September 27th, 2011

Enough is Enough

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When asked how much money was enough, oil tycoon and famous rich guy John D. Rockefeller famously said, “Just a little bit more.”

The concept of having just enough doesn’t get much play in financial advice, but that’s the real goal of financial planning. Having more than enough money is great, but enough is all we actually need, and odds are, we already have it.

Some people actually don’t have enough. In 2010, roughly one in seven people in the US lived in poverty. But if you’re reading this on a working computer with working Internet and you’re not currently dying from malnutrition, you probably have enough.


I’m sorry it doesn’t feel better to have enough, but we’ll work on that.

Enough isn’t about how much you have absolutely. It’s about how much you have compared to the people around you.

As a kid, enough is having a bike as good as your friend’s. In Beverly Hills, enough is a Mercedes SL550, a bargain at $103,650.

Enough is having as much as those around you.

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert says as much:

“One of the things that people have to think about when they talk about money and happiness is where they are in their reference group. If you’re in the middle or high end of your reference group, more money isn’t going to make it better.”

What can you do to remember you have enough?

1. Downgrade.

Our happiness is based on our surroundings and what we’re used to. Your old TV looks terrible once you’ve seen your neighbor’s beautiful 60 inch HD set. The trap is that three weeks after your neighbor bought that new TV, she was completely used to it. A cheaper solution to the upgrade is the downgrade.

What if for a day, you made your TV worse? Unscrew the cable partway so the picture is fuzzy. Only watch the worst Sandra Bullock movies. Turn it off and force yourself to read a book. Then at the end of the day, you’ll be so excited to have your old TV back, it’ll feel brand new.

2. Awareness of Happiness.

In A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’ ”
We often don’t recognize our happiness. It’s not that we’re unhappy—we just miss it.

One of the best free ways to be happier and feel like you have enough is to keep a gratitude journal. (It works. Seriously, there are studies.) Every day for a week, write down three things that you’re grateful for.

Plus, if you hate doing it, you’ll be happier at the end of the week when you can stop. Win-win!

3. Manipulate your memory.

According to Jason Zweig’s book Your Money and Your Brain, we value our purchases less over time, whereas experiences (even negative ones) become more valuable.

A new boat is a joy, but after barnacles, pirates, and boat taxes, it’s a nuisance. When it finally sinks in the Bermuda Triangle, you’re almost relieved.

However, experiences, like getting stranded in the Bermuda Triangle, become more enjoyable in retrospect. Zweig cites a study where people were asked how happy their childhoods were. At age 30, 40% answered “generally happy.” In their 70s, 83% now responded generally happy. Nostalgia makes everything better.

Have a cheap adventure instead of splurging on an extravagant purchase. Find a coupon for a sailing class. Build a model boat. Watch Speed 2: Cruise Control. (Or better yet, don’t.)

4. Be realistic.

Unfortunately, we can’t buy our way into feeling like we have enough. When we purchase a boat, a nicer TV, or a hardbound photo album of pirate abduction in the Bermuda Triangle, we have “more,” but we can’t get to “enough” through more.

Either you have enough right now, or you never will. It’s okay to buy new things, but be realistic about what you think those things will do for you. The new mini-marshmallow blaster, new Batmobile, or new iPhone isn’t going to complete you. (Well, maybe that last one. There’s an app for that.)

The pirates were actually very hospitable,

Ezra Fox, Credit Karma Contributor

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  1. Thanks for a great article. It really puts things in perspective. I agree with all your points, especially how experiences trump things. I’m pulling our 2nd grader out of school tomorrow to take him and his younger brother and sister to their first pro baseball game. Well, okay, it’s the Chicago White Sox, but it should still make for some great memories.

    Matt Bell at 7:37 pm on September 27, 2011
  2. Your statement that we define “enough” by how much we have compared to the people around us is right on target. One antidote for the discontent bred by comparing ourselves with those who have more is to be on the lookout for those who could use our help. Giving a ride to someone lacking transportation increases our appreciation for our vehicle, even if it’s an older model. Donating groceries to a food pantry makes us grateful to just HAVE groceries, even if it’s just mac & cheese. Extending financial assistance to someone in need makes us more contented with our own financial resources, even if they are modest. Those in need are helped and we become more contented–a real win/win situation!

    Dennis Ewens at 7:33 am on September 30, 2011

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