Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you prozac and that’s close enough. I was raised to believe that money does by you happiness. My parents taught me you can get comfort, stability and all sorts of happiness-inducing things with money which so the transitive theory discredits that whole “doesn’t buy you happiness” thing — and that’s what I believed up until last year.
My journey to solving whether or not money actually buys you happiness happened four months after I graduated college. A popular Princeton University study, claiming that $75,000 a year was the optimal salary for happiness, rocked my world. The study’s thesis was seared into my silly, 22-year-old brain. I thought — no, I believed — that I was $47,000 away from a different, brighter, happier life.
After the study was released in 2010, the Internet went crazy. Bloggers and reporters, tired of covering depressing figures related to the 2008 economic collapse, latched on to this uplifting, attainable number. Finally, a figure was assigned to happiness. Let’s go for drinks, we’ve cracked the code, guys. Some writers delved a little deeper to ponder whether or not $75,000 was really the optimal salary for happiness, but their discoveries were lost in a society informed by headlines… and me.
So here I am, four years later, one of those people who remembered the headline, but didn’t quite remember the meat of the story. I decided to take a look back at my finances/happiness to reevaluate whether or not this theory was true.
Starting Salary in NYC: $28,000
When I started working in New York City, in 2010, I was making $28,000 (before taxes) a year. This was nearly $10,000 below the average personal income figures for my neighborhood, as reported by Newsday.
After taxes, I was making about $20,000 a year or $1,667 a month. Here were my monthly expenses as a right-out-of-college New Yorker:
- Rent: $800 (I was living in a cardboard box)
- Utilities: $100
- Groceries: $200
- Cell Phone: $138
- Loan payments: $200
- Dinners/drinks: $100
- Other: $200 (presents, flights, cabs, movies, dates)
- Total: $1,738
As you can see, I was spending more than I was making. So I got two more jobs; one to pay for my love of cocktails and the other to put a little bit of money into savings.
I’d work my regular 9-5 job and twice a week I’d babysit for $17 an hour (BAM, drinks covered). On weekends, I’d waitress two brunch shifts and one dinner shift (Loan payments = COVERED). It was hard, it was stressful and there were a lot of things I was missing out on (visiting family, weddings, births, sleep). But, I adjusted my lifestyle and began smoothing out my finances. I worked harder to find free events and tight-budget activities in New York (there are plenty, let me tell you).
Eventually, my salary was bumped up from $28,000 to $35,000, yet my lifestyle didn’t change at all. The only thing that did change was how much money I was putting into savings. I turned my cardboard box of an apartment into a cozy little home, I loved the people I got to work with, and I began writing in my free time. I constructed a life that didn’t depend on too much money to thrive.
One day, I met a man one day at a coffee shop near my apartment. He gave me his business card and told me to call him sometime. On the card it only said one word: “Expert.” I called him and we dated for three months. During those three months, I learned that he wanted to be an influential director (get in line, bud). He’d shoot and edit videos for musicians, fashion events and magazines to make money while pursuing his dream. He called it “freelancing.” I was new to the concept of working freelance, but I was attracted to the idea none-the-less. Work when you want? With whom you want? Sounded awesome. But I had no idea how to get into the freelance world and decided I wasn’t ready to give up the comfort and stability of a salaried job.
The Expert and I broke up three months after we met because he was kind of an ass. Also, “Expert”? Really? How smug. 23-year-old Marina was such an idiot.
I doubled my Income, but Nothing Changed.
Two years later and that study was still living in my head, taunting me, telling me that I’d be able to do more, afford more, live more if I were making more money.
I bet most of you reading are probably more interested in how I doubled my income in a year. (I feel like a spam email right now: “Double your income in a year! Click this link!”) That part was easy; all I did was move to Taipei. In Taipei, the cost of living is 60 percent lower than New York. Which meant my $36,000 a year salary was the equivalent to making around $60,000 in the U.S. Not quite $75,000, but I was close. I was making about $2,400 a month after taxes. Here were my cost breakdowns in Taiwan:
- Rent: $500
- Utilities: $15
- Groceries: $40
- Dinners/drinks: $50
- Other (presents, cabs, movies, dates): $100
- Total: $705
These new cost breakdowns meant I had an extra $1,695 a month, and I managed to put $1,000 into savings. That’s INSANE for me. You know what I did with all that extra money? Nothing, really.
Sorry to disappoint, but it’s true. I was so used to living a modest lifestyle, saving every penny, that once I started making money, I was too uncomfortable to spend it on frivolous things. Don’t get me wrong, the first few months were great. I went to nice restaurants, I got fancy cocktails and sought out experiences I could never have afforded in New York. But after I visited them once, I didn’t see a need to go again.
I did, however, take advantage of my time in Asia to travel. My trips were amazing, life changing, really, but they were also incredibly lonely. I’d left my friends and family in the U.S. to live a life of financial stability and adventure, but I found that success is incredibly unsatisfying when you don’t have anyone to share it with.
Debunking the $75,000 Optimal Salary Happiness Theory
While in Taiwan I started dabbling in the world of freelance. The New York Times offered me some money for a story I’d written and in order to receive the cash, I had to fill out a “Freelancers Agreement” — it was my first one and I began to think a little more about the whole freelancing thing. I understood that if I decided to go the freelance route, I’d have to give up financial stability, health care and other benefits. I was worried that not having these comforts would make me miserable.
One of the researchers behind the $75,000 study, Daniel Kahneman, also wrote a book called “Thinking Fast and Slow,” in which he goes further into how happiness and money relate. The book reveals that making $75,000 and above isn’t going to make your day-to-day life more satisfying— which explains the headlines— but it does make your overall life more satisfying, which kind of takes away from the sensationalism.
Kahneman, who won a 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, writes, “Being poor makes one miserable, and…being rich may enhance one’s life satisfaction, but does not (on average) improve experience well being.”
It’s that thin difference between “life satisfaction” and “experience well being” that we need to focus on. Generally, wealthy people are more satisfied with the life they’ve lived (i.e life satisfaction). However, people who are making $75,000 and under, will more likely have a stronger reaction to a positive occurrences on a day-to-day level (i.e. experience well being).
When something good happens, a person making more than $75,000 will be excited for the day, while a person making less than $75,000 will be excited for the week. If you ask either whether they are satisfied with their life, the person making more than $75,000 will most likely be more satisfied, duh.
So the whole $75,000 happiness theory doesn’t mean a lot when you can make under that amount and still experience day-to-day happiness. But the alternative, compromising your day-to-day happiness to make as much money as possible in order to reach ultimate life satisfaction doesn’t appeal to me either. I’M A MILLENNIAL, I WANT TO BE HAPPY AND SATISFIED NOW. So I had to come up with a new plan, a plan that didn’t focus on a specific number, but on a specific lifestyle. — one of modest living and lowered expectations.
I’m not here to Judge
Before I continue, I’d like to say that if you are a person who wants more money and material goods, then more power to you! My father, a Russian immigrant who was promised the American Dream when he came to the U.S., believes that lots of money = lots of success. The more money he made, the happier and more stable he felt. To me, my father is a God who knows everything. I think he is perfect. When he was in his 50s, my pops got (rented) a Lexus hard top convertible. When he turned on the car it whispered “money, money, money,” when he put the top down it purred “wealth, wealth, wealth.”
And you know what? Good for him. When he came to the U.S., he had $200 dollars, a wife and a baby. You know what he did with that $200? He turned it into a small, thriving business, a nice house in the suburbs, two educated children and two luxury cars. I am not about to sit here and judge my father on material goods, financial stability and whether or not they equal true happiness. He has a different relationship with money and that’s completely understandable because he had a different, more difficult life than I had.
I, on the other hand, was privileged enough to grow up in the nice suburban house that my parents slaved over. I was also privileged enough to grow up in a country where I was offered more options than one person can possible handle. I am reminded of these privileges every single day. Clearly, I have a different relationship with money.
That’s why I am here to talk to the young lost souls like me. People who don’t really find pleasure in material goods and can’t afford that lifestyle to begin with. I am here to save you from trying to use money to fill the dark, melodramatic holes in your life. I tried to do it, it didn’t work.
We want what we can’t have
I think we can change ourselves to be happy with whatever situation we’re in. Not only because I am a naive, idealist 20-something but also because there’s experimental data backing up this belief. An article in the New York Times pointed out that people are inherently happier when they share their wealth and practice in the art of “underindulgence.” An experiment conducted by Jordi Quoidbach demonstrated what happened when you let chocolate lovers overindulge. She split chocolate eaters (Are there non-chocolate eaters!?) into two groups:
- Chocolate lovers who were given a piece of chocolate and then were asked not to eat chocolate for a week.
- Chocolate lovers who were given a piece of chocolate and a huge, two-pound bag which they were instructed to eat throughout the week.
At the end of the experiment, both groups were invited back to eat another piece of chocolate and to rate their enjoyment of that particular piece. The underindulgers ended up enjoying this chocolate much more than those who stuffed their face throughout the week. It makes sense. I believe the same concept can be applied to money.
I enjoyed going out in New York City so much more than in Taiwan because it was such a rare and special occurrence. I had to save up money just to go out for drinks and dinner. And when I did get the chance, man, did that vodka martini taste extra spectacular. In Taiwan, I went out every night and the dinners and drinks began melding into one experience. I basically just used 500 words to say, we always want what we can’t have.
At the end of the day, it comes down to who you are as a person. A couple of years ago I was an inherently unhappy person, any situation I was in would stress me out and throw me into an anxiety-riddled tizzy. Then I turned 25 and grew some brains. I learned that you have to be proactive about your happiness, you can’t always blame external factors. If there are external factors which are truly making you unhappy, change them!
At one point in my media career I had to make a decision on whether to move forward or start over in something new. I evaluated my options — just like my parents taught me. I knew the job I had wasn’t right for my dream career, but the career I wanted wasn’t going to make me money (to start), so I had to make a decision: Love or Money. I chose love because having money is good, but having ambition is better.
Working Freelance vs. Salaried Jobs
Hi, so now you know my career journey, but you don’t know where I ended up. After readjusting my relationship with money and learning how to live on a teeny budget (around $1,150 a month in L.A.!), I decided to leave the comforts of the corporate world and enter the world of freelance to pursue my dreams of being an old fashioned writer (books, movies, T.V., etc). I am now one of the many who’ve emerged in an era where experience is valued over loyalty, fulfillment is valued over financial stability and none of us know what we’re doing.
Don’t Freelance Unless you know what to Charge
If you’re just out of college, living off your parents’ dime and charging pennies for your work, then you not only suck, but you’re ruining the job ecosystem for the rest of us.
If an employer finds out they can get labor cheaper from freelancers (who have some other supplemental income) then they are less like to hire full-time staff. That doesn’t bode well for the future job market. It’s crucial for freelancers to set competitive rates so that everyone, including salaried employees, are earning the appropriate amount for the work they put in. We must band together to make sure everyone gets a fair paycheck for the work they do. Don’t feel guilty! Freelancers need to be able to make more money per hour than their salaried counterparts because freelancers are responsible for their own tools, health care and retirement (not mention the list of other benefits that come with a salaried job).
Some newbie freelancers freakout because they don’t know what to charge. Um, hello? Google. Problem solved.
I do not suggest working freelance for everyone. It’s really hard and you make just enough money to barely survive — I’ve lost 20 pounds due to stress. BUT, I am happier than I’ve ever been. I wake up every day and I write. I spend half the day writing for other people and the rest of the day writing for myself. Maybe one day I’ll sell a book and it will be turned into a movie. Maybe I won’t. But at least I know I am doing everything in my power to find out.
If you like; your partner, kids, traveling, sleeping, eating or relaxing, then I don’t really suggest the life of a freelancer. Don’t get me wrong, you can still freelance if you like those things, but it’s going to be really hard for you make enough money to maintain them — at least in the beginning. Sometimes freelancing jobs fall through and I have to take odd gigs to cover the bills. Sometimes a day of work covers rent for the month and sometimes I have to do jobs that make me want to tear my eyebrows out. It’s all worth it if it helps you get to where you need to be.
There are different reasons for working freelance. I chose it as a support system while pursuing a career as a storyteller. (Try not to roll your eyes too much, I get enough of it from my parents.) I love what I am working towards, but I am also a realist. I’ve given myself a reach-your-wildest-dreams timeline, before heading back to the 9-5 world. There’s only so much instability one person can take!
Freelancing gives me the freedom to set my own schedule and take random opportunities as they come. Last month I worked as a producer on a storytelling podcast, this week I am working a photography assistant on a shoot for a pharmaceutical company, next week I am driving a van for an ad agency shoot. Who knows what my job “title” will be after that. I certainly don’t.
Sometimes, I still think about that $75,000 number and how easy it’d be to go back to a soul-crushing job with a nice paycheck. But mostly I think about gaining new experiences, meeting incredible people and having the freedom to pursue my personal interests, most of which involve writing stories in my pajamas. I’ve readjusted my financial expectations as a writer and doubled my ambition. It may take another four years to test out this personal experiment, but I’ve got time.
Marina is a staff writer for MyBankTracker.com. She is an expert in college finances, consumer spending and banking.