It’s a common enough refrain: money can’t buy you happiness. The general idea behind the phrase is that the things in life that cause happiness are not things so much as experiences or emotions. Money can’t buy you more time with a grandparent. Money can’t buy you late nights with best friends. Money can’t buy love, and love is pretty universally acknowledged as the best thing ever.
For me, a person who has always been broke, this phrase has always bothered me. It always seemed sort of classist and sometimes downright ignorant. It pushed aside the realities of what money can buy you and how those things and yes, experiences, can affect your life.
I grew up without very much money. Things were always tight in my household, which consisted of my mother and my two siblings. There was one income for four people. My siblings and I wore hand me down clothes, were admonished for leaving food on our plates and were frequently told ‘no’ when it came to the extras in life, like toys, name brand whatevers or trips.
As an adult I have also lived entirely as a person without money. Until one month ago I was in debt. I’ve never made more than $23,000 in my life. I have always had a job, usually multiple ones. I receive no financial help from my mother and manage all my finances on my own. Since graduating college I’ve bounced around from part time job to part time job, struggling in the aftermath of the recession and the radically different job market of the 21st century. My debt loomed over my head as well, meaning that at least part of my earnings were never really mine.
Having lived a life where clothes come from discount or thrift stores, where name brand food items were a rare luxury and where driving (as opposed to walking or biking) was seen as a privilege, the idea that money can’t buy happiness is kind of absurd to me. Money can buy you lots of things which provide happiness. Travel, food, television, cute clothes- everything costs money. Don’t try and tell me your vacations don’t make you happy. Imagine not being able to afford them and then imagine how that would affect your happiness. More than that, money can ease your worries. Money can provide peace of mind, which in my experience, leads to a heck of a lot of happiness.
I and a lot of other broke people, don’t need the latest and greatest to feel happy. Wanting money is not about wanting designer clothes or meals in fancy restaurants. It’s about wanting stability. It’s knowing that a luxury could be within reach. It’s knowing that a monthly bill or charge won’t break you. Stability and comfort within your finances is what money truly provides.
It’s not staying up at night stressed out over how you will afford auto insurance AND food this month. That’s a real conversation I had with myself the first year out of college. I drove around for months without insurance because I simply couldn’t afford it. I felt unsafe and scared I would get pulled over and fined, another thing I couldn’t afford. When you have money, these worries cease to exist. The daily stresses are eased. You don’t worry about putting food on the table or clothes on your kids backs. You don’t worry about if you can retire because you can contribute to a fund. You can save money for emergencies. You can go on vacation. The if’s in your life are eliminated. No longer do you say ‘IF I make X I can afford Y.’ You can simply afford Y.
This year I’ll earn around $27,000. It’s by far the most money I’ve ever made and I can already feel the difference in my life. I was able to pay off my debt. I’ve started putting money towards retirement. I’ve added to my emergency fund. I’ve also gotten a few meals out and spent weekends out of town. I feel like I am living a life of luxury at times and that is directly due to making more money.
So yes. Money can’t buy you certain things. And there are numerous studies out there that show earning above a certain number (usually $75,000 but it varies state to state) doesn’t make you any happier. There are limits and I get that. However. Saying that money doesn’t contribute to happiness at all is a lie. Saying that money is incapable of buying you happiness is a lie. Ignoring the wage and wealth gap in this country and spouting off sayings like that is harmful and ignorant. Money may not be the only part of the recipe for happiness but it’s certainly on the ingredients list. Anyone who says different is probably making over $75,000 a year.
Kara Perez is the original founder of From Frugal To Free. She is a money expert, speaker and founder of Bravely Go, a feminist financial education company. Her work has been featured on NPR, Business Insider, Forbes, and Elite Daily.