No, money can’t usually buy happiness, though if you don’t have enough to live comfortably, more resources will add to your happiness. Once you get to that point the research of Princeton’s Daniel Kahneman released in 2010,1 shows that more money doesn’t seem to increase life satisfaction. What can help, however, is viewing your finances not just as dollars and cents, but as a tool to achieve the life you want.
To understand why this works, think about the fact that most of your financial goals are really life goals. A secure retirement. A philanthropic legacy. Educated children. The list goes on. If you can prioritize which of your goals sit at the top of your list—then create a game plan for how your earnings and investments can take you there—the result will likely be more satisfaction overall. It’s not the quickest exercise. It requires thought, conversations with your spouse or partner and often the help of an advisor who can help you put the pieces of the puzzle together. And, if you’ve never looked at your money through this lens before, you may not be sure where to start. Here are a few questions to get you going.
Do I want my money to make an impact?
A growing number of Americans are practicing “impact investing,” where they put their money to work in the stocks of companies that line up with the social and/or environmental change they want to see in the world, while simultaneously doing well financially. According to a TD Ameritrade survey, the majority of investors—67%—care more about making a positive impact with their money than they do about earning returns.2 Similarly, research from Merrill Edge revealed that 87 percent of people were more inclined to invest in a company with diverse leadership.3
Some investors go about this mission by screening out—or choose to exclude from their portfolios—any corporations that profit from things like coal mining, tobacco or firearms. Many financial companies now offer mutual or exchange traded funds that operate what are called “ESG” principles (the letters stand for environment, society and corporate governance). A financial planner can help you stack your accounts with only the types of investments that you feel good about. If you’re unsure about a particular company, it’s easier than ever to research everything from philanthropic contributions to environmental impact, all via the internet.
What are my family goals over the next few decades?
What are you most excited about in life? What are you most worried about? Unfortunately, many of us—30%—are in a constant state of worry over our finances, according to a recent survey from mobile-banking company Varo Money,4 and money is often reported to be the No. 1 cause of stress the among Americans.5 Having a plan—and sticking to it—is one of the best ways to get more excited about what your money can do for you. When you look ahead in the coming years, do you see yourself having a child, or perhaps moving closer to family when you retire? Even your small goals count. For example, if you know you want to take a big family vacation next year, start automatically putting money away for it now. In any equation you may run, planning and time are your best friends.
"More money doesn’t seem to increase life satisfaction. What can help, however, is viewing your finances not just as dollars and cents, but as a tool to achieve the life you want."
Do I want to give back philanthropically?
One way to instill more joy in your life is by giving back to causes you care about—research shows that giving truly does make you happier.6 When you make a donation to charity, it has much the same effect on your brain as does eating or excercing.7 Of course those effects are just the icing on the cake—your money has the capacity to change lives and enhance communities, so it’s no wonder that Americans gave $410 billion in 2017, according to the National Philanthropic Trust.8 Whether you give to a hospital, a college, or an animal rescue organization, there’s no wrong way to donate as long as you make sure you’re giving to a reputable group, and Charity Navigator can answer all your questions there. The most important thing is that if you want to leave a legacy, you put yourself in a financial position to do so. Philanthropic gifts should be a line item on your budget alongside all your other expenses—and a point of conversation with the loved ones and financial professionals in your life. One big consideration: Do you want to leave a donation as a charitable bequest from your estate, or witness your money at work while you’re still alive?
What are my life priorities with the time I have left?
No matter how much money you have set aside, there are always financial trade-offs to be made. It’s your job to set your goals and get clarity around what you want, and what you’ll be giving up to get it. For example, it may be possible for you to leave the workforce at 63 rather than at 65, but that may mean taking a smaller pension and having less discretionary funds in retirement. But if your priority is spending as much time with your family as you can, then stepping away a little early could be the right move for you. What may make the most sense mathematically isn’t always the right answer emotionally—you have to listen to your heart as well as your financial advisor.
Kathryn Tuggle contributed to this article.
Investing involves risk, including possible loss of principal.
The opinions and forecasts expressed are those of the author and individuals quoted and should not be construed as a recommendation or as complete.