The Joy Budget

In the first chapter of All the Money in the World, I note that most personal finance books tell readers to keep track of all the money going in and out. The usual point of this is to make sure that the “money coming in” category is bigger than the “money going out” category. Which is, of course, a good thing to know.

But let’s say it is. A more interesting question, looking at both the money coming in category and money going out category, is how all these entries make you feel. On the income side, this tilts at a broad study of whether you like your work, and whether you feel fairly compensated or not (something I then cover in the next few chapters). On the expense side of the ledger, this turns up a sad truth:

Many of us spend very little on things that actually make us happy. We don’t budget much for joy.

It’s understandable. The mortgage is what it is. Health insurance premiums are non-negotiable. You need a car to get around. The car has to be insured and fed an appropriate amount of gas. The lights have to stay on. When it comes to food, we tend to buy various staples at the grocery store and, let’s face it, sandwich bread and raisins are no one’s idea of a good time. Even money spent eating out is often spent at, say, an office cafeteria, not deployed in some more enjoyable environment. Clothes are fun when you buy them, but then often cease to be so. Even children’s lessons, which could be fun, are often done out of a sense of duty. The children have to study piano and take soccer to be appropriately well-rounded individuals… right?

Well, maybe. We save for the occasional vacation, plus a few weekend ventures, and that’s the extent of the joy budget. And that’s why personal finance is so incredibly dreary.

But one way to use money to buy happiness is to, over time, increase the amount of money in one’s joy budget. Look at the money going out, and figure out what has the highest utility function for you and the people you care about. What do you really enjoy doing? What do you enjoy buying? I’ve been thinking about this myself. I really love flowers, and yet I have such a hard time spending money on them. It seems like a waste. On the other hand, I have multiple pairs of pants that I never wear — why didn’t I realize those were a waste? That represents a lot of bouquets of flowers! Clothes are a necessity, and flowers are not. But I don’t think I am going to be in danger of going naked any time soon. Another conundrum: a travel journalist who was writing a story on authors’ homes that had been turned into museums asked me which was my favorite. I stopped short because it turns out I have never been to an author’s house that’s been turned into a museum. Why not? There are all kinds of authors who have been shaped by where they live, and whose books have in turn shaped me. Why not spend some time and money visiting these places? I’d love to see the landscape of the Anne of Green Gables books, or the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I’ve been to the Monterey area in California, but could have given the visit more of a Steinbeck cast. As a writer of self-help literature, I owe a great debt to Benjamin Franklin. I live near Philadelphia. But have I been visiting any of his old haunts? Not really. 

All of these would be worthy entries in my joy budget. What would you include in yours?

(photo taken by me. I’m drinking my coffee out of a cup that says “joy” these days.)

7 thoughts on “The Joy Budget

  1. How smart to put a reminder right there on your coffee cup! Thinking about joy every time you see it will be a constant reminder to deliberately pursue Joy.

    Ah….I always wanted to visit Prince Edward Island, too. Maybe I’ll go write that on my actual “Someday” list. It’s bringing me a little joy just thinking about it right now!

    1. @Anne – I know, it’s just a little thing. But what a good reminder! And coffee makes me feel pretty joyous anyway…

  2. This post caught my eye because I wholeheartedly agree that we don’t concentrate on bringing joy into our lives enough–and it doesn’t have to cost a lot to do so. Even the necessities can be made a bit more joyful.

    Each week, I’ve been buying one package of scones from my local grocery store’s bakery. I eat a small piece with my morning coffee every day, and find that it helps me start my day with a little rush of happiness. All for $2.69!

  3. Things I buy that I would include in my “joy budget” include books, art/craft/sewing supplies, plants for my landscaping projects, and decor/furniture/paint etc for my home. These are items which feed my free time hobbies – arts & crafts, reading, perennial gardening, and interior design. The one item I should include and haven’t actually included in the budget is travel – music concerts, a cruise, camping are all things I enjoy but would do only when/if I have extra money. I haven’t actually allocated any money specifically for them.

  4. You have hit the nail on the head, you can find joy in the simple things, scones, flowers or a nice week-end dinner. We were surprised how much joy we got out of riding our bikes after we got rid of our car. We had never really found the time to ride them and now we needed to. Who knew.

  5. I see this as both “joy for others” and “joy for ourselves”. I live near a Tier 1 university and attended a live performance of Handel’s Messiah (Part 1) at Christmas time. The musicians are almost all professionally trained and the church organ was a historic tracker organ. It was a delight and worth the $20 ticket, even for frugal me!

    The other source of joy is having “extra” to share with others. Recently, I gave homemade chili, homemade clam chowder, homemade spanokopita, a purchased frozen meal and purchased rolls to a friend who is on bed rest with preterm labor and has a one year old. Been there, done that. Having the extra money and extra time to do this brings ME joy.

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