The nearest Starbucks to my house is 15 miles away. It is in the town of Bee Cave, which also happens to be the location of the West Pole. If you are thinking of visiting one of the poles, try the West Pole first. Unlike the North or South poles, shopping is close by. No special clothing required. Indeed, if you survive crossing the traffic on Texas Highway 71, it’s a short walk from Starbucks to the West Pole.
My visits to Starbucks are a special treat. My Starbucks card, which I keep loaded with at least $20 at all times, makes them even more special. I can enjoy the added pleasure of going for my treat and not having to use actual money. I like to think that something nice is waiting for me anytime I’m in the neighborhood. I like it even more when I can bring my son Ollie and treat him to the Grande coffee of his choice.
I never thought much about this. Then I read “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending,” by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton (Simon & Schuster, New York, $15). It turns out that my little treat engages, in one way or another, most of the five principles of happy money described in the book.
“Happy money” is also a serious concept since so much of our spending ranks from painful to joyless. Dunn and Norton are serious academics, well versed in the growing study of happiness. I learned the explanation for some of my personal happiness as I read the book. My happiness has always surprised me since I’m basically a serious guy. (Some would say I’m so serious that it’s comical.) But it turns out I already have some well developed habits for happy money.
Here’s an example beyond Starbucks. In a few weeks my wife and I will be taking a week of vacation in Santa Fe. We’ll be renting a house on the Eastside, close to Downtown Subscription and Garcia Street Books. The Matteucci Sculpture Garden, a reservoir of peace, beauty and repose, is only a few steps farther. Our daughter and son-in-law will join us for a few days.
I paid for the rental weeks ago, using homeaway.com. I used Southwest Airlines points for the plane tickets. So most of this vacation will seem “free” to us. And it will be truly free for the “kids,” who are approaching 50. My wife and I have had the pleasure of anticipating this trip since mid-July. We think about past trips to Museum Hill. We make lists of the “must go” restaurants. We’re ready for a leisurely lunch in the courtyard at Casa Sena.
Anticipation turns out to be an important part of “happy money”— there is as much pleasure in awaiting an experience as in actually having it. And there is even more pleasure when sharing or gifting.
So what are the five principles? Here’s the nutshell version:
Do this because we find happiness in experiences and are often disappointed by things, such as dream houses and dream cars.
Make it a Treat.
Last night I had ice cream (Haagen-Dazs, Dulce de Leche) for the first time in six weeks. Trust me, it was a real treat. On the same principle, having a house full of chocolate bars is a good way to lose the joy of chocolate, which is close to tragic.
The biggest problem most people have is time poverty. It is largely responsible for the growing “slow movement,” encouraging people to recapture the pleasures lost by living in an all-consuming rush.
Pay Now, Consume Later
Break the connection between experiencing and paying. And reverse the established order of our consumer society. Have the money before you do something, not after.
Invest in Others.
Whether we gift friends and family or make charitable donations, studies show most people find more happiness in sharing than spending on themselves.
What’s most important in happy money is that none of this spending requires that you be in the Forbes 400. Or the top 1 percent. Or any group that appears to “have it made.” Repeated studies have shown that beyond a certain amount— about the $75,000 a year of my Life of Riley Index— more spending adds little to happiness.