Commentary on the state of our union with money

Questioning the worth of wealth. According to psychology prof Barry Schwartz,  “the role of material success in well-being is an unsettled matter.” Money does buy happiness, but within limits.  Above $75,000 or so, the joy of more begins to taper off, and especially so when material success is a person’s ultimate goal.

“Increases in material wealth do much less for people than they expect. That is, people devote far more time, energy, and worry to wealth than the payoff justifies,” Schwartz writes a Chronicle of Higher Education opinion piece. In fact,

what we do has a bigger effect on well-being that what we have. This is in part because we adapt rapidly to what we have, so that the new car, tablet, or smartphone provides a hedonic kick for a disappointingly short time.  . . Given what we know about well-being, the upside of the current downturn may be that we’ll turn our attention to pursuits that don’t take or make money, but that may be more satisfying.

The stuffed life. There’s nothing wrong with owning things, but too much of even good things is a problem. So warns  J.D. Roth, author of this month’s “Your Money” segment in Entrepreneur magazine.

“Stuff costs money. It costs money to buy, money to maintain, and money to store. . . You think about it and worry about it; it becomes a burden,” he writes.

Fortunately, Roth is ready with five tips for de-stuffing your life:

  1. Ignore your neighbors. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses, or whoever is in the house next door. Life isn’t a competition. Learn to be content with what you have.
  2. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. Value comes from using things, not owning them. Clutter is a poor investment.
  3. Emphasize quality. In many cases it makes more sense to have one excellent, expensive item than several lousy, cheap ones.
  4. Borrow and lend. If your neighbor owns a rototiller, why do you need to own one, too. (Of course, this assumes you know your neighbor – the one you were told to ignore in point 1. But that’s the subject for another time.)
  5. Focus on experiences, not things. Experiences don’t take up space. You get value for your money without any residual clutter – unless you carry home souvenirs.

These 5 remind me of another tip, this one from a higher source than Entrepreneur magazine: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 19-20a)

Forgive us each others’ debts. In addition to the stuff that weighs us down, or perhaps because of it, millions of Americans struggle with a  load of debt. Yet debt is the dirty secret that Christians hide from each other. It’s a word not mentioned in most churches. Until now.

The folks at Circle of Hope, a 500-member Brethren in Christ (my denomination) church in Philadelphia, PA, are testing a debt elimination program aimed at helping parishioners “conquer debt and gain the blessings of using money well.” As reported in the latest issue of Christian Century magazine (January 25, 2012), here’s how the program works.

The congregation  collected $8,000 in seed money which paid off more than half of five members’ $23,000 of debt. The beneficiaries of the initial funds are now working to pay off each others’ remaining debt and to rebuild the seed fund for the benefit of another group of debtors.

Participants in the pilot program credit the opportunity to talk openly about their problem with debt as helping them “resist incurring more debt but also teaches them strategies for living within their means. “

Seen on Facebook. God supplies all our needs, not greeds, which likely explains the frowns on so many Christians’ faces.

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