures--chocolates and vacations versus a car or a washing machine. Most of us like things that we can keep, so a washing machine seems like a better investment than a vacation. That's the wrong way to think. Things that stay around have a tendency to disappoint us after repeated use.

And you'd invest in social pleasures: Good marriages and lots of friends are much better predictors of human happiness than wealth.

Ask yourself, Is this a need or a want?

Michelle Singletary, The Color of Money columnist for The Washington Post and author of Spend Well, Live Rich: How to Get What You Want with the Money You Have (Ballantine)

Enough is never enough because there's all this pressure to buy--so many images [of stuff] come at us from television and radio. We're mere mortals trying to fight the marketing machine. We spend too much on stuff--self-storage space is one of the fastest growth industries.

I challenge people to come up with personal mantras about their money and to practice them every day. When you have a mantra, you can use it to respond immediately to any message that you don't have enough. Here are a few of mine:

1. If it's on your ass, it's not an asset. Spend your money on things that appreciate in value.

2. Ask yourself, Is this a need or a want? It is unbelievable how often we fail to ask that basic question. Nine out of ten times, you'll say it's a want and then put it back.

3. Priorities lead to prosperity. I'm talking about focusing your energy and money on things that really mean something to you. Parents say they want to send their kids to college but then spend that money on toys and clothes and gadgets and shoes. You have to match up your priorities to what you want in life. When you create priorities, you set the stage for how to spend your money. That money is then spoken for.

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I was a dope.

Bernie Brillstein, Hollywood producer and author of The Little Stuff Matters Most: 50 Rules from 50 Years of Trying to Make a Living (Gotham)

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I did every dumb thing you can do, but still I made money. I bought houses; I had a Bentley for a week. I was a dope. For a while, I thought things validated my success. [But I realized] my success validated all my success. So I got rid of the four houses--no more calls in the middle of night that the boiler blew up.

Everyone thinks money is the answer, but happiness is the answer. Money just lets you pick your own type of misery. I'm not a Holy Roller. I am excessive in my own way, but I really think it comes down to the simple things--the dog and my wife.

Have --chop up the credit cards.

Dave Ramsey, host of the financial advice radio program The Dave Ramsey Show, which also streams live on the Internet through daveramsey.com

I'm often asked what the number one money problem in America is right now. It's that people wander through life like Gomer Pyle on Valium, then wake up at retirement and say, "Shazam! I'm broke." They don't have a plan.

On my radio show, we have $80,000-a-year couples call almost daily and they're broke. If you're a broke Yuppie, it's time to grow up. I've been there and done that, so I'm pointing at myself as well. Motivational speaker Les Brown said sometimes you have to tell yourself to shut up. I'm not suggesting that you become a tightwad just for the sake of being a tightwad. But if you can't pay for it now, you can't afford it. You are not entitled to a car or a leather couch, and your grandparents never went to Hawaii, so shut up. You can't wander through the mall like a drunk in a bar. If you're carrying credit card balances and you're mortgaged up to your eyeballs and you feel like a rat trapped on a wheel, it's because you're a rat on a wheel. So have --chop up the credit cards--and make a decision to do something different. Save for things. I want you to go to Hawaii--it's a beautiful place.

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Get to enoughness.

Vicki Robin, coauthor of Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Penguin)

We confuse money--pieces of paper or metal--with nonmaterialistic needs and desires. And we have lost our imagination about how we might meet many of these deeper needs without money. People who know how much is enough have everything they want and need to live a life they themselves define as fulfilling and meaningful. All their choices--from how they spend their time and how they spend their money to whom they hang out with--reflect that context. For these people, there is wealth beyond money; there is "enoughness," a stance of material sufficiency and spiritual affluence. They don't compare their assortment of stuff to someone else's stockpile to assess whether they indeed have adequate wealth. They develop economic resilience by learning new skills; buying in bulk, comparison shopping, doing yard work instead of going to the gym. They set up babysitting cooperatives so that parents can save money and have a life. And on and on.

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People who are more materialistic are more likely to be depressed.

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Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston College and author of Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Simon & Schuster)

Research shows that materialistic values undermine health and wellbeing. People who are more materialistic are more likely to be depressed and anxious and to get stomachaches, less likely to have friends--and energy. When parents are materialistic, their children become materialistic. Their teens are much more likely to engage in risky behavior--drug and alcohol use.

It's easy for parents to complain about their kids being spoiled but not see the ultramaterialism in themselves. For instance, they can take only a short vacation [because of work], so they spend big on the children to make up for it. Marketers are very keen on this, calling it guilt money. Changing this type of spending involves substitutions. The families I interviewed who are trying to create uncommercialized lives do time-consuming things, like spending hours building an igloo for a birthday party instead of buying something expensive that is a "wow" for the kids.

Time is the real currency.

John de Graaf, coauthor of Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic (Berrett-Koehler) and national coordinator of Take Back Your Time (timeday.org)

We've got the idea that more is always better. We fault Europeans for not having as high a gross domestic product (GDP), but that's because they've chosen to use a large portion of their productivity for leisure time, which isn't counted in GDP. We're working nearly nine weeks longer each year than Western Europeans. In terms of health rates, Europeans are doing much better than we are. We like to think of ourselves as a middle-class nation, but we have the smallest middle class (except for Russia) of all industrialized countries.

We have the most product, the widest choices, but is that what life is about? I think our priorities are out of whack. We have the greatest gap among industrialized nations between rich and poor, and that seems to press everybody to compete to live like the people at the top. We focus on producing and consuming stuff, and we've forgotten that all of these other values are losing out: friendships and family, health and civic participation, a future for our children.

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For me it all comes down to time. This is what you really want to give to others and what you want from them.

We have to attack the mind-set that says spending a long time over dinner with your family, during which no money changes hands, is a waste.

Most of our wishes and dreams don't cost a lot of money.

George Kinder, founder of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning and author of Seven Stages of Money Maturity (Dell) We're in a profound spiritual crisis in America, and that crisis is reflected in the fact that we now earn three times as much as our grandparents did, yet we are not happier than they were. The reason is that the emphasis has been on earning money rather than on happiness or freedom. Most of us are so caught in the treadmill of materialism that we don't recognize what we really want. Our life planning program is a version of financial planning that focuses on what people find most meaningful. Our clients learn what's really of value to them by responding to the following questions:

1. If you had all the money you needed, what would you do?

2. If you discovered you had only five or ten years left to live, what would you do with your life?

3. If you had only 24 hours left, who did you not get to be? What did you not get to do?

The third question hits bedrock. When people identify what's profoundly meaningful to them, most of the time it's family, community, and integrity or spirit. They don't worry about having more or enough.

It turns out that most of what we really wish for doesn't cost a lot of money, but fulfilling our dreams often means making some hard choices involving downsizing and budgeting. Rather than the answer being making a fortune, it's committing to family, spirit or integrity, creativity, and place.

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It's very hard to feel that you ever have enough.

Barbara Ehrenreich, political essayist, novelist, and author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Holt)

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It's a profound philosophical question: What do we really need? It's very hard in the middle class to feel like you ever have enough. I'm all for the voluntary simplicity movement--proponents are constantly pointing out how we buy too much stuff and it doesn't satisfy us or make us happy. You might even say, "I'd like to live on $25,000 a year or less and I'm going to eat a lot of lentils." But what about those healthcare costs? For an individual, that could easily reach $10,000 a year. If you have small children now, what is college tuition going to be when they're 17 or 18? Easily $100,000 a year. It's overwhelming. It's terrifying. We get trapped by these insecurities into trying to make more and more money. But the truth is, when it comes to facing something like college tuition, you do have to go into overdrive to make enough for that. If we had adequate public sources as they do in many societies--national health insurance, pensions you could live on, [affordable] higher education--we wouldn't be in this bind. [When asked how people can get out of bed given these worries, Ehrenreich said, "Nervously."

Why did I insist on seeing my financial glass as half empty?

Peter Smith, contributing editor to O and most recently the author of Two of Us: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Beatles (Houghton Mifflin)

Financially speaking, I had a rollickingly good year last year, at least for me. A book I wrote about my young son's torrid obsession with the Beatles was published here and in several other countries, and I made a tiny but potentially lucrative deal with an English-born director to turn the same book into a movie. At the same time I was running around doing publicity on radio and morning TV, I was juggling a handful of other projects: working part-time as a contributing editor for this magazine; ghostwriting someone's self-help memoir; turning out the occasional article, book review, and corporate-world pamphlet; and taking notes for a novel I intended to start work on once my life got a little less cluttered.

It was the typical life of a freelance writer: stretching myself to work as hard and as much as I possibly could, including nights and weekends--and who needs a vacation, anyway? So that by the end of the year, just maybe I could manage to cobble together an income that resembled a grown-up's, as opposed to, say, a 6-year-old roadside lemonade vendor's named Danny.

Working, I'd always told myself, is about buying time. Time to relax, time to hang out with my wife and three kids, time to bundle up barefoot in a hammock with a blanket, a pillow, and a shameful celebrity magazine. And theoretically, in the wake of my better-than-average financial year, I'd just bought myself a couple of weeks off. "Take a break," everybody said, "you deserve it." But I couldn't. Instead of putting my feet up, I found myself batting away wave after wave of anxiety, paranoia, regret, and, most of all, self-criticism. The refrain in my head went like this: You may have had an okay year moneywise, but you didn't make enough.

Enough. What did that loaded word mean, enough? I'd made more money in the past 12 months than I'd ever earned in my life. How many more dollars was I supposed to make, how many more projects was I supposed to juggle, and how much more depleted and raccoon-eyed was I supposed to look at the end of the week before I attained that impossible benchmark, enough?

The real question was why, after a terrific financial year, I insisted on seeing my financial glass as half empty. Over the next couple of weeks, the answer became drearily obvious. I'd fallen head-first into a culture based almost exclusively on money. I'd been suckered. I flicked on the TV every morning to a parade of anxiety-inducing headlines followed, at the breaks, by a procession of high-priced objects seemingly tailormade to allay those fears: a 60-inch plasma television, a Humvee, a stateroom on the Queen Mary. Son, you'll never measure up, the culture seemed to be telling me. I had other roles I was good at--father, husband--but over time, I realized I'd infused each one with how much money I made. Never mind about the personal stuff, the reading aloud to the children before bedtime and remembering your anniversary and, in general, being there. For me, since I hadn't brought in "enough" money, I'd failed as a husband, a father, and oh, of course, a writer.

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Obviously, I'm a self-flagellating, extremist kind of guy. Yet most of the world appeared to share some measure of my frustration about "enough." Everybody I know agrees there's no such thing as having enough money. They cite children, real estate, college costs, health insurance, retirement costs. Plus what about sudden illnesses or emergencies or the sorts of political crises that caused the von Trapp family to climb across the Alps (granted, in real life, they took a train to Italy)? What about the occasional vacation, or actually saving money, and what about leaving your children and grandchildren with something other than debt and a stained side table to fight over?

Tell me about it. But some of my friends were also managing a trick I'd failed to master. They earned less than I did, but they seemed to enjoy their lives more. They had the same stresses and concerns and bad dreams I had, but they also accepted that these were an unavoidable part of life for all but the world's richest 10 percent. Who ever said life and success were easy? They'd made peace with the fundamental paradox that no matter how much they made, there would never be enough money. Then having lightly conceded this point, they'd taken pains to inhabit that paradox and make do, gracefully and even stylishly, with what they had. Unlike me, they didn't treat "enough" as a goal, a dare, an annual, unwinnable challenge. They weren't slackers, but they didn't kill themselves working, either, and when the weekend came, they shut their computers off and hung out with their families. After all, as the saying goes, it's a pretty safe bet that no one has ever gasped out, "I should have worked more!" on his deathbed. Most parting words are more along the lines of "I love you" or "You've been a great partner to me" or "Have I ever told you how proud I am of you?"

Not once all year had I stopped to appreciate how lucky I was to have what I had and to earn what I did. Or--this part embarrasses me a little--to congratulate myself on getting through a long, hardworking year. Compared with 95 percent of the world, I had everything I needed and more. One night a few months ago, I went for a walk with my kids. It was a dead-quiet evening, and we traipsed up and down our winding street, craning our necks as we tried to get the best view of the moon. At one point, I thought: The future that my work bought me is here in front of me. Here, now, this and these kids, is it, the essence, and the payoff, of my bought time.

That night my issues about "enough" weren't eternally laid to rest. I'll probably be grappling with them for the rest of my life. But out there on our road, I breathed in a few glad, cacophony-free moments of having enough for the time being, remembering, finally, that the time being was precisely what I'd worked so happily, ridiculously hard to enjoy.

Illustrations by Douglas Smith

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