Marriage, Money, Stuff, and Happiness

Learning to dissociate your personal happiness from the possessions of your neighbors and friends is a significant step of maturity that every family leader must take.

Closet of StuffMost marriage counselors will tell you that money problems are a major cause of marriage problems.  It is always a good idea to think carefully about how money is handled in your home.  In my book, Essence of Wisdom for Parents, I say that

If you are not comfortable sharing a checking account with your spouse, there is a problem that needs to be uncovered and addressed.

When you are in a marriage, and especially when you have children depending on you, it is vitally important that both think about how and why you will use the finite income that you earn.  Money is essentially a tool that can be wielded for many purposes.

One the easiest ways to get into financial difficulties is to hold onto the notion that money (and the stuff you buy with it) can make you happy.  The idea that more stuff could bring happiness blossomed in the 1920’s with the advent of mass production, rising wages, the advent of radio and the expansion of consumer advertising.  Since this time, advertisers have been continuously telling us that we will not really be happy unless we own their new deluxe, whatever it is.

Unless you happen to be Bill and Melinda Gates, it’s important to spend some time really understanding this connection between spending and happiness because, truthfully, the success of your family may depend on it.

In Allen Greenspan’s book The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World he describes his research into this connection between wealth and happiness and notes that Beyond the point at which basic needs are met, happiness is a relative state that, over the long run, is largely detached from economic growth.  The evidence shows that it is determined mainly by how we view our lives and accomplishments relative to those of our peers.

This is fascinating when you think about it.  Advertisers tell you that you will be happy if you buy the new Lexus IS C, a truly luxurious convertible.  However, Allen’s research found that you’ll be happy if you’re the first one in the neighborhood who can afford it, but once a few other neighbors have nice cars, your happiness will fade.  In fact, if everyone in the office drives Roll’s Royce’s, your new Lexus could make you feel miserable.

Learning to dissociate your personal happiness from the possessions of your neighbors and friends is a significant step of maturity that every family leader must take.

For some, this may seem difficult.  Recently, though, I asked a number of friends to tell me a bit about the different times of their lives.  Many reflected that their early adult years, when they were short on money, were also some of the best most enjoyable times of their life.  How about you?  When you look back at your life to some of your best times, was it your wealth or stuff that made life good?

Currently, I’m at that point in my life where I have four teenagers keeping me busy and a houseful of stuff I’ve accumulated over the years.  It has started to occur to me that…

Every one of our possessions, everything we buy and hold, adds an incremental burden to our lives.

For some things, like cars, and homes, the burdens are obvious.  Cars need insurance, repairs, and lots of gas.  Homes have painting, cleaning, repairing, gardening, decorating, etc.  Another, less obvious burden is just the clutter associated with stuff.  The burdens can be physical, financial, and mental.  When I was young I thought I needed to buy and collect tools, decorations, furniture, lots of things that will come in handy some day.  Now I have closets full of clothes, most of which I will probably not wear, with more clothes in plastic bags stuffed under the bed. I have tools and books and dishes and decorations.  Valuable collectibles stuffed in drawers, and bags and boxes with presents for family and friends – all of whom probably have too much stuff themselves.

All this stuff can get overwhelming, and the problem is, it is hard to clean it out because each thing I’ve stashed away has a history.  “I got this from Grandma”, “This will really come in handy if I ever take up pole vaulting”, “I’ve had this for twenty years already, I can’t just throw it away now!”  Sound familiar?

It’s hard for me to comprehend the amount of money that’s been spent on all that stuff – five dollars here, ten dollars there.  It adds up, and you know, most of it didn’t buy me much happiness, and now, years later, I find that holding onto it all slowly sucks happiness out of my life.

So if having all this stuff doesn’t really make us happy, why do people enjoy shopping so much?

Shopping and purchasing things gives us a powerful, but fleeting rush of excitement.  It gives us a moment of total control and decisiveness something we often find lacking in our otherwise mundane daily existance.

Is this really the kind of excitement that you dreamed about when you were planning your future?  Probably not.

As a husband, wife, and responsible parent, its good to understand these impulses.  If you feel a need to buy something, stop and think hard.  Do you really need it or are you shopping to fill some other void in your life?  If you do need it, do you need the deluxe model?  For an important household item, spending more on quality may be smart, frequently though; it’s our ego making the decision.

So how about you?  Any of this ring true in your life?  Have any good stories about when you’ve bought something that didn’t bring you the boost you wanted?

Have any good stories when your spouse bought something that didn’t bring you the boost you wanted?

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