How Will You Know When You Have Enough?

Image of a tree growing out of coins held in a pair of hands

Image of a tree growing out of coins held in a pair of hands

Enough might just be the most radical word in the English language. It’s certainly one of those slippery words that many of us have a hard time really getting a handle on. Even it’s meanings can be confusing. “I have had enough!” is a very different statement than “I have enough.” The first signals frustration and the second signals contentment. The difference? A single change of verb tense. Unless you’re speaking, and then tone of voice no doubt conveys a great deal.

A few weeks ago I gave my students an assignment. I told them they needed to record how they spent their time for a full week. Everything from sleeping to sitting in class to commuting to work to hanging out with their friends. Then I asked them to analyze their data and answer some questions about how much control they have over their time, how well the way they spent their time serves their needs, and how often their time use actually gets in the way of their achieving their goals. I ask them to think about what they’d change if they had a magic wand (in the past many have said they’d work fewer hours), and I ask them to think about what they’re most likely to be able to change if they needed to make more time for something that’s getting short shrift (often studying). My goal in the assignment is to help them examine the amount of individual power they have to attain their goals, and to see where social structure, cultural expectations, or economic realities get in their way. Once they’ve done that, we can talk about social changes that would be useful to them.

I’m about to give myself the same kind of assignment, only I’m going to do it with money, not with time. Here’s why: As I think about making big changes in my work life, and as my partner Will moves into retirement, I need to know how much is really “enough” when it comes to monthly cash flow, savings, and long-term security. I’m generally pretty good about keeping my check register in order, but I know there are lots of small cash expenditures I never remember to record. For one month, starting tomorrow, October 1, I’m going to make an effort to record every penny I earn or spend. I’m not going to make any effort to restrict spending, but just to record what comes in and what goes out. At the end of the month, I’ll analyze the data to see where my money goes, and after that, I’ll ask myself the same kinds of questions I asked my students: How much of this spending is within my control? How much of it is directed toward meeting immediate needs? How much is directed toward saving for longer-term needs? How much of my spending is on things that matter a great deal to me, even if they are not “basic needs”? How much room is there for me to shift spending from one category to another if I realize that I need to do that? And finally, how much could I cut back if I wanted to earn less and have more time for other work or other activities?

Many of us work long hours, or at jobs we don’t love, because we can’t meet our basic needs any other way. But some of us work long hours at stressful jobs because we don’t have a sense of whether or not we have enough. It’s that latter question I need to answer for myself. How much do I need to earn in order to be happy? Happiness is not all about money, though we need money to fund large portions of our happiness. Figuring out the balance between earning and enjoying, between accumulation and leisure, between long-term and short-term needs, these are the challenges.

How many of us would give fewer of our hours to our employers if we had a sense that we really could be happy with less than what we’re earning? How will we know whether or not we can unless we collect the information? It’s that knowledge that makes “enough” a radical word. It has the potential to inspire two kind of radical actions. One is the stepping back from unexamined work expectations. The other is a clarity that the system is rigged, unfair, and needs to be changed in dramatic ways. Either way, our current economic structure and cultural expectations are limiting many of us. Examining the question of “enough” is one of the first things we can do to fuel change.

If you’ve never done anything like this before, I encourage you to join me for the month of October. Let’s collect some data and then really analyze it. Don’t look away. Numbers are scary, especially when they’re connected to dollars, but we can’t make meaningful change or meaningful plans without real information.

I’ll post updates throughout the month and will share my results early in November. Join me!

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Image of plant growing out of coins held in hands is by user 401(k) 2012 on Flickr and used courtesy of a Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike license.

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