Want to be happy? Boost your joy budget

I tried out my money speech for the first time at the Invent Your Future Midwest Conference for Women this week. While I have given my speech on time often enough that I know exactly when the audience will laugh or nod, the money material was all new. I’ll be honest. Some of it didn’t work so well. Some of it got people leaning forward. These are things it’s hard to know until you get in front of a live audience.

One of the exercises I think did go over well was asking people to list 5 things they were happy to spend money on this past month. What made you happy to part with your hard-earned cash? People had some good ones: a trip to a highly-experiential museum, a state library card, a plane ticket to visit a cousin, participating in a college reunion, a swimsuit that would let a baby take her first dip in a pool — a purchase that was not so much about the swimsuit as about sharing summer with a new child. Here are a few of mine:

  • Lunch (a lobster roll) at Legal Sea Foods in the Philadelphia airport. If traffic is light and I get to the airport in enough time, this is my treat.
  • Renting bikes at Valley Forge. The park has a long loop around it that takes you past various cannons and cabins, but the best part is the vast quantity of open space shockingly close to the King of Prussia mall. We’ve been renting kid carriers, and it’s fun to have a way to exercise with the children. It is also an incredibly good workout to haul 40 lbs of kid up a hill.  
  • Tickets for Light, the art installation at Longwood Gardens. I blogged about this in my post on “A Summer of Saying Yes.
  • A few date nights with my husband. Babysitting adds quite a bit to the cost of dinner, but with two jobs and three kids age 5 and under, I think it’s worth every penny.
  • Beautiful little sundresses for my beautiful little girl. My oldest two kids are boys, and while they are adorable too, little boy clothes are not nearly as much fun as little girl clothes. I’d eyed frilly frocks for years and bought them for my friends’ babies, but being able to buy them for my own daughter is this silly little pleasure.

There are others. I’ll be making a donation to the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus soon, which makes me happy to think of the programming and commissions it will enable. Leaving big tips also makes me happy. Basically anything that buys experiences, time, or a stronger connection to humanity.

So what’s the point of this? When we know how, exactly, money buys us happiness, we can make wiser choices about what we do with our money in general. I challenged the audience to write the dollar amount that they spent on each item on their happy lists, and think if there was some way to double the amount spent on at least one item in their joy budgets. While that might not be possible with some items (major trips for instance), for many people it would be possible to go to lunch twice a month instead of once. It would be possible to visit a second museum, or to go to more events in town with friends. We fritter away a lot of money here and there. Better to redeploy those resources in the pursuit of happiness or — at best — a more meaningful life for ourselves and the people we care about.

What made you happiest to spend money on this month? Could you spend more on these things? What would you spend less on (or how could you bring in more money) to make this possible?

New readers: If you’re wondering why I’m blogging and speaking about money…I wrote a personal finance/money philosophy book called All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending, which came out in March. Please check it out!

Photo courtesy flickr user Benson Kua



10 Responses to Want to be happy? Boost your joy budget


  1. Cara Marcano says:

    I have a big trip planned for holiday week between xmas and new year’s and am thinking of bagging it for something simpler… like road trip to florida (it is an international trip) or just day trips, maybe teach my daughter to ski) agree that the small things often bring more pleasure and less stress…

  2. Jamie says:

    Last night I went to the bike store and paid them $10 to true my front wheel. I had been delaying more because of the hassle factor (getting to the bike store without kids before closing time) than because of the $10, but OH what a good investment! It had been gradually getting more catawampus, so that I hardly noticed how much less pleasant it was to ride. I took an impromptu evening ride along the shady trail that runs through our town, pedaling fast for the pleasure of feeling the bike respond. Looking forward to many similar rides this summer. :-)

    • Laura says:

      @Jamie – money well spent! It feels so good when things we love work right.

  3. Definitely not Lobster Rolls, even the ones at Legal’s. Waste of good lobster!

    Recent happiness purchases: after daycamp care until 5pm, organic cherries, a new bookcase. I think we’re optimizing though… more daycare would mean too much time away from DC, another bookcase would be pointless, and if we had cherries all the time it wouldn’t be such a treat and they’d start to go bad before we could finish.

    • Laura says:

      @NicoleandMaggie – true on the optimization, though one could broaden the category and see possibilities. Organic cherries could go in the fun foods category, which might also include artisinal cheeses or whatever floats your boat…

      • Yeah, I think we’re already optimized on artisan cheeses as well. And furniture. Getting more food options would require trade-offs we’re not willing to make at this time, like driving into the city (less pleasant when you have to micturate every 30 -45 min) or quitting our jobs and moving to California. I think we’ve pretty much entered in the equation, run the derivative and set it equal to zero and solved the optimization problem until we get the next exogenous shock. Our Lagrangian is good for now.

        • Laura says:

          @N&M – oh, I love that your Lagrangian is good. Been a while since I have written that word!

  4. Judy says:

    This is weighing on me greatly this week. We are in the middle of the chaos of a kitchen redo. This is taking a VERY large chunk of money and was by no means necessary. We moved foward with it for a number of very well thought out reasons – both short and long term,. I am quite mindful of the fact that this money could have been used to instead to buy many many little pleasures. Taking away from the happiness factor of an exciting new kitchen are the reminders from a 17 year old who lives in my house (where did he come from???) that I could have used a fraction of this money on buying a nice little used car for him!

    • Laura says:

      @Judy – I know, this killed me when buying furniture for my house too. The furniture represents many trips and other such things. I do enjoy it, but trying to stay in that frame of mind helped me keep the whole project under control.

  5. Cloud says:

    Hmmm. I think the money I spent on the books in my last weekend reading post was really well spent. Short things to read before bed make me happy! And, to be honest, knowing I’m supporting the people who write the things I like to read makes me happy, too. I could get more books from the library, particularly now that my kids are old enough to allow me to be able to wander off and look for my own reading material while my husband watches them (at one point, taking both kids to the library at once required the full attention of two grown ups). But I like buying books, and with the eReader, I can do that without having to also figure out how to store them!