How to get the most from your money? This is the question posed by the linked article below. It’s a topic we’ve looked at in previous posts, such as Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences), Happiness economics and Peak stuff. This article takes the arguments further.
It suggests that, up to a certain level of income, there is a roughly linear relationship between money and life satisfaction. As poor people have more to spend, so they can begin to escape poverty and the negative features of financial insecurity and a lack of basic necessities, such as food and shelter. They also gain a greater freedom to choose what and when to buy. Beyond a certain level, however, the rate of increase in life satisfaction tends to decline, as does the specific pleasure from additional individual purchases. In economists’ language, the marginal utility of income diminishes.
But the article goes further than this. It suggests that satisfaction or happiness is of two broad types. The first is the general sense of well-being that people get from their life. This tends to be relatively stable for any given person, but will tend to increase as people have more money to spend or have more fulfilling jobs. Of course, there may well be a trade-off between income and job satisfaction. Some people may prefer to take a cut in pay for a more fulfilling job.
The second is the satisfaction or happiness you get from specific experiences. This tends to fluctuate on a day-to-day basis, depending on what you are doing. Here, what you purchase and the use you make of the purchases is a key component.
So what lessons are there for earning and spending money wisely? To start with, it is important to get a good work-life balance. It may be worth trading income for job satisfaction. Here the focus should be on long-term fulfilment, rather than on the short-term happiness from more ‘stuff’. Then it is important to spend money wisely. Here the author identifies three lessons:
The first is to consider buying time. Time-saving purchases, such as dishwashers can help. So too can ‘outsourcing’ activities, such as cleaning, laundry, cooking, DIY or child care, if they give you more time to do other more fulfilling things (but not if you love doing them!).
The second is to spend more money on experiences (as we saw in the post Studies show that money can buy happiness (but only if you spend on experiences). A better TV or car may seem like a wiser investment than more dinners out, holidays or going to concerts. But we quickly adapt to new upgraded ‘stuff’, thereby eliminating any additional satisfaction. Experiences, however, tend to linger in the memory. As Tom Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, is quoted by the article as saying:
Even though, in a material sense, they [experiences] come and go, they live on in the stories we tell, the relationships we cement, and ultimately in the sense of who we are.
Choosing a more fulfilling but less well-paid job is a form of spending money on experiences.
The third is to give some of your money away, whether to charity or to helping friends or relatives. As Gilovich says:
It’s hard to find a more charming finding than that by giving away money, you not only make someone else happier, you make yourself happier.
- What is meant by ‘diminishing marginal utility of income’? Is the concept consistent with the arguments in the article?
- In what sense may it be rational to choose a lower-paid job?
- Is ‘happiness’ the same as ‘utility’ as the concept is used by economists?
- Does the concept of ‘peak stuff’ apply to all physical products? Explain your answer.
- If giving money away makes a person happy, is it truly altruistic for that person to do so? Explain.
Guest post by Hazel Garcia from InvestmentZen
An oft-repeated quote is that money can’t buy happiness. But according to multiple studies, yes, it can. The key is what you spend that hard earned cash on. When researchers asked individuals to reflect on their recent purchases, those who had made experiential purchases i.e. trips, lessons, events, etc. were much happier compared to those who had made material purchases.
Why is this the case? According to a 20 year study at Cornell, our excitement from new purchases fades quickly over time. That new watch you bought quickly becomes a part of your everyday life. This is what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” which describes the way we return to our normal state of happiness after a momentous occasion. However, buying a new chair will return you much quicker to that state than an adventure across the Rocky Mountains.
Researchers identified several key reasons why this is the case. One reason is that an object is just an object and can never become a part of your identity (at least, not a healthy one), whereas experiences shape us over time. In addition, because by definition unique experiences are only short-lived, we don’t adapt to them the way we might with a new phone or watch. They do not become part of the routine and as such are usually viewed in a special light.
Interestingly, researchers found that even a negative experience could be rated more highly than purchasing a luxury good. In the study, participants were asked to describe a bad experience they had recently and a few weeks later, they were asked again about it. Over the course of just a few weeks, most people’s opinion of that moment had changed.
This is because the human brain has a tendency to reduce the impact of stressful situations. In fact, a significant portion of those polled even stated that in the end, they were happy to have had the negative encounter as it gave them a fresh way to look at things. When similar questions were asked to those who had purchased a high-end item, their levels of happiness were consistently lower as time went on.
So when it comes to the age old question of “Does money buy happiness?” the answer is a resounding yes – provided you spend it on the right things. But of course, you should still aim to make every dollar go as far as possible in pursuit of great experiences. Take a look at the infographic below to see a visual summary of the research on money and how it can buy happiness.
Questions (by JS)
- Why does buying material goods not buy happiness? Does this apply to all material goods?
- What is different, in terms of happiness, about buying experiences? Does this apply to the consumption of all services?
- Is the consumption of experiences subject to diminishing marginal utility (a) for specific experiences; (b) for experiences in general? Explain.
- Why do we seem not to care as much about the “Jones'” vacation as about their income or possession of material goods?
GDP is often used as a measure of wellbeing, even though it is really only a measure of the market value of a nation’s output or an indicator of economic activity. But although higher consumption can improve living standards, it is only one contributor to wellbeing, whether at individual or social level.
There are essentially four types of problems from using GDP as a measure of how society is doing.
The first is that it does not include (as negative figures) many external costs, such as pollution, stress and family breakdown related to work.
The second is that it includes things that are produced to counteract the adverse effects of increased production, such as security, antidepressants, therapy and clean-up activities.
The third is that it ignores things that are produced and do contribute to wellbeing and yet are not traded in the market. Examples include volunteer work, the ‘output’ of clubs and societies, work within the home, production from allotments and various activities taking place in the ‘underground economy’ to avoid taxation.
The fourth is the sustainability of economic growth. If we deplete natural resources, the growth of today may be at the cost of the wellbeing of future generations.
Then there is the question of the distribution of the benefits of production. Although GDP figures can be adjusted for distribution, crude GDP growth figures are not. If a few wealthy get a lot richer and the majority do not, or even get poorer, a growth in GDP will not signify a growth in wellbeing of the majority.
Then there is the question of the diminishing marginal utility of income. If an extra pound to a rich person gives less additional wellbeing than an extra pound to a poor person, then any given growth rate accompanied by an increase in inequality will contribute less to wellbeing than the same growth rate accompanied by a decrease in inequality.
The first article below criticises the use of crude indicators, such as the growth in GDP or stock market prices to signify wellbeing. It also looks at some alternative indicators that can capture some of the contributions to wellbeing missed by GDP figures.
Want to know how society’s doing? Forget GDP – try these alternatives The Guardian, Mark Rice-Oxley (27/1/17)
The Increasingly Inadequate Measurement Of Productivity The Market Mogul, Chris Woods (20/1/17)
Why GDP fails as a measure of well-being CBS News, Mark Thoma (27/1/16)
Limitations of GDP as Welfare Indicator The Sceptical Economist, zielonygrzyb (31/7/12)
- Should GDP be abandoned as an indicator?
- How could GDP be refined to capture more of the factors affecting wellbeing?
- Go through each of the indicators discussed in the first article above and consider their suitability as an indicator of wellbeing.
- “Everywhere you look, there are better benchmarks than these tired old financial yardsticks.” Identify three such indicators not considered in the first article and discuss their suitability as measures of economic performance.
- How might the benefit you gain from free apps be captured?
- Consider the suitability of these alternatives to GDP.
There are countless people who work 12-hour days – some get rewarded with huge salaries, while others are paid peanuts. A key question is: are these people happy? With 24 hours in a day for both rich and poor, the more hours we work, the fewer hours we have for leisure time. So, how do we choose the optimal work-life balance?
In economics, we often talk about the concept of diminishing marginal utility and this concept can be applied to working life. For many people, each additional hour worked is tougher or adds less to your utility – we get tired, bored and the job may seem more unpleasant the more hours you work. The typical day of work is around 7-8 hours, but across Sweden, some offices are now closing at 3.30, with a 6-hour working day, but with salaries remaining the same. It’s not a new idea in Sweden and trials of this shorter working day concept have proved successful, with higher reported profits, better service to customers (or patients) and happier, more productive staff.
This shorter working day is not a common occurrence across Sweden or other countries, but it’s a practice that is certainly garnering media attention. Companies will certainly be keen if this means an increase in productivity, but one key concern will be the potential loss of business from companies who do keep working after 3.30 and expect phones to be answered.
It would certainly be an attractive prospect for employees and perhaps is a good way of ‘poaching’ the best staff and hence of boosting worker productivity. With more free time, perhaps an employee’s happiness would also increase, which could have significant effects on a range of variables. The following article considers this shorter working day.
The truth about Sweden’s short working hours BBC News, Maddy Savage (2/11/15)
- Explain the concept of diminishing marginal utility with respect to hours worked. Can this be used to explain why overtime often receives higher rates of pay?
- Using indifference analysis, explain how a change in the number of hours worked might affect an individual’s happiness.
- Why might a shorter working day help to increase a firm’s profits?
- If a shorter working day did increase happiness, what other factors might be affected? Does this explain why other countries are so interested in the success of this initiative?
A key economic objective of governments around the world is economic growth, where economic growth is taken to mean growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This can be refined as growth in GDP per head or growth in Net National Income (NNY or NNI) – this takes account of depreciation and net flows of income to and from abroad. But is GDP (or NNY) an appropriate measure? There continues to be much debate about this and there is a lot of support for adopting an alternative measure – the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) as a target for economic policy.
GDP measures the market value of production and is the value added at each stage of production. If the value of a nation’s production is what you want to measure or target, then GDP is quite a good indicator. Its main drawbacks are that it uses market prices, which may be distorted, and that much of production in the informal sector is not included.
But if GDP growth is taken to be a proxy for development or growth in wellbeing of the residents of a country, then it has serious shortcomings. This is not to say that GDP gives no indication of progress. Generally, countries with higher GDP per head have a better standard of living, but it is not necessarily the case that, if Country A has higher production in the formal sector than Country B, its residents will be happier, more fulfilled and have fewer economic or other problems.
GDP, by focusing on production, ignores many environmental and social costs of that production. Valuable but not tradable resources, such as clean air, rivers and oceans, may be sacrificed for the sake of extra production and this is recorded as a gain in GDP.
Similarly, unless GDP is specifically weighted by income groups, which virtually never happens, it does not take into account income distribution. Much of the growth in production in both rich and poor countries in recent decades has gone to the richest people. Take the case of the USA. In 1944 the share of income going to the top 1% share was 11.3%, while the bottom 90% were receiving 67.5%. Such levels remained roughly constant for the next three decades. But then things began to change.
Starting in the mid- to late 1970s, the uppermost tier’s income share began rising dramatically, while that of the bottom 90% started to fall. The top 1% took heavy hits from the dot-com crash and the Great Recession but recovered fairly quickly: [preliminary estimates for 2012 by Emmanuel Saez] have that group receiving nearly 22.5% of all pre-tax income, while the bottom 90%’s share is below 50% for the first time ever (49.6%, to be precise).
So what does GPI measure and why may it be a better target for policy-makers than GDP or NNY? The answer is that it includes a number of important items that affect the well-being of a country, such as resource depletion, social activity and income distribution, that are not measured in GDP. So what would cause GPI to rise? According to The Guardian article below, examples would include:
Getting more energy from renewables; increased energy efficiency; reducing the income gap; putting more reliable, durable products on the market (have you heard of planned obsolescence?); volunteering more for your community; preserving wetlands, forests, and farmland; shorter commutes and transport routes. In fact, there are 26 ways the GPI can go up, all measured in dollars that boil down to a single number.
GPI is being increasingly adopted as a measure of progress. In the USA, it is officially used in Vermont and Maryland and is being considered in other states, such as Hawaii, Washington and Oregon.
And there are other alternatives. For example, since 1990, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has published an annual Human Development Index (HDI) As Box 27.1 in Economics, 8th edition states:
HDI is the average of three indices based on three sets of variables: (i) life expectancy at birth, (ii) education (a weighted average of (a) the mean years that a 25-year-old person or older has spent in school and (b) the number of years of schooling that a 5-year-old child is expected to have over their lifetime) and (iii) real GNY per capita, measured in US dollars at purchasing-power parity exchange rates.
The following articles look at the suitability of GDP and GPI and whether, by targeting growth in GDP, governments are guilty of downplaying the importance of other economic and social objectives.
Beyond GDP: US states have adopted genuine progress indicators The Guardian, Marta Ceroni (23/9/14)
Forget the GDP. Some States Have Found a Better Way to Measure Our Progress. New Republic, Lew Daly and Sean McElwee (3/2/14)
Gross domestic problem Aljazeera, Sean McElwee (6/6/14)
Creating the Circular Economy, Part II Environmental Leader, David Dornfeld (17/9/14)
Development: Time to leave GDP behind Nature, Robert Costanza, Ida Kubiszewski, Enrico Giovannini, Hunter Lovins, Jacqueline McGlade, Kate E. Pickett, Kristín Vala Ragnarsdóttir, Debra Roberts, Roberto De Vogli and Richard Wilkinson (15/1/14)
The Problems With Using GPI Rather Than GDP Forbes, Tim Worstall (5/6/14)
- What does GDP measure?
- Does GDP of a country equate to the turnover of a firm?
- If growth in NNY is superior to growth in GDP as a measure of economic growth, why are GDP figures more generally used than NNY figures when assessing a country’s economic performance?
- How suitable is using GDP as a measure of a nation’s production?
- What does GPI measure?
- Is GPI superior to GDP as a measure of a nation’s level of development? Explain why or why not.
- Give some examples of where a growth in GDP might correspond to a decline in economic well-being.
- For what reasons could GPI measures be described as subjective?
- Would it be a good idea for a country to target growth in GPI/GDP? Explain your answer.
- In addition to real GNY per capita, the Human Development Index includes measures of education and life expectancy. For what other social objectives might education and life expectancy be useful proxies?