“Why would I want to live in misery just so I have a few more dollars when I’m old?”
This is an exact quote from a recent reader email, and I hear variations on the theme all the time.
I completely understand where the question is coming from, but the question is based on a few assumptions that aren’t really factual.
First of all, the question implies a connection between enjoyment of life and spending money. This is the biggest issue I have with the question, because I’ve found that, once you get beyond a certain point, there isn’t much of a connection there at all.
I’m not alone in feeling that there’s not much of a connection between spending and life fulfillment. Daniel Gilbert, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, makes a very strong case (backed up by research) that income over about $40,000 per year does not make people noticeably happier. Having more money doesn’t increase one’s life fulfillment.
A person that makes $40,000 a year is not spending to excess. The numbers simply don’t add up. Once a person has covered the basic needs of their life and taken care of other requirements like paying taxes, there’s not a ton left for non-essential spending on a $40,000 per year salary.
This leads to another question that Gilbert addresses in his book. What does increase one’s life fulfillment outside of spending money? Friends. Family. Social connections. Romance. Meaningful work.
In other words, living a fulfilling life has an awful lot to do with positive interactions with other people along with a healthy dose of spending one’s time on things that one identifies as meaningful or valuable. None of that has to do with spending money.
The question at the start of this article brings up another implication I disagree with: that the act of saving money for the future is somehow wasteful.
Often, the implication is made that a person won’t be able to enjoy life to the fullest when they’re older. Perhaps your experience is different than mine, but most of the people I’ve had the privilege to know as they grew older managed to maintain pretty fulfilling and enjoyable lives until perhaps the last year or two of their life. I know a man in his mid-eighties that is going to go on his first international trip later this year, for example.
Also, retirement is not the only future savings goal out there. There are a lot of life goals that can be achieved through spending a little less now that occur far before retirement. Starting a small business. Going back to school for a new career. Putting a down payment on a dream house. Taking your entire family on a trip to the other side of the world. All of those things are easily achievable with a few years of saving.
This is just my own opinion based on my own personal experience, but I think the question that starts this article actually doesn’t have much to do with money at all. It has more to do with fear.
Humans are creatures of habit and routine, even for people who seem to be spontaneously doing the unexpected. Once you’ve established a pattern of doing everything for the moment, considering anything different can seem completely wrong to you.
Changing your life in any significant way is hard work. It’s particularly hard if there are significant aspects of your life that you like, and if that change seems to be endangering those elements that you like, changing can seem not just difficult, but undesirable.
There is never a bad moment to step back and re-examine what you actually want out of your life. Sometimes, it can lead you to conclusions that you didn’t expect, ones that draw you toward doing things in a different way.
Living for today doesn’t mean that you sacrifice tomorrow.