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How Free Are the “Best Things in Life?”

“The best things in life are free.” “Money can’t buy happiness.”

Both of these beliefs about money contain a great deal of truth. They also contain an equivalent amount of inaccuracy.

I often have clients do an exercise which effortlessly uncovers the things they value most in their lives. Typically, they list such things as family, friends, spirituality, health, and job satisfaction far ahead of wealth or possessions. Often, wealth and possessions are not even on the list.

While it may be true that the phrase “having money” is rarely on the list, in today’s world, none of those all-important intangible values can be fully separated from money. Let’s look at a few of them.

Family and friends. Certainly, spending time with people you care about doesn’t require spending money directly. You can take your kids to the park or hang out in the back yard instead of going to the mall. You can get together with friends for a walk or an evening of dominoes instead of meeting at a restaurant or going to a movie.

What all those activities do require, though, is time. Time that you don’t have to spend working to pay your bills. Time that isn’t spoiled by worry about where the next rent payment is coming from. Benjamin Franklin is credited with observing that “time is money.” Ben was pretty smart.

Sometimes, too, being committed to your family does require money. How many couples do you know who would like to have one spouse stay home to take care of young children? Yet how many of those families feel unable to do so because it’s so hard to manage on one income?

Spirituality. For some people, this may include involvement in an organized religion—which, of course, takes time. It also means sharing in the expense of the building, the leader’s salary, and the services that are part of that religion’s ministry. For others, spirituality may mean making time and finding private space for an individual practice of prayer or meditation.

Health. You don’t have to spend a lot of money in order to eat well and exercise. In fact, a healthful diet will probably save you money. You can walk or do yoga at home instead of going to the gym or taking classes. Yet money is an important factor in maintaining good health. You aren’t taking care of your health if you can’t afford to go to the dentist, or if you put off seeing the doctor about a possible problem because you have no health insurance. In addition, your health can certainly suffer if you live in constant anxiety and fear about money.

Job satisfaction. Much of the work I do is designed to help people discover what they really want in life, then take the necessary action to achieve it. Over the years I’ve known many people who felt stuck in jobs they didn’t like. It’s much harder to move out of such a situation if you have no financial margin. Creating a fulfilling career might require changing jobs, taking the risk of starting your own business, or going back to school. If you’re just getting by from paycheck to paycheck, you’ll find it harder to do any of those things.

No, money in and of itself won’t buy happiness. Poverty won’t buy happiness, either. Managing your money wisely can give you a foundation of security. Then you are much more capable of achieving your dreams and making time for the people and activities that matter to you. Then you are able to fully enjoy those “best things” in life that are free.

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