Why Money Doesn't Equal Happiness: An Interview with Jean Chatzky
Life is full of stressors, and for most, money is right at the top of the list. On this week's podcast, author and financial expert Jean Chatzky shares how taking small steps to reduce financial stress increases the well-being of ourselves and our relationships.
Savvy Psychologist: Today we are lucky to be joined by Jean Chatzky, financial editor of NBC’s Today Show and the author of several books. Her latest, “Age-Proof: Living Longer Without Running Out of Money or Breaking a Hip,” hits the shelves in February. Jean, welcome!
Jean Chatzky: Thanks so much for having me.
SP: I’m really excited to talk to you today, because money and psychology are inextricably intertwined. It can motivate us. It can give us anxiety. It can, as recent studies show, impact our levels of compassion and empathy. But perhaps most significantly, it’s rated the number one source of stress. These days when we worry about money, what exactly are we worried about?
JC: Well, we’re worried about not having enough money to last through our lives, and we’re particularly worried about that because longevity, with the exception of this past year when it took a little dip, has been steadily going up and up and up. We worry about not being able to maintain our standard of living, and we worry about health-care expenses in particular because they’ve been increasing at a rate that is dramatically greater than the rate of inflation, about 6-7% a year.
So you put all of those things together and you’re right, you get a bundle of stress. When I was writing Age-Proof with Dr. Michael Roizen, we wrote a large section on stress, because stress is the biggest aging factor, and the biggest cause of stress is money. You have to tackle both of those things head on.
SP: Some of these financial stressors are systemic, but there are many elements of our financial situation that we can control. What are some things we can do to soothe our individual money stresses and worries?
It’s not the amount of money that you have that makes you happy or unhappy.
JC: I think we soothe them with action. The actions can be small actions that move you in the right direction, but over time, they’ll end up being larger, more substantial actions. I did a large study of money and happiness for a book I wrote several years ago called The Ten Commandments of Financial Happiness, and what I learned was that it’s not the amount of money that you have that makes you happy or unhappy; once you have the ability to live comfortably—studies show that number is about $75,000 a year—more money won’t buy you more happiness.
What will buy you more happiness is control over what money you do have, and that control takes the form of a lot of specific actions. If you’re able to save even 5% of your income a year, if you’re able to keep your level of debt under control, if you’re able to pay your bills as they come in rather than saving them up in a pile to pay once or twice a month, then all of those things give you the feeling of greater control and less stress.
SP: In addition to money being stressful for individuals, money is also stressful for couples—in fact, it’s the number one thing that couples fight about. So how can couples stop arguing and start communicating to get on the same page about their money?
JC: I think the first thing to acknowledge is that, just like individuals aren’t wired to always do the right thing where money is concerned, couples aren’t wired to be exact replicas of each other where money is concerned. You might enter a marriage and assume you have the same wants and goals, but often that isn’t exactly true—and we tend to not talk about these things, especially where money is implicated, resulting in small arguments that are rooted in these assumptions.
The way to solve this is to agree upon the big things; try to agree on what your long-term goals are, this year and ten years from now and twenty years from now. But it’s also important to agree to disagree in order to give each other some autonomy when it comes to personal spending. I like the idea of having three separate pots of money—an account for me, an account for you, and an account for the house—and not trying to micromanage the other person's individual account, so long as we’re meeting our long-term saving and investment goals for the future.
SP: In your money philosophy, you stress the need to give back. There’s a ton of research that shows that people who do give back, whether with money or with time, are happier and healthier, and it’s an interesting concept to consider. Can you tell us how giving money away actually makes us “wealthier” in the long run?
People who give back are often happier, healthier, and even wealthier as well.
JC: When you give money away to support something that you believe in, you’re able to get outside of yourself and feel as though you’re helping someone whose problems are different than the day-to-day problems that you experience. That perspective is really important because it takes the focus off of the mundane problems that you deal with day in and day out and forces you to think bigger.
Whether that’s about the world at large, or a disease at large, or a community at large, your focus turns to where you can affect change with your resources and help to accomplish something bigger than yourself. I think that’s what it’s all about, and that’s why people who do give back are often happier, healthier, and even wealthier as well.
Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador and host of the podcast HerMoney on iTunes. Jean is also a best-selling author. Her newest book, Age-Proof: Living Longer Without Running Out of Money or Breaking a Hip, which she wrote with Dr. Michael Roizen, will be released in February. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future.