Are you rich but unhappy? Or poor and happy Or something else?

by maya on June 3, 2009

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I think it is time for a discussion. About MONEY. Even Seth Godin wants to think about it!

Money is on my mind a lot these days. It is the first time in years that I am not bringing a paycheck home. We are paying our bills, thanks to my husband having a job, but I never imagined I’d ever go this long without contributing to the family income (or cash-flow) …

I am doing a LOT of other things to contribute to family life and I am not unhappy by any means, but I do *think* about money a lot.

Ever since I started thinking up this post, I have been thinking about what money means to my happiness. And how much money I need to be happy? Is it the cash-flow that bothers me, is it that these days we are saving no money for the future, or the fact that there is really very little stretching we can afford to do financially at this point in our lives? Money is a non issue at this point  but if I my financial situation stays the same, will I eventually get exhausted of this whole frugality thing? And will lack of pocket money and no contribution to the future fund worry me into some unhappiness? When will that be and what should I do ….?

Well, of course, having no money is hardly a situation to be happy about for anyone. But once we are able to put food on the table, so to speak, just how much money do we need to be happy? And how much money do we need to not worry about our finances? I understand that all these things vary for different people and I really want to have a conversation around it.

I wish I had a picture of the home I grew up in. I did not grow up rich at all. Or so I believe. My dad is a smart guy, but he is not and never was a businessman. For years and years, I remember him struggling to pay off loans that he had made. His would worry for days before he found the courage to ask someone for the money they owe him – for supplies he had provided them months ago. As a child, I just watched, quietly listened and then worried about how much my parents struggled for money.

Those are the memories I have of money from my childhood. I had parents that always provided, but I had parents that always seemed to struggle to get money together. With four kids, they perhaps had a LOT of expenses …In all honesty, I have no idea about how rich or poor my parents were. To ask my parents for a few Rupees was a painful task and often, I’d survive for days from the change at the last shopping trip to the drugstore.

So, deep inside, from the money story I sew together with my memories is one of mild poverty – I was uneasy about money, it worried me, caused pain to my parents and stressed the heck out of me. We were always middle-class, but in my head, I was poverty stricken.

Coming to the USA with a graduate scholarship was incredibly cathartic. All of a sudden, I had money, my own money. Enough money for food, shelter, a few experiences, little gifts and then some to save off for a rainy day. It seemed to me that for the first time in my life, I was not thinking about money. I had enough to no worry about money and start concentrating on being happy.

The little money I had made me independent and secure. Let me have the things that are important to me. Took money off my mind. And let me concentrate some energy on being happy.

That is when I figured out that I had a certain relationship with money.

Money to me is like having another person in my life – one who complicates and/or simplifies my life in powerful ways. A necessary evil. A good friend who I fight with often.

And over the years I have learned that like most things in life, what I make of money and the happiness I derive from it is more about what is inside me than the absolute money I have in my pocketbook.

I did research money and it’s effects on happiness and basically found that money does buy happiness to some extent. They listed the happiest nations and talked about how people in richer nations are somewhat happier. Prosperity does contribute to happiness but so do freedom and equality ….

So as individuals we all have to figure out (once we have our basic needs met), what our individual relationship with money is. And how to manage it.

Once we have learned to do that, we have successfully gotten money out of our worry systems, we simplify our lives and can focus on what REALLY makes us happy.

So this is my relationship with money. Like EVERY relationship, my relationship with money has 2 parts – the money and the part of me that relates to the money.


I will leave you with this. I will come back and talk about my relationship with money in some more detail in my next post. And then we can talk about how we can be find money and happiness if we had way too much or too little of one or the other.

My life is RICH and I could not be happier. BUT there is no denying that if I had a little more money, I’d put it towards a few experiences(travel) and conferences like @jeffpulver ‘s #140char conference, TEDIndia and our very own local Gnomedex. But having less money makes you creative and I am exploring scholarship opportunities in both cases, but it is a struggle … perhaps I should start my education fund :)

So, I am curious.

Would you call yourself rich but unhappy, poor but happy?

WHAT is YOUR relationship with money? What would YOU do if you had a little more money?

Creative Commons License photo credit: psyberartist

  • Positively Present

    Really interesting post. I actually wrote about a similar topic on my own blog yesterday! Check out “happiness (is not) for sale!” over on PP. Personally, I don’t feel any happier when I have more things or more money. Money doesn’t equal happiness.

  • Marelisa

    Hi Maya: As you say, the research shows that once you have enough money to cover your needs, additional money only has a slight impact on happiness.  Maybe for you it’s not so much a question of happiness as much as needing to adjust to a new role in which you’re not contributing to the family income in the same way as you were before.   It’s amazing all of the beliefs we pick up about money from watching our parents.

  • J.D. Meier

    Good stuff. I always enjoy your images and models.I see the pain of too many people below the line, when all they want is above the line enough that they aren’t making trade-offs between food, health, …. etc.I’ve been helping people with other problems besides money so far, but I might turn my attention to helping folks generate wealth.  I think there’s a ton of key principles, patterns, and practices for wealth and I think they’ll become increasingly important for the years to come.  A global market with rapid cycles of change in a connected age mean lots of disruptions.  I plan to give people the tools to learn and respond.

  • Ramkumar

    I think money gets way more importance in our societies than it deserves. Money is a means to an end, not an end in and off itself; however, in modern society we are brought up to believe that money is the goal.  Take an example of an instance where one feels concerned about the need to save money – say, you are saving up for your kid’s college education. Education in a typical US university costs tens of thousands of $$ every year.  However – say our education system was designed so that quality college education was free and accessible to everyone (as it is in several European countries). Then, that money that we’ve been trying to set aside suddenly becomes irrelevant. In other words – the thing that we really wanted here was not the money, but the education; in the absence of other means (i.e, an institutional framework where education is free), Money seemed to be the only way to get there. I certainly agree with your bell curve analogy. People in today’s society do need atleast enough money to be out of poverty, and the good zone to be is where you have enough money that you don’t have to worry about putting food on the table on a day-to-day basis, etc. But I’d argue that this curve only tells part of the story.  Working with the premise that we need enough money to be in the bell region of the curve – there is no guarantee that  having $X will get us there.  Say you have make $2000 a month, but what if your monthly essential expenses (food, healthcare, rent) cost $3000?  So whether or not $X can keep us happy depends on a multitude of external factors. To bastardize a cliched line from that famous song – Money can’t buy me happiness. I am not saying that a money-free society is possible or even desirable. All I am saying is that the primacy money has in our society today is unwarranted.  And a society that gives primacy to “wealth creation” as opposed to social well-being, also keeps moving that $X marker further and further out and more and more unattainable. It is an un-winnable race. A few emerge victorious (but probably not happy either) at the expense of several others who spend their lives running to stay still; stuck on a treadmill while our dreams and aspirations fall to the wayside. And I am not even talking about the consumerism rampant in our current society where we are made to want things that we don’t really need, which pushes us further on our treadmill, and ultimately forces us to sacrifice more happiness in their quest. Coming to your questions: – I am lucky to find myself somewhere in the middle of that bell curve; at this juncture in my life I have enough that I don’t have think about money too often. – As to your second question – I don’t really have much of a relationship with money. I see it as a necessary evil. I am certainly on a treadmill to some extent, but I am content. But I haven’t really asked myself the tough questions – what would I do if I were to free myself completely? Would I be doing something more satisfying / useful than software engineering? I don’t know yet.- If I had a little bit more money I’d probably donate it. I have enough.

  • Ramkumar

    Apologies for the length of my previous comment; and I don’t know why all the formatting is lost!

  • Vered – MomGrind

    I think I’m somewhere in the middle. Money can’t buy happiness, but it can certainly buy comfort and luxury. I am completely aware of that.

  • Davina

    Hi Maya. I understand about not having “enough” money. My mother struggled; the phone or hydro would be turned off regularly, and we’d eat pasta a lot. Somehow we always made it though. When I have money I am very generous, but when things are tight I tighten my belt and become fearful of money. I think that for me anyway, it goes even deeper than the money. How to find the gift we are born with, recognize it, employ and share it, and have it translate into the money that will feed us so that we can keep on using our gift. If I had more money I would build a log cabin and move to the boonies away from the city.

  • ankur kakkar

    hey ma’am,i think india is the best place in the world to live in, to understand the value of money. that is because if you are an indian , you are quite likely to belong to the so called middle class, you are quite likely to be frugal, you are quite likely to have been brought up in an economical money in my country for my people is a basic necessity to make both ends meet, to ensure that all members of the family get their share of resources, it stops there .. because there is never any ‘extra’ money with us.  With my generation, things are changing and quite fast… with the advent of globalization, most of us are employed with leading MNC’s, we like to gulp coffee at CCD, we like to watch a movie in PVR,we like to dine at kareem’s – all in one day .. for us it stops here .. because after we have unwound ourselves, we are not left with much to save for a rainy day.   There is a different india residing in rural areas.. for them, money is EVERYTHING. they owe large sums to landlords, they sleep hungry on most nights, they manage to survive and spend their entire lives with one burden each day – to earn enough money to procure their next meal .. it stops here for these people, born in a different cot. To sum up :If you have less money, you will be worried about getting the resources necessary for survival,if you have ‘more’ (relatively), you will be looking to spend it in ways that will relieve you mentally,by investing in extravagant whims and fancies. basically IT (money supply) will always stop sometime or the other, but your desires will not. the question is, if both poor and rich people need money alike , albeit for different requirements, then who is a happier person ??Please read the next comment for that answer !!

  • ankur kakkar

    so.. if both rich and poor people need money to satisfy their individual desires, then who is a more satisfied person at any given point of time ??  Happiness i believe has less to do with money, because money can only temporarily satisfy your infinite desires. if you want to be happy, you should pursue what you really want to do.   This is where i start talking about myself :   I will be dishonest if i say that i dont need a lot of money or if i say that i dont want to be rich because i have developed habits and tastes that require me to spend a considerable money on the things that i want to indulge in.. yes, i have spoiled myself to some extent..thankfully, i dont smoke and i drink only on social ocassions, so those habits are ruled out.. but i am addicted to chocolate truffle, i am addicted to good food anywhere and everywhere.. so i need money to eat various kinds of food.More importantly however, i need money to pursue my dreams, my real interests, things that really give me immense pleasure. in my case that pleasure comes from reading..i will invest a considerable part of my future income in buying books,in building my own personalised database of books on varied subjects. i have plans and will invest my fortune in making sure those plans bear fruit.Apart from meeting the desires stated above, i dont money.. if i do manage to save money after spending it on the aforementioned activities, i will rather try and donate it for a social cause.SO, is money directly proportional to happiness ?Firstly, this question is relative and it cannot be answered absolutely. there are many poor people who live lives happily because they are content with what they have and they do not have many material desires, so to say. i have met with such kind of people who live austere lives since they believe in simplicity,i have visited temples and interacted with priests who recite the ‘hanuman chalisa’ 100 times a day and find solace in their devotion to the same time, i have met rich businessmen who will have to rack their brains to remember the last time they smiled. their day begins with phone calls to dealers/clients and ends with hurling abuses at their subordinates.they have centrally air-conditioned homes,steam baths, they drive mercs …. but even they are not sure about their purpose of life !!     Secondly, after your basic requirements have been met, money becomes a necessary evil. it spoils you, but you still need it to explore life.IN SUM, i believe that after you have been able to put food on your table, the ‘extra’ money should go towards building your interests if you have any or serving the society. if you let yourself be spoiled by money, if you let yourself be driven by the greed for an extra home,if you let yourself destroy your purpose of life in the pursuit of materialistic pleasure, you will reduce yourself to a worthless individual and you wont be a MAN !!

  • Maya

    Thank you all so much for your comments. I am reading them but want to respond after 2 things – 1. Exploring why formatting is getting lost and 2. Really digesting all your comments .I will be back!Thanks :)

  • Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    This is such a great post! I can really relate to your childhood experience with money, even though I grew up in the U.S. We were solidly middle class, but my dad was so frugal that I often thought we were poor. We never had a nice car or new furniture, we never flew anywhere or stayed in hotels. But we went to lots of live performances and museums, and when I went to a private college, my parents paid for my education. As you say, our relationship to money is part real, part perception. What we spend our money on says a lot about what we value.I can also relate to your relationship with money as an adult. I love how you put this: “Money to me is like having another person in my life – one who
    complicates and/or simplifies my life in powerful ways. A necessary
    evil. A good friend who I fight with often.”

  • Nicole

    Find the happy then you'll find the money. (pr stop caring about it.)

    It's never the other way around.

  • thinkmaya

    I agree that this is true once you have money for basic food and shelter ….
    I saw way too many poverty stricken kids in India growing up….they were happy, believe me! It is hard for me to believe that they ever had enough money in life in spite of the happiness without nutrition, shelter and access to education. They still learn to be happy though, but they do struggle all along :)

  • Rochelle

    We are neither poor or rich. But we are happy, although, I would prefer to work part-time. I grew up poor but really didn't know until I was in high school. My husband and I are always trying to find ways to pay off our bills and not create new ones. We are looking forward to the day when we are bill free and can put more into savings. On the other hand, we don't deprive ourselves of having fun and enjoying things as a family. If I had a little more money, I would cut my hours at the office and definitely request working from home.

  • brian

    How is your realtionship with God? I would say that true happyness (happyness when money is gone or abundant) and joy comes from the Lord. In love, he sent his Son to dye on a cross so that whoever believes in him will have forgiveness of their sins and receive the gift of eternal life. May you seek true happyness in your Creator as you continue down the road on this side of the grave.

  • Nathalie Lussier

    I loved your sketches, as usual. :) I especially liked the one with money in the purse vs. money in the mind. It is SO much about perceptions, it's kind of crazy. :)

  • thinkmaya

    Thanks Nathalie – my relationship with money is mostly in my head, i think. You perhaps relate being an entrepreneur :) money gets more complicated, doesn't it?

  • Nathalie Lussier

    I hear you Maya! It's a whole new ballgame. I love it though, especially knowing that it's in your head – it gives you back control. :)

  • Vi | Maximizing Utility

    Hi Maya,
    Money and happiness is one of my favorite topics. I love thinking about this topic. A while back I wrote about it here:

    You might find this point of view interesting. Although my diagrams can't compete with yours. Yours are too cute.

  • Davina

    Hi Maya. I'm back! Came by to announce to you that I have just nominated you for a Kreativ Blogger Award. There is no obligation for you to participate, but I thought it would be fun to learn more about you.

  • Sara


    I had the opposite childhood as money was never really a problem, but then my childhood wasn't that happy either. I think money can help, but a person needs to have things that money can't buy. Money can buy financial support and security, but it can't buy the emotional support and security a person needs to thrive.

    This makes me think of one my friends. This woman almost never has money, but she's very happy. She trusts that she'll get what she needs and she usually does. People often say she's irresponsible, but, to be honest, I'd really like to have her approach to money:~)

    I look forward to the follow-up post!

  • thinkmaya

    Vi – I love your blog!
    And I love thinking about this as the marginal utility of mone when it comes to happiness – which of course diminishes …
    Thank you for calling my diagrams cute :) I'd take forever if I tried to draw ones as clean and neat as yours. I love the way you make your point though!

  • thinkmaya

    Thanks Davina!

  • thinkmaya

    Sara – does the woman you talk about have people she is financially responsible for?
    To me, that adds a layer of complexity :)

    Oh, thank you for th comment – I really look forward to taking this discussion forward :)

  • AnnMarieFagan

    Hi there Maya
    Thanks for a really interesting post. I too am in a similar situation as you are: we’re living off my husbands wage and the cash flow is tight at the minute. I have grappled with this for the past year, had many sleepless nights and too questioned my relationship to money.

    Before I stopped working in my job, money was all around me and I suppose me and money were friends, good friends. However I always knew that my time working as an employee would be short lived as I could see that a job would not provide me or my family with the life I wanted to live now and in the future. So I quit.

    Wow that played havoc with my mind and my beliefs around money. In the beginning I felt like a slave to money; I was obsessed by our bank balance, I felt I had no way to control it. You could say I was unhappy in my relationship with money.
    Yet I had chosen to quit my job to work in an area that I loved, felt excited about, and was aligned with who I was and I was extremely happy in this relationship.

    So after months of this ill feeling around money, I stopped. It wasn’t serving me and my fears never came to fruition. What I realized is that money needs to flow, it is never stagnant. And if it is, I’m dead. So for me it doesn’t matter how much money I have, so long as it is moving in some direction. Our financial situation is only temporary and could change in an instant. What does matter to me is that I am living a happy life, spending time with my family and working in an area that I love.

  • Lori | Spiritual Tidbits

    I've trained myself to be content with what I have…so much so, that I have a hard time dreaming up what I'd do with a little more money. Do you think this type of trained contentedness limits my possibility for receiving more abundance in my life?

  • Ramkumar

    Apropo of this post, I wanted to share a wonderful piece about a guy who's been living in the canyons of Utah with zero money for more than a decade now. His decision to do so arose out of some observations he made during his time in the peace corps, monitoring the health of tribespeople in Ecuador; he determined that “the more they spent, the more their health declined. In other words, money was impoverishing them”.
    Check out –… – a very entertaining and thought-provoking read.

  • Neeta

    I miss your posts…..hope all is well…….


  • tomvolkardelightfulwork

    I'd call my self comfortable and happy. I love the topic of abundance of both cash and fulfillment. Your right to remember your upbringing for that is where our limits are so obviously set and then we spend the rest of our loves either fighting them, obeying them or changing them regarding money. When I honor myself more I care less about how much I have or don't have. But I am much bolder with a financial reserve.

  • ups1984

    I just saw ur blog and am forced to read every word…AMAZING!!! great writing

  • thinkmaya

    Thanks so much! I am humbled :)

  • thinkmaya

    Wow – bolder with a reserve makes so much sense Tom! I always say that my ability to take risks depends on how well I plan – which means risks are always calculated ….and money is a component of that ….

    I think if I was very poor , it would affect both my spontaneity as well as ability to risk …

  • thinkmaya

    I am well Neeta, thank you SO much for droppng a note. Just so busy but will be catching up on my posts here soon.
    I hope you are doing well!

  • cynduja

    Hey Maya….

    I came across this lady who quit the corporate world to join the world of arts…she was my 10 years senior from school and when i asked her how she managed that, from the point of view of income alone, this is what she said “We all need/are used to a certain lifestyle and if we can afford that lifestyle and save a little every month, we have all the money we need…and honestly the guy who earns 10 lakhs has almost the same lifestyle as someone who earns 20 lakhs”..the more i notice, the truer it turns out to be…this defines my relationship and attitude towards money…as long as i don't have to think twice about the books i want to buy, the plays i want to watch, the movies i want to buy, pay my bills, and have my basics in place…and can save a bit..i don't want anymore…

    Another thing is, i don't personally mind where the money is coming from…in some phases of life, i'll earn and support someone, and some phases someone will support me…that's what family and relationships are about, right?

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  • sryp

    I am a middle class guy earning a decent amnt of money. Here, if I have to call myself either rich or poor, I'd call myself rich and unhappy. There is a constant struggle in my mind to make more money and become super rich. But, I have realised lately that I am losing out on my health and happiness in the process.

    I have been very careless in managing my money all my life and ended up spending on things that were very far from required. Many a time this has directly or indirectly affected my relationships with friends and family. This learning could not have come at a better time than this and in a very hard way, that it made me understand my priorities better.

    Now, I am a middle class guy with few debts and proper cash-flow, looking forward to take my big step in the entertainment industry. Saving Money for that! Wish me Luck!!!

  • paisepower

    Happiness is a WAY to achieve things. Happiness is A way to become Rich.
    Money a byproduct of service we give to our fellow human beings. THe better the service, Better will be the money flow…:)

  • Lucyfrances

    this is rubbish.

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