An Excerpt from Beyond Getting By

Holly Trantham

April 23, 2024


Learn more about the elusive "happiness threshold" in this excerpt from a guide to living with money, not for money, from the women behind The Financial Diet.

imagejnpuh.pngThe Girlboss came in many forms, and she struggled valiantly against the rising wave of exhaustion at her brand of pinkwashed-capitalism-as-liberation—but it’s fair to say that we can finally put her to rest. Yes, money is essential to life, and managing it well is often the difference between freedom and constraint. But once you have enough of it, the focus should be on converting that money into things that are meaningful to you: more time with the people you love, more creativity, more days to just vibe on the couch.

In Beyond Getting By, the women behind The Financial Diet will teach you how to create (and pay for) a life you truly enjoy—and that you can also be proud of. They will show you how to push beyond what society tells you will make you happy to determine what you actually want. 

Beyond Getting By is for the woman interested in transitioning to a life where money is simply a tool, and never a reflection of her worth. It’s for the woman who understands the limits of gamifying personal finance, and that simply following trends isn’t the same as creating a sustainable, wealth-generating plan for the future.

The excerpt below come from Chapter 3: The Contradictory Truth of the "Happiness Threshold."


The Elusive Happiness Threshold  

The “happiness threshold” has been a viral topic in the media over the past several years. The argument goes that, up to a certain income level, happiness increases. Beyond that threshold, supposedly, more income brings diminishing returns when it comes to happiness. And researchers have been downright obsessed with trying to assign a dollar amount to this concept.  

The “happiness threshold”: the idea that money can buy you happiness, but only up to a certain point; one now-famous study claimed that happiness tops out at a salary of about $75,000 a year, while others have claimed the range is $80,000– $200,000, depending on which state you live in  

But the idea that there’s one ultimate number everyone needs to aspire to earn in order to be happy ignores our individual needs and circumstances. It would be reductive to assume that a married mother of two living in Nebraska has the same personal happiness threshold as a single, child-free woman in Manhattan. They’d have different income needs informed by both their cost of living and their responsibilities—not to mention their different values and interests.  

The question of what makes us happier, though, is one that many behavioral scientists and researchers have been trying to answer for a long time now. As part of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest studies of adult life in the world, researchers followed a group of men (and eventually their offspring) for over eighty years. They found one overwhelming factor that predicted long and happy lives: close relationships. A different report, from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found autonomy, “the feeling that your life—its activities and habits—are self-chosen and self-endorsed,” to be the key factor in determining happiness. Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin has dedicated over a decade of her life to researching what makes us most content, and she says there are two main factors that contribute to greater happiness: strong relationships and being self-aware. As she told CNBC, “Knowing yourself involves knowing your own interests, values, and temperament. Once you know that, you can build your life around the things that are true for you instead of what you wish were true or what other people expect from you.”  

Investing in your close relationships, understanding and acting on your own values, and having control over your choices: While these things don’t come with a specific cost, they are not totally divorced from money, because they each require time and energy. For instance, in order to invest in your relationships, it’s helpful to have a steady, reliable source of income that doesn’t require you to work excessive overtime. It’s a lot easier to change career paths or make another big personal decision when you have enough cushion to do so comfortably, which could be from an emergency fund, help from family, a partner with a steady income, etc. And living by your priorities and values, like dining at local restaurants or investing in travel, is a lot more feasible when you have resources like wiggle room in your budget or ample paid time off.  

The idea of the happiness threshold is an oversimplification, but it does take these factors into account. Because up to a certain point, having more time and more options can make you happier—but not necessarily past that point.  


Defining Your Own Happiness Threshold  

This doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, aspire to earn more. Determining how much you want to earn, and therefore how much you’ll be able to spend and save, is going to depend on your specific circumstances, which certainly can’t be boiled down to a statistic—whether or not you are married or single, have kids or other dependents, are supporting a colony of aloof but beautiful feral cats, etc. In order to live a life where you don’t have to constantly be worrying about your budget, you need to be able to live effortlessly below your means. And for that to happen, you might need to earn more—but you might also need to reevaluate what constitutes your “needs.”  

When I asked Lindsay Bryan-Podvin to share her thoughts on defining your own happiness threshold, she said she prefers an “enoughness” threshold that’s based on spending within your values:  

“If sustainability, community, and connectedness are a person’s core values, are their spending habits aligned with those values? A ‘yes’ might look like getting a CSA box, reducing takeout to a few times per month, and prioritizing get-togethers with friends. A ‘no’ might look like Amazon-Priming things several times per week, buying more food than needed and contributing to food waste, and avoiding community opportunities for connection.” 


Matching Your Financial Decisions with Your Values 

Living (and spending) in a way that’s aligned with your values is key to living a more abundant, more intentional, and overall more joyful life. But much of the time, we don’t assess our spending mindfully. So, when determining your own happiness threshold, that’s the best place to start: Are your current money habits aligned with your personal values and interests? 

My own come-to-Jesus moment, in terms of lifestyle inflation, happened when I started paying attention to what I was spending on Ubers and Lyfts. One of my biggest personal values is maintaining a lifestyle that is not car-dependent, and I am privileged enough to live in a place where this is possible. I love that I live in an extremely walkable neighborhood and have plenty of easy access to public transportation. 

So why was I spending hundreds of dollars a month on ride-hailing apps? (The answer is laziness.) Sometimes calling a car is the faster option, but not always—traffic in New York is often much worse than our subway slowdowns, and at least on the subway, I get ample time alone with my Kindle and endless supply of library ebooks. I also value being active, am lucky to be able-bodied, and enjoy walking. Defaulting to taking a car whenever I was mildly inconvenienced was deteriorating my relationship to my community and causing me to live a less active lifestyle along the way. It was a luxury, but I was treating it like a necessity, and therefore giving myself less money to spend on things that were more aligned with my values. 

One person’s luxury is another person’s necessity. For me, using ride-sharing apps is the former, but for people with limited mobility, it could very well be the latter. And that’s just one example! 

Of course, your happiness threshold is not going to remain stagnant. For one thing, your life is going to change, regardless of how in control you feel. Maybe you’ll have kids or end up being a primary caregiver for a family member, or suddenly need to move, or God forbid, find yourself living through another pandemic that positions your dog as your only social outlet for months on end. But even if your own life somehow never changes, inflation is bound to happen. And for Americans, life gets considerably more expensive every year—3.8% on average since the sixties, and almost double that in 2022. What you need to earn to cover your happiness threshold now may look totally different ten years from now, or even next year. 

But when you look at that list of values, remember that it’s not just your money that determines whether you’re able to live by them: It’s also your time. The entire purpose of increasing your income should be to aim for more flexibility, not less. Taking on a job that pays a high salary but erodes your free time would be counterproductive. And instead of thinking of your happiness threshold as one immovable number, think of it as something to schedule for yearly maintenance, like a doctor’s appointment. When you go in for your scheduled maintenance, it’s time to reassess whether your spending habits and what you do with your time are currently in line with what you value. 


Excerpt from BEYOND GETTING BY by Holly Trantham. Text copyright © 2024 by Holly Trantham. Reprinted by permission of Crown at Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. 


About the Author

Holly Trantham joined TFD as a managing editor in 2016. She is now the team's creative director, leading TFD's editorial strategy and branded campaigns.

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