By Ron Lieber
June 1, 2021
Bring on the nationwide spending binge.
Half of all people older than 18 in the United States are now fully vaccinated. Tens of millions of them are emerging, blinking in the springtime sunshine, and heading straight for restaurants, movie theaters or a flight to somewhere — or anywhere, really.
It is true that millions of people are still trying to get their hotel jobs or theater gigs back. But collectively, Americans are holding onto a larger share of their income than they have in decades.
That leftover money is a kind of kindling. We may look back on this moment as a once-in-a-lifetime period when many millions of Americans felt that money was burning actual holes in their pockets.
It is an unfamiliar sensation for many of us. “There is a puritanical streak that runs through all aspects of money in America,” said Ramit Sethi, an author who focuses more attention than most on spending well in addition to saving intelligently. “And most of the conversations start with no.”
But we should consider the strong possibility that saying yes right now could bring a true improvement in happiness. So this column — and another one next week — will be about maximizing it through strategic spending.
The conversation begins with “Yes, and … ” — with perhaps with a side order of “Yes, but … ” To help us all get there, I called on some of my most thoughtful contacts among people who talk, think or write about money. And I made sure to ask them this: What are you doing yourself?
Brian Thompson, a financial planner in Chicago, was prepared for this moment. He generally has two questions at the ready: What do you want to spend your money on? And why are you really spending it?
There are no wrong answers, Thompson said. “I always come from the approach that there is no judgment, and I try to come with empathy to help people clarify what the money means for them,” he said.
Money Is Power
Paradoxically, the first thing to think about here is saving. Paulette Perhach said it better than I could here in her classic 2016 article exhorting everyone to build a freedom fund. (“Freedom” is my word; she uses an F-bomb, if you are trying to find it via internet search.)
Savings are not just for when your car breaks down or you get sick. Having a freedom fund means you are not beholden to someone else — whether that is a significant other who is treating you like garbage or a boss who is harassing you or otherwise making you miserable.
“This is about power, and power comes in a lot of different forms,” Perhach, an essayist and a writing coach, said. “It comes from options, from looking at life and making sure one person does not have so much say over the outcome of your finances that you would have to tolerate behavior that goes against your own self-respect.”
Every few years, I reopen my well-worn copy of “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending,” a book from 2013 by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, for a review session. This time, I called Dunn, a member of the psychology department at the University of British Columbia, to help me along.
A first principle of research in this area has generally been that buying an experience brings more satisfaction — and less buyer’s remorse — than buying stuff. In the years since the book was published, Dunn said, this conclusion has largely held up for people with more money, though it can be less true for people further down the socioeconomic ladder.
So, what types of experiences should we be making a priority?
After a year marked by loss, I adopted a narrow approach focused on things that I might not have a chance to do again. I will never attend another John Prine concert or again eat food touched by the hands of Floyd Cardoz, both of whom were among the many we lost to the pandemic.
But there are things I can do instead that are not likely to recur, like attending my friend’s swearing-in ceremony as police chief in another state. And I am prioritizing a trip with my daughters to the Great Barrier Reef (using approximately 9,000 years of frequent-flyer mile savings) before it is no more.
Dunn endorsed my plans and the need to get out into the world again. “The only experiences I’ve been having are Netflix and DoorDash,” she said.
Dunn lost her mother, Winifred Warren, to lung cancer in September and has a plan to celebrate her someplace other than a Zoom chat. Soon, she will get over the border to California and dine with her aunt and her mother’s best friend at the famed French Laundry — where Warren had been hoping to go herself, once she got better.
But just because so much fun seems available again all at once, it does not mean you should pursue it all simultaneously.
“People who have reasonably high incomes — but the proclivity to go the immediate gratification route — can rack up quite a bit of debt,” Dunn said.
Indeed, credit card issuers are licking their lips in anticipation of whatever orgy of spending ensues this year. Perhach found herself impulsively buying concert tickets recently and was inspired to pen a warning about the behavioral science of overspending for Vox.
The gratification does not necessarily last long — and can even be wiped out by the dread of any new debt, she said.
“I’ve done trips with an undercurrent of ‘I’m about to be in trouble,’” she told me this week. “And that’s not a great recipe for fun.”
Give Away Gains
If you are among the many lucky millions who are better off financially than you were at the beginning of 2020, consider how good it might feel to give something away.
Minnie Lau has spent much of the past year helping her accounting clients in the San Francisco Bay Area spend and save the windfalls from initial public offerings and other stock winnings in as tax-savvy a manner as possible. Both they and she have done quite well. They did nothing wrong and have nothing to apologize for.
But amid so much death, fear and suffering, coming out ahead still leads to conflicted feelings. “My ill-gotten gains are going to the food bank,” Lau said of the money she has made investing this year. “People should not have to line up for food. Didn’t California just announce that it had a surplus? What kind of crazy world is this?”
Everyone else I talked to this week felt a similar urge. Dunn recalled being overwhelmed with gratitude after receiving her coronavirus jab. Now she is a monthly donor to UNICEF’s vaccine equity initiative. Perhach is supporting VONA, which helps writers of color, while Sethi busted into his emergency fund to donate to Feeding America and match his readers’ donations.
Thompson, the financial planner, has given money to help people who are both Black and transgender — a segment of the population that he believes needs more help than most. And he is redoubling his efforts at work to reduce the racial wealth gap.
“If I can help more people build more wealth to pass down, it is a way of serving my purpose and helping people in the process,” he said. “And I think that takes more than just giving. It means systemic change.”
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