Often the financial world advocates “more money” and “more growth” – but can you live with less?
Graham Hill is a firm believer that you can live on less. Graham’s awesome TED Talk, “Less Stuff, More Happiness” set off a lively debate. He shares his unique view on society’s need to get more money, more power, more stuff…just “more” in general. Yet, studies show that beyond a certain minimum income level, people’s happiness levels don’t increase the more money they earn. Doug and Graham discuss why having more money doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have more happiness, and why the idea less = happiness is true for many people.
You need to be picky about your financial advice.
Everyone has an opinion on everything, particularly money. Who should you turn to for financial advice, and how can you separate sound advice from nonsense? Doug talks about the advice given in a Kiplinger article, 12 Reasons You Will Go Broke in Retirement.
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Interview With Graham Hill
“There’s an underlying desire for less” says Graham Hill, who strongly believes in living well, but with less. Here are some of his practical tips for minimal living.
Douglas Goldstein: I’m very excited to have on, The Goldstein on Gelt show, Graham Hill, who’s originally from Canada and is now based in New York. He did a fantastic TED talk about less stuff and more happiness. One of the things I find in my day job, as a financial advisor, is that people keep thinking that it’s all about more and more stuff.
Graham, you’ve got a slightly different philosophy. In fact, some people would say, “You’re crazy. Who are you kidding?” Does less stuff bring more happiness?
Does Less Stuff Bring More Happiness?
Graham Hill: Absolutely. I’m pretty convinced, and I don’t want to preach because it’s not for everyone but it is for a lot of people. I wrote an Op-Ed about this in The Times, and there was also the TED talk that you referenced. Both of them got tremendous amount of traffic, and I don’t think it’s because of my oratory skills, but rather that there’s an underlying desire for less.
I think this is at its worst in North America, where we have about three times the amount of space per person than we did 50 or 60 years ago. However, happiness levels have flat-lined. Many European countries live (and probably Israel as well) with around 1,000 square feet, and it's 2,700 here.
I think it’s clear for a lot of people that we can live with a lot less. It ends up saving you some money and it lowers your footprint, which feels good. It makes more room for the stuff that’s really important, and that is your experiences, relationships, connections, and spending time with your friends and family.
Douglas Goldstein: I can relate to that. Interestingly, I grew up in a pretty big house in New York, and then when I moved to Israel, we purposely lived in a much smaller place. We’ve stayed there and we’ve got four kids: two boys and two girls. We always had them share a room and we never said that each kid had to have his own room.
We felt that people should feel closer. On the other hand, why is it that people have bigger homes now, but they’re less happy than they were before? Why would that be?
Bigger Houses But Empty Souls. Why Is This?
Graham Hill: Part of it is often living beyond your means. It’s also because we tend to separate ourselves from others, due to a fear of intimacy or something like that. What we really want is intimacy. We want to be around other people because that’s what life’s about. I think you still want to have a little bit of private time; a private area, but really, intrinsically, we want to be around people. The things that separate us from other people are bigger houses, gated communities, and commuting by ourselves in a car.
Douglas Goldstein: You’re saying that having all of these possessions is a way of moving yourself away because then you’re very self-sufficient. The extreme example of this is how you go to a restaurant and you see three or four people sitting around the table. Each one is clicking on his or her own iPhone and simply not talking to one another. Or maybe they are sending messages to each other that way.
Graham Hill: That’s the interesting thing. I think they’re often texting other people. When you’re with Cindy and you’re texting Jack, and then you’re with Jack and you’re texting Cindy, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. This fear of intimacy is a sad thing in my opinion. I think we want to connect with each other and connect in person. Not that that stuff’s bad. We want to connect, but we have bad habits.
Douglas Goldstein: Help me apply this to my day job. As a financial advisor, I advise people about their finances and goals. A lot of what I talk about is things like saving for retirement. We calculate how much money you have to put away every month so that you’ll be successful in retirement. It becomes very numbers-oriented.
I feel that maybe, if in those conversations I could bring in more of what you’re saying, I’d be able to help people out. How can I tell them, “Don’t worry about the money because you could always live on less. I got a friend named Graham and he’s happy to live in 400 square feet?” Won’t they think that I’m just shirking my responsibilities?
Money Does Make You Happy But …
Graham Hill: I don’t think so. There are some clear studies, that you’ve probably talked about on your show at some point, that
show that around $60 - 70, 000 a year, happiness pretty much flat-lines.
Money does make you happy. If you go from zero to $20,000, that puts a roof over your head and gets some more safety and more food, it makes a ginormous difference. As you go up, you can go out for dinner at a decent place, you can take a vacation, and you can have a decent place to live. After that, where do you go? You take a longer vacation and a better vacation, or you can eat at a more expensive place, but it doesn’t make that much of a difference.
When you have a ton of money, you end up worrying about it more. Is it going to go down? It’s clear that some money helps make you happy, but at a certain point it flat-lines. People who are planning for retirement are looking for a feeling of safety, that they can cover their healthcare costs and all that stuff. It’s not going to be about having the house that has another bedroom on top of it or a better media room. That won’t make them that much more happy.
Douglas Goldstein: Graham, you’ve talked about safety. In the U.S, where healthcare costs are out of hand, people feel unsafe, or they’ll say, “I might end up in a nursing home and it’s going to cost me $10,000 a month. It could be for years and I don’t have that money.”
In fact, the argument of saving enough for security’s sake goes around and around; it’s infinite. You could always need more because something else might happen. What would you say to someone who says, “Listen, I have to chill out a little bit. I’ve got to find a way to be happy and not feel afraid that I’m going to run out of money?” How can someone develop that sense?
Graham Hill: It depends on your situation. You can change your lifestyle so that you understand what makes you happy and what doesn’t, then get rid of the stuff that doesn't make you happy. You should then think about going forward. I’d be thinking about saving up a bunch of money and then moving to an Asian country with a lot less expensive living but good health care.
Douglas Goldstein: I like your idea of getting rid of stuff. We talk about buyer’s remorse, where you buy something and then the next day you feel bad. It doesn’t always happen instantly; sometimes it takes a few months.
The Wisdom of Frugal Living
Douglas Goldstein: People who want to enjoy their money should buy fewer things, but the stuff that they really want. This is much better than buying things and then regretting doing so, days or weeks or months later. You’ll likely end up building a lot of wealth by living frugally because you’re not buying the stuff that you don’t really want.
Graham Hill: I agree. A lot of times, the shoes that are twice as expensive but last four times as long are actually half price. Sometimes the smartest thing to do is buy the expensive thing. That will make you happy and the item will last longer. Slowing down the process in general, and planning your purchases, is the wise thing to do.
Of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t want or need stuff. I’m saying that you should really think about what you’re buying, and make sure that it really matters to you, and buy the great stuff. That can often be the smart move to make in any case.
Douglas Goldstein: What do you think about things that have sentimental value? A lot of times, things have both sentimental value as well as worth. They can take up a lot of room, like your grandparent’s furniture. All of a sudden, you don’t have a place to put it, but you don’t want to throw it away. How do you deal with that stuff?
Graham Hill: That’s a tough one. We should be easy on ourselves, because often we do it because of how someone else would feel about it, instead of how we feel about it. The beauty of photography these days, in particular digitals, is that you can keep a memory. I’ll even take a picture of an old worn out t-shirt that I loved and wore for years, because it reminds me of a certain time.
Yes, and with a lot of sentimental stuff you can do that. You can take a bunch of different pictures and then get rid of it or sell it or give it to someone. It’s about becoming conscious about what matters to you. Understanding that sometimes, getting rid of the stuff is what will bring you more happiness, rather than holding on to it and stressing out about it.
I’m still perplexed as to cars, though. In some ways, you end up buying things that bring you a bunch of stress. It’s this perfect thing that you’re worried about. Who wants that? In some ways, I’d rather get the nice, but second-hand car that just has a little bit of wear on it. It’s not brand new but it works great and still is a lot less stressful.
Douglas Goldstein: I definitely know that feeling. The parking lot by my office is a mess. It’s a poorly run parking lot and cars get beat up all the time. From time to time, when we think about buying a nice car, we always say, “Just forget it” Whatever car we end up having, we’ll drive into the lot and it’s going to get banged up.
In fact, we bought a new car once, and it wasn’t a fancy one and it got its first scratch. I was so happy. I said, “It’s now been initiated into the parking lot. We don’t have to worry about it anymore.” Graham, it sounds like you’ve learned about how not to worry, and I know people can really learn a lot from what you’ve done. Tell me, how can people follow you and follow your work?
Graham Hill: My company is called LifeEdited, and it’s at lifeedited.com. You can sign up for the newsletter there too. Hopefully, we’ll start sending out emails soon because we haven’t done it for a while. I’m also the founder of treehugger.com. I’m not connected officially, but I do love them, and they’ve got some amazing environmental stuff. There are some great books out there that Marie Kondo, a Japanese woman, writes about. LifeEdited is a good way to start.
Douglas Goldstein: All right. Graham Hill, thanks so much for your time.
Graham Hill: Thank you