Now that I have a budget I can wrap my head around, it's clear that a full thirty percent is discretionarily spent. This realization begs the question, "What should it be spent on"? It seems to me that Annie Dillard's meditation, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives" could be extended to how we spend our wealth.
What then, is worthy of my wealth and my life? An article from one of my favorite sites, Brain Pickings, came to me at just the right time. In it, John Armstrong, faculty at The School of Life and author of How to Worry Less About Money, has this to say:
If we want to be wise about money we should resist the impulse to follow our desires and concentrate instead on getting what we need.
Need is deeper — bound up with the serious narrative of one’s life. “Do I need this”? is a way of asking: how important is this thing, how central is it to my becoming a good version of myself; what is it actually for in my life? This interrogation is designed to distinguish needs from mere wants. And that’s a good distinction to make.
I like the idea of asking if a purchase is going to help me become a better version of myself. My discretionary spending should reflect the person I want to be. I include charitable spending there for that reason; it's a choice for me, not an essential. Add in art, continuing education, dinners with good friends, dates with Nathan, trips to visit family, ethical clothing and travel, and you have a pretty good picture of how I want to spend my life. These expenses, regardless of their price, add value to my life. Armstrong makes the distinction between price and value clear:
Price is a public matter — a negotiation between supply and demand. A thing’s price is set in competition. So the price of a car is determined by how much some people want it, how much they are willing to pay, and how ready the manufacturer is to sell. It’s a public activity: lots of people are involved in the process, but your voice is almost never important in setting the price.
Value, on the other hand, is a personal, ethical and aesthetic judgment — assigned finally by individuals, and founded on their perceptiveness, wisdom and character.
If we measure wealth in this way, once basic needs can be met, anyone may live a life of wealth and value; it becomes a matter of character rather than currency. As we strive to flourish, our wants can get in the way of being our best selves. Living this way is not always easy, as Armstrong reminds us:
There is a very imperfect relationship between desire and flourishing. Desire aims at pleasure. Whereas the achievement of a good life depends upon the good we create. And the opportunity to follow whatever desire one might happen to have is the enemy of the effort, concentration, devotion, patience and self-sacrifice that are necessary if we are to achieve worthwhile ends.
Living a "good" life does not require great wealth. And great wealth does not, alone, make us happy (please watch The Happy Movie for more on this). Adding value to our lives makes us happy. So whatever that is for you, try to do more of it this year.
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