In the US, we view money as a good you can never have too much of. More is always better. More than currency, it is a measuring stick for freedom, choice, opportunity and the future—which makes it hard for many to settle on a number to describe “enough.”
In 2010, economists Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton identified $75,000 as the income that “buys life satisfaction.” Two years later, I not only hit that mark but surpassed it. Within a year, instead of satisfaction, I felt compelled to break away from the life I had in front of me and over. With the haunting reminder that there had to be more, I became preoccupied with simplifying and getting back to my core beliefs.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow breaks human needs down into five types: physical, safety, love, esteem, and self-actualization. In addition to the water, diet, shelter, clothing, etc., required for physical “homeostasis,” Maslow says that a feeling of order, reason, fairness and environmental stability (safety); having loving, affectionate relationships and a sense of belonging (love); proving one’s freedom, independence, strength and accomplishment as well as respect from others (esteem); and fulfilling one’s potential (self-actualization) are all basic human needs. Until these are met, one will not be satisfied.
Since 2004, across a variety of high and low five-figure incomes, cities and employers, I’ve easily managed my physical, safety and love needs. While most of my positions provided some bit of esteem, my last job, with my highest compensation to date, gave very little. A year into my last position, I began changing my definition of work to include the type of labor required to fulfill my higher needs.
And so I left that job. My last date of employment was Feb 19, 2015. In that first year after leaving, I cut my living expenses—and thus the amount of money required to cover them—by 60% and have continued to reduce my regular spending every year since. Last year, my income was less than 30% of Kahneman and Deaton's $75,000. But living within my income with order, safety, belonging and esteem, the satisfaction that I feel everyday is deep, warm, filling and sets the day with gratitude like my morning tea.
Creating and sustaining a life that meets my specific physical, safety and love needs without a job is direct proof of my freedom, independence, strength (esteem). It serves as a great source of inspiration for and admiration from others (esteem) and provides the time, space and energy to build skills and accomplish goals that are meaningful to me. I’m learning how to live a sustainable life as a writer. With lifestyle design, I'm taking steps toward actualizing that every day.
Looking across all my various income and spending levels, I’ve learned that having enough money, energy and time to invest in what truly matters to me has been more impactful to my life satisfaction than "enough" money alone.