Discuss: "Money Isn't Everything."

Jul 15, 2011

Earlier this month, a close friend announced that he would be leaving the non-profit job he’s held for ten years to work in the lobbying shop of a Fortune 100 corporation.  When I asked why, in the midst of a crowded cocktail party, he responded simply, “Money.”  This prompted a chorus of friends and acquaintances to chime in with their own variation of the old adage, “Money isn’t everything.” 

If I had a dollar for every time that someone has said that to me over the course of my career, I’d have paid off my student loans and be swimming in the irony at a beach in Southern France.  Whenever someone talks about making a decision because of money—leaving the beloved job for the better-paying job, buying the smaller house, passing on graduate school because of the cost, opting for a used car—people feel obligated to inform you that money, apparently, isn’t everything.  It’s tiresome.

Because while it’s true that there are many things in life that are more important than money: family, faith, contentment, self-worth, etc.  Money and the lack of money have an uncanny ability to impact every aspect of your life.  Don’t believe me? 

Ask a divorce attorney, a therapist or a preacher what people fight about and worry about.  Ask them why their clients and patients and parishoners lose sleep, lose confidence, and lose their sense of well-being.  The number one answer will be money. 

As far as I am concerned, money = freedom.  Being able to pay your bills is freedom from worry.  Being able to buy food and necessities is freedom from want.  Being able to travel, own a few nice things and give back to relatives, friends and charities is just freeing. 

And freedom is priceless.

Look around, this country and its citizens are drowning in debt.  We spent decades keeping up with the Joneses, pursuing our passions and living our best lives on credit, and now, many of us, including me, are paying the piper.  And by piper, I mean the crypt keepers at Citibank and Bank of America.

As a society, we tend to quietly shame the people who make decisions primarily because of money.  They mention the importance of money in their decision making process and we dismiss it with an overused and overvalued axiom.  But making decisions that can help you pay off debts, help you build a nest egg and improve your quality of life with money isn’t wrong.  In fact, it’s the fiscally responsible thing to do.

Now, I’m not encouraging anyone to abandon a job that they love for a job that they’ll hate or wedge their family of four into a 500-sq-ft studio.  And I’m not throwing on a jersey for team greed.  What I am saying is that we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of making a decision for financial reasons simply because those things aren’t supposed to matter as much as our dreams, goals and aspirations.  Because if there is one thing I know for certain, it’s incredibly difficult to reach for the stars when you’re wrapped in chains made from debt.

So I’m asking all of you, the next time a friend tells you that they’re making an important decision for financial reasons, don’t break out that trash about how “Money isn’t everything.”  Because in the calculus of life a comfortable cushion made of cash may not be everything, but it certainly can be enough.


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  1. Govvie says:

    Great post! My sister is a teacher and lately has been making remarks about my chosen profession, implying that I am selling out the good of society by working for Goliath (a large corporation). Of course I feel bad about teachers taking a beating in the current economic environment, but I don't think it's my or my employer's fault!

  2. k-t says:

    I think when people glibly say “money isn't everything” they are making some assumptions. Such as the original person is currently “comfortable” and not in debt and thus choosing a higher income at a less intellectually/emotionally rewarding job over a comfortable income at a job he loves. Rarely do we know the full financial (or medical) picture of any of our friends or even family.

    Money does allow one to do many more things. Travel. Nicer home. Out-of-network doctors and cutting edge treatments.

    However, I think everyone should consider the cost of making more money and what tradeoffs you are willing to make. And these are all very individual decisions. New job with higher salary? Great. But I want the whole family to eat dinner together more nights than not. I don't want that job to stress me out so much that it destroys my relationships with loved ones.

    But, in the end, being able to choose your passion over a higher paying job is a luxury. And not one that can be responsibly chosen until debt-free (with the exception of a mortgage that can be paid with the lower salary). So, money isn't everything, but it is a necessity in our society.

  3. bec says:

    But Belle, haven't you proved that money isn't everything in your chosen profession? You're clearly a highly intelligent, well educated, motivated worker, you could easily be making tens of thousands more what you make on the Hill at a lobbying firm or something similar. I took a $15k pay raise when I left the Hill, and I think that was on the lower end. But you've stuck around because you love the job (as you've said repeatedly on Cap Hill Style), even though it means you can't pay off your student loans as quickly or build as big a nest egg.

  4. Nicole says:

    I used to be one of those people that thought “money isn't everything.” Until, after college, I worked at a job that I LOVED, and I made an average amount for the industry, but even in a place with a low cost of living, I was barely scraping by. Eventually, I had to pick up a second job–which left me completely burned out. Finally, I decided to make a career switch and get my master's. I am struggling to start over professionally, and nervous about finding a career that will be as fulfilling as my last one, but as much as I loved it, to be sure, life isn't any good if you can't really LIVE it. If you're struggling to make ends-meet or in debt, then money IS everything. I think–or at least I hope– that there's a balance out there somewhere between fulfilling job and and a paycheck that will let me have a life I love–or at least only involves one job.

  5. Belle says:

    Bec-My ability to stick around the job that I love is directly proportional to the fact that I get a student loan repayment stipend each month to help pay off those loans. That is the only reason I can afford to stay here, so my decision to stay is enabled/ motivated by money.

  6. Belle says:

    Govvie-I agree. It's too bad that good teachers and other valuable professions aren't compensated better. But the lack of $$$ in teaching isn't a secret. If you choose to teach knowing that you'll make less than you would in the corporate sector and evaluating all of your needs, more power to you. If you choose to do something more lucrative, you shouldn't be shunned for it.

  7. Belle says:

    Nicole-Good luck finding that balance. I worked two jobs when I was starting out on the Hill and it ruined me. I was burnt out all the time. When I finally got promoted, it was like a huge weight had been lifted.

    I still work two jobs to have some financial flexibility (the blog is a job), but I like my second job a lot and can do it from home. Perfect.

  8. triumphator says:

    This was an incredibly well written post, and just what I needed today. Ten thousand thank yous.

  9. bec says:

    I understand about the student loans, but working on the Hill seems to me a lot like going into teaching – it's not a secret that outside of senior positions and rare generous members, there's not much money in it. Even if you get to the point of an LA and you're making a liveable salary, you still need to work a second job or downgrade the rest of your life in order to be financially responsible. On top of that, in most cases, reaching that point requires years working as a SA or LC, where you will most likely be making very little money, and needing to work extra or just not saving anything. If you'd gone the private sector route, you might not be raking it in right out of college, but you'd certainly be making more than the $27k salary SA's often get (in DC, I can't speak for the rest of the country).
    My point is, money is very very important, but working on the Hill doesnt get you much of that. Yet it's hugely competitive and hundreds of smart, ambitious people work there for other reasons: they love the job, they want the power, they enjoy playing the political game. Working on the Hill seems to be a case study to me that money isn't everything.

  10. TEM says:

    I think finding that balance between $ and work you love is the important thing, and I think where that balance lies if different for everyone.
    I work in an area of the non-profit field that is poorly paid even for non-profits, and when I complain about how little I was making in my first two years out of graduate school (as in, so little I burned through my savings to cover rent because my monthly salary was less than my monthly rent!), people often pull out the “well, you knew you weren't going to make much going into that field!” My common response has become that yes, I am well aware that my field will never make me rich, but there's a huge difference between getting rich, and a full-time job that requires a master's degree but doesn't pay enough for a single person to support themselves. I don't think it should be too much to ask to be able to live on the salary of my full-time, master's degree-required job, even in my field.
    Three years out of grad school, I'm finally making enough to support myself. I live pretty basically–no international travel, no car, no sleek modern apartment–but I can still have fun, go on the occasional weekend trip with friends, etc. And I still work a (not terribly demanding) second job for “fun” money. It's not perfect, but I think I've found my balance.
    It's hard, but we all need to just let each person decide their own balance. I know I've been guilty of judging people who have made different choices from my own, but I'm trying to get better about it. 🙂

  11. ks says:

    Thank you for this post- I made the decision to attend a certain college based on the fact that they offered me the best scholarship package. Sure, I had the grades and SAT scores to go to a college with a better name, but my dad had just lost his job and was determined to not have me take out any loans. I feel like I am constantly defending my choice (an SEC school with great football) when people ask me why I chose it, often assuming that I couldn't do any better or was only interested in partying. In the end, I couldn't be happier with my choice- I'll get my degree, not have to worry about paying back $100,000 in loans, AND my dad will be able to retire before age 90.

  12. Belle says:

    TEM-That's a good point. I think I just get tired of people trying to convince you that the money side of that balancing act is less important than the other side.

    bec-I make a good, comfortable living. If I wasn't happy with my salary, I'd be gone. And working on the Hill is part of a bigger plan to make more money a bit later in life.

  13. Belle says:

    ks-I think you made a great decision. If I had it to do over again, I would have passed on grad school until later on. Don't feel the need to defend your decision to me.

    Being able to get a degree and graduate without loans sounds like the best decision for you.

  14. Adrienne says:

    Money has different levels of importance at different stages of our lives. I opted for a state school and graduated debt-free. This enabled me to spend the first two years of my career as a VISTA at a nonprofit “doing good” and “changing the world.” Then I moved to DC for grad school and took out a ton of loans. Do I regret that decision? Absolutely not. Grad school for me was a life-changing decision. I would be on a completely different path had I opted to do my master's somewhere else or not go at all.

    That decision will likely influence my life for the next 20 years. After struggling to make it in DC (working for a think tank and then a consultant), I got sick of the high cost of living. In the two years I lived in Del Ray, I could have nearly purchased a house in my home town. However, those two years were worth it. The excitement and pace of my career was worth the opportunity cost of paying off my debt quickly. The neighborhood was also worth the expense.

    However, goals and priorities change as we get older. Now that I'm facing 30, I want a house and to be closer to my family. That required a geographic change and a financial change. Now that I'm in a less expensive part of the country, I'm seeing my credit card balances decline and my savings account increase. Right now — for this point in my life — money (and family) is everything.

    The goals you have now may not be the goals you have in five years. However, don't make decisions that will keep you stuck in a place you don't want to be in five years. Idealism fades. Debt takes a lot longer to go away.

  15. B says:

    This is a great post. I work in a state legislature, and am going to resume being a barista on the side, which I did in college (and actually really enjoy). Currently, I make enough to pay my bills, and in general, I am able to live the way I want to live. The down side is, I'm barely able to save. The best way to describe where I'm at is free, but not secure. I plan to save everything from my side gig, and put 75-80% into longer-term savings/emergency fund, and 20-25% into shorter-term savings (for the road trip I'm taking with friends in October, or the le creuset dutch oven I've been coveting…).

  16. AMEN! When peopl tell me that money isn't everything I tend to correct them, that, yes, it kind of is. Again, greed is wrong and will lead nowhere good, but money=freedom=happiness, and in my book, you can't put a price on that!

    I feel kinda bad for the man your mentioned in the post. I'm sure he was excited to branch out to his new position and also excited to be making more money. How rude of the other people at the party to shame him for taking a job that pays more? Kudos to him for answering honestly though.

  17. MM says:

    As a DC native now living in NY I have been shocked by how prevalent the opposite attitude is here. People look at you like you are crazy for not wanting to make as much money as possible.

    So while I do agree with the general point, I also think DC should be celebrated for being home to so many idealistic individuals willing to sacrifice (at least) a portion of their money earning years to low paying jobs in the name of some cause greater than themselves.

  18. Trang says:

    Money IS important in the short and long term. I married a man with an extremely demanding and vicious ex wife. The amount of child support and legal bills have completely sucked. I love him to death, but let me tell you, it has not been easy living on 1 and 1/3 salary. Like Belle, I am lucky that I make a pretty good salary, but our cushion is extremely tight because of certain financial constraints. Love is great but it does not pay the bills or ensure a comfortable future for you.

  19. VA says:

    Money isn't everything, but it certainly makes life easier. And people who work for peanuts don't always have a moral high ground, even if that job is very fulfilling or worthwhile for society. When I tease my corporate-world boyfriend about selling his soul or how does he sleep at night, he gently reminds me that donations from companies like his make it possible for nonprofits like mine to do the work that we do.

  20. Ellie says:

    B– le creuset dutch ovens are wayyyy on sale at Williams Sonoma right now.. like half off. https://www.williams-sonoma.com/shop/cookware/cookware-le-creuset/?cm_type=lnav

  21. R says:

    Money won't make you happy, but it can make you happier.

  22. Suzanne says:

    This was such a thoughtful post. I completely agree. Before I graduated college, I was interning at various non-profits, doing work that I enjoyed basically for free. I got a meger travel stipend that didn't even cover my gas to get to and from work every day. At the time I wasn't paying most of my necessary living expenses, but I couldn't afford to go out to dinner, shop, or do most of the things my friends interning at investment firms were doing. When it came time to apply for jobs, I knew that even if I was a salaried employee at a nonprofit, my lifestyle would basically be the same: necessities only. I decided to take a higher paying gig that wasn't nearly as exciting, and I got an endless amount of criticism from my friends. Three years later, my work days are kind of dull, but I come home to an apartment I love in a great area. My husband and I get to try new restaurants when we want, go to the theater, take trips to exciting places, and shop for fun things that aren't necessities. We're not wealthy, but we're comfortable and I'm much less stressed out than I was when I was doing nonprofit work. I don't hate my job, but I don't love it either. However, I've never regretted my decision. It was a tradeoff that was well worth it, and I know that once the time comes to buy a house and have kids, I'll be very glad to have been able to save.

  23. Oedipa says:

    This is a great post, and seems to follow up very well to one you did a while back (about advice people commonly give to new college graduates – “follow your dreams!”). Idealism without pragmatism leads to disappointment; the reverse leads to cynicism. You consistently strike a balance in your posts between the two, and it's appreciated.

  24. Kit says:

    Thank you so much for making this post! It's like we are shamed into pretending that we don't actually care about being more comfortable financially. I'm young and only just started my first job two years ago. I didn't make much and living in DC made things extremely tight. I spent a tremendous amount of time trying to figure out where I could save, perusing the grocery store for items that I could afford to buy, and so on. However, whenever people were discussing promotions at work, someone would trot out the old adage about money and I would silently think about the status of my refrigerator at home. Since I got promoted, I have to worry so much less. It's a big weight off my shoulders and it irks me when people think it doesn't make a difference.

  25. AW says:

    Thank you for a great post! I just left my government position for the private sector as of today, so it felt particularly relevant.

  26. Anna Della says:

    Maybe I've been hanging out with the wrong people, but I've never known anyone to say (with a straight face) “Money isn't everything” or look askance at someone trying to maximize their earning power. I have to agree with MM–Outside of DC, I feel like the magical thinking is something along the lines of “I'll make as much money as quickly as possible and then retire at 40 and do what I really love!”

    And, on a somewhat related topic, the “becoming-a-teacher-is-an-act-of-charity-aren't-teachers-saintly-oh-shucks-what-can-you-do-about-the-low-salaries line of reasoning makes me want to cry.


  27. CynthiaW says:

    Not to mention that fact that I don't know too many teachers, myself included, who married people in equally lower-paying jobs. The teaching profession practically relies on the fact that most women teachers will marry someone who makes significantly more money than they do so they can afford to teach.

    While I love my job, if I hadn't married someone who made it possible to live the secure lifestyle that I wanted, I would have reluctantly moved on to greener pastures. When I was a kid, we were poor, but my stepdad worked hard to move us upward. Also, I was pretty poor in my early to mid-20s and I can tell you one thing – it sucks. There's a difference at working for relatively low pay (i.e. teaching) and working for poverty-level wages. Money might not buy happiness, but lack of money is extremely stressful and has a negative impact on most of the aspects of your life.

    I think that everyone needs to find their own level of comfort as far as meaningful work vs. money – and like someone else pointed out, just because someone's job doesn't necessarily cater to the “greater good”, doesn't mean that they, personally, can't. Earning a higher salary often allows individuals to give more money to charities or retire earlier and do volunteer work.

  28. Downtown Brown says:

    THANK YOU Belle.

    I recently made a move away from family and friends, from downtown Chicago to the South. For money. My job (not my husband's), and a job I am damn proud to have. I've worked my tail off and being able to fly home and see my girlfriends is one of the many perks of a flush bank account.

    This weekend was home with the girls and heard over and over, “We miss you, don't worry about money. Just come home and be near us again.” What I wanted to say is… “Oh really? Who is going to bankroll your dinners out? Who are you going to call when you need to go in on a gift for a shower or wedding? Who is going to fly you to the south and take care of everything for a weekend?” And it made me feel like all my accomplishments mean nothing to them.

    II LOVE to spend money on my girls with my extra cash – and when my besties tell me it's not important it's like they're telling me my “big girl” job is not valuable and all the work I've done to get here is worthless. I know that's not how they mean it – but I'm tired of being judged for being interested in the finer things in life.

    So thanks, Belle. It's nice to hear I'm not the only one.

  29. Alice says:

    Belle, thanks for this article. I completely agree with you and think it's very naive of people who say “money isn't everything”/”money doesn't buy happiness” all the time. While it's very true that family, friends, and a lot of other things in life are the more important aspects, not having money is not going to make life easier. As my mom used to say, “money may not buy happiness, but you're not going to be happy without any money.” It's true too; all the things that we like to do, such as traveling to exotic places, going out to fancy restaurants and theaters, shopping, you need money to do that. So thank you for your article!

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