Surprise! We’re all going to die. So why not live life more deliberately and maximize our time on this planet? In other words, why shouldn’t we live rich rather than die rich?
Well, here’s how to do just that—through things like investing in experiences early on, spending your money the right way, eliminating waste, giving assets away, taking risks (when it makes sense) and more.
Even though your goal is to ultimately spend your money, you still need to save it and make sure you are set for a comfy retirement. So don’t completely ignore the basics, like having a high-yield savings account, an IRA or 401(k) and a diversified portfolio of investments—living life to the fullest doesn’t mean living paycheck to paycheck without having any contingency plans.
In one 2021 study of more than 30,000 American adults, an increase in income was associated with increased happiness and life satisfaction across all income levels (previous research had indicated that personal happiness plateaued at an income level of around $75,000).
So, yeah, the idea that money can’t buy happiness is not necessarily true.
“Money is an opportunity for happiness,” wrote Daniel Gilbert, Ph.D., a Harvard psychology professor and coauthor of Stumbling on Happiness, in a paper for the Journal of Consumer Psychology, “but it is an opportunity that people routinely squander because the things they think will make them happy often don’t.”
In an analysis of existing research, Gilbert and his colleagues explored ways in which consumerism boosts well-being. They found that money is best spent on experiences rather than material goods (more on that below) and translates to happiness when it’s spent on others rather than on yourself (doting grandmothers have known this for centuries). Buying many small treats—a fancy chocolate truffle here, a flavored lip gloss there—also increases happiness more than splurging on a few large ones.
Evaluate what you’re currently spending your money on and see if it could be put to better use during your day-to-day life. If you are struggling to figure out the kind of spending that makes you happiest, consider keeping a spending diary and writing down how each purchase makes you feel. Eventually, you’ll find a correlation and can adjust your splurging accordingly.
In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology called “Spending on Doing Promotes More Moment-to-Moment Happiness Than Spending on Having,” the researchers proved just that: That using your money to do things will typically bring you more joy than using it to get stuff.
In the study, more than 2,500 participants recorded their emotional state on a happiness tracking app after making both material purchases (furniture, clothes, electronics, etc.) and experiential ones (restaurant meals, travel, sporting events, exercise, etc.). Participants who spent on experiences reported greater satisfaction than those who spent on goods—regardless of the type of item they bought or how much it cost.
Consider Bequeathing (While Still Alive)
If you can do so without jeopardizing your own living expenses, take advantage of the annual gift tax exclusion. This tax provision allows you to give up to $16,000 each year to as many people as you want without any tax penalties for you or the recipient. This way, for example, you can help your adult kid get a gorgeous family home (while you’re still alive to stay in the chic guest room, of course) or find joy in your sister’s vacation photos from Italy, a trip that your gift allowed her to take. As we’ve seen, experiences outweigh material items—and the experience of witnessing your loved ones receive material items totally counts.
Spending on others, as mentioned above, has been shown to promote happiness and life satisfaction, so don’t stop with your friends and family if you’re looking for ways to depart from your money. Find a cause that’s meaningful to you and set aside a certain amount of money—whether it’s $5 or $1,000—to give every month.
“My happiest clients are the ones with a sense of purpose in their lives,” says Stacy J. Miller, a certified financial planner and vice president at Bright Investments LLC in Tampa, Florida. “So beyond donating money to a charity, get involved in that charity’s work, too.” Donating has monetary benefits for you, as well: You can deduct up to (typically) 50% of your adjusted gross income on your taxes.
Don’t Actually Spend Until the End
Since spending, doing and giving can confer joy, being able to do these things your entire life is important. And that means you do have to save (sorry!) for a comfortable retirement.
“Err on the side of having a little left over rather than the side of saving too little,” says Miller. “You might live longer than you think, the market might change and your ability and/or desire to work could shift.”
With that said, don’t be one of those retirees who are afraid to spend their money and squirrel it away for no reason, wasting the opportunity to relish their last few decades. If you’re worried about finding a good balance, work with a financial advisor, Miller says, to understand how much you need to save and how much you can risk so that you can spend—and live!—it up for years to come.
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Patty Onderko is a writer and editor who has covered health, parenting, psychology, finance, travel and more for 20 years. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her wife and two sons.