How The Happiest People In The World Spend Their Money

People can feel trapped by their careers—whether it's because they're earning too little, are waiting for a big payout, or have grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle. Laura Vanderkam's new book, All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending, offers a new approach to finances for a modern, more flexible reality.

Increasingly, the stories people tell me about their work and life choices break the conventional mold:

  • A twentysomething entrepreneur starts a business while holding down another job and living on friend’s couch.  He’s trading financial insecurity today for work he feels passionate about and a distant promise of a future payoff.
  • A fortysomething father of two with a stay-at-home wife walks away from a lucrative legal career without knowing what his next step will be because he can’t tolerate the stress and relentless hours any longer.
  • A single mother of three gets laid off and decides to start a not-for-profit instead of finding another job in advertising.

Their unique journeys not only challenge the traditional wisdom about the path we "should" follow with our work and careers, but they also challenge the standard rules about money. And yet, they raise plenty of practical concerns: How is the entrepreneur who spends his 20s scraping by supposed to buy a house and two cars in his 30s? How is the fortysomething father supposed to send all of his children to private, four-year colleges and fully retire at 60 years old? How is the single mother going to afford weddings for each of her three daughters?

Work, life, and money are intertwined intimately, and yet they’re rarely addressed together. As the traditional boundaries that used to define "work" and "life" disappear, the conventional beliefs related to money must also evolve.

This is the message of Laura Vanderkam’s new book, All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending (Portfolio, 2012). By taking on outdated money beliefs, Vanderkam offers a new approach to finances for a modern, more flexible reality. Some of the changes she advocates include:

Be more mindful about what your money could buy. Make purchases that improve your happiness.  For many, that means spending on experiences, not things.  Using the example of the money we have traditionally paid for expensive engagement rings and weddings, Vanderkam calculates how many trips, periodic bouquets of flowers, date nights, babysitters, and hours of housecleaning that money could buy over the years.  These are services and experiences that, in the long run, could bring more enjoyment to a couple than a big ring and wedding.

The single mother who started the not-for-profit may not be able to pay for a lavish wedding for her daughters, but they will see their mother doing work she loves. This will not only set an example of happiness that will hopefully inspire the professional choices of her daughters, but help them prioritize how they want to spend their money.

Challenge the big house, big yard, two car "American dream."  Vanderkam points out that these purchases often come with a longer commute by car, more responsibilities for lawn care, and housekeeping.  Studies show that none of these activities increase happiness.

Maybe the twentysomething entrepreneur won’t buy a sprawling house with a big yard and a three-car garage.  Instead he’ll choose to buy only one car because he bought a smaller house closer to public transportation.  But he’ll be free to invest in and grow his business while having money left over for activities and experiences that have greater meaning to him like travel or eating out with friends.

Don’t just scrimp and save. Find ways to increase your earnings.  Yes, the increased flexibility in work and careers can be scary and unsettling, but it also provides new, exciting opportunities to make more money.  Vanderkam calls it the "1099 mindset."  Even if you have a more traditional job, think about work the way freelancers or contract workers—people who get 1099s—do. If you are a teacher, tutor. If you’re interested in a topic, start a blog that you monetize. Be creative.

The fortysomething father who walked away from his lucrative legal career was approached by his firm to consult on projects. He’s now thinking of other similar channels that will allow him to make money but give him the flexibility he wants to spend time with his children and enjoy the parts of his life he had no time for previously. Also, his formerly stay-at-home wife is exploring a number of different opportunities to bring in additional income.

Rethink retirement. In other words, don’t expect to ever retire.  Instead, embrace a second or "encore" career. This is what the single mother of three is doing with her not-for-profit. She sees herself leading this effort well past traditional retirement age.

Yes, work and life have transformed over the past two decades. With All the Money in the World, Laura Vanderkam is showing us that we have to update and evolve that way we think about money as well.  In addition to the book, you can connect with Vanderkam on her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

What do you think?  How have you found yourself rethinking the way to approach and manage money as your work and career have become less traditional and more flexible? 

Cali Williams Yost is the CEO and Founder of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., flexible work and life strategy advisors to clients including BDO USA, LLP, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy and Novo Nordisk. Yost is the author of "Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You" (Riverhead/Penguin Group, 2005). Connect with Cali at the award-winning Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Image: Flickr user Pink Sherbert Photography]

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