‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’: Money & Mental Health

Over the past five weeks I’ve had a financial awakening of sorts. My husband and I started an e-commerce business. I ‘hired and fired’ a financial planner aka insurance salesman; and started to educate myself about personal finance. Between reading about creating passive income; how to budget more effectively; and how to use the markets to grow wealth, I started to become overwhelmed by the ubiquitous ‘countdown to retirement’ clock.

I asked myself, ‘Am I doing all it takes to ensure a comfortable retirement and to create generational wealth’? Despite my generally frugal ways, I began to regret every trip, every dinner, and every night out with friends. In a society where everything feels like it is about ‘the haves and the have nots’, how does money and people’s financial acumen affect their mental health?

1)‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.’ — Epictetus

According to U.S. government data, the median living wage necessary for a comfortable life is $67,690. However, for many working professionals, the goal is to make a yearly salary in excess of six figures. With more money, it is expected that individuals will secure better housing in safer neighborhoods, and with good schools for their children to attend. There would also be access to healthier foods, premiere health insurance, which allows the necessary screenings for chronic illnesses. And when natural disasters increase with annual frequency, individuals who have more money would easily evacuate areas ahead of time, avoiding bodily harm.

In the United States, countless studies have proven that having access to money can guarantee a longer and healthier life in the world’s wealthiest nation. In environmental matters like the cleanliness of tap water or an individual’s proximity to toxic dump sites, access to money irrefutably improves one’s life and overall well being.

However, when it comes to possessions and the ‘stuff’ that fill our homes and garages, do any of these items necessarily improve our wellbeing? We are expected to have big houses that we can’t furnish; clothing that we will never or rarely wear; and cars that we barely drive. Unlike previous generations, we are responsible for squirreling away our own retirement funds, instead of expecting a hefty pension in our later years. All of these external factors can affect one’s day to day life, mental well being, and perceived satisfaction with one’s life quality. I have often thought of Robin Williams, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, who suffered with their own mental health issues and substance abuse disorders, resulting in death by suicide. Yet to many of us looking on from our middle class existence, it may seem unimaginable that possessing material wealth would not be enough to stave off deep sadness and the existential question ‘what is the meaning of life?’

2) “Too many people spend money they earned..to buy things they don’t want..to impress people that they don’t like.” — Will Rogers

Of all the cities in the United States, I chose to live in Miami. It’s a city of excess. The bridge connecting Brickell to Downtown goes up several times a day for the passage of massive mega yachts. On our walks back from Whole Foods, my husband often points out speeding cars with seven figure price tags.

A few years ago, a friend visiting from out of town said, “I couldn’t live here [Miami], I’d constantly feel poor.” However, in our humble Downtown neighborhood, surrounded by rapidly erected skyscrapers; people speeding by in luxury cars; and with the occasional invite to rooftop parties, I feel very much at home. We’ve chosen to live here for the sunshine, the palm trees, the blue skies, walkability and the relatively lower cost of living (in comparison to San Francisco, Los Angeles and NYC). And the biggest bonus: access to warm Caribbean water, be it in the bay or ocean. So despite being surrounded by the perceived glitz and glam, living in Miami positively affects our mental health, especially during the winter months.

Ironically because so many people here pretend to be more affluent than they are, with the constant ostentatious displays of wealth, it can feel farcical unlike the established wealth of older cities [NYC, Chicago]. I’ve come to realize that like the buildings on Miami Beach, many lives here might be built on porous foundations.

3)”Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” — Albert Einstein

When I was in medical school, there was a specific salary amount that I wanted to earn when I finished my training. I naively believed that this amount of money would wash away all of my troubles. This year, I earned my ‘dream salary’. Yet, almost 13 years later, that golden number doesn’t feel like quite ‘enough’. Is this partly due to inflation, and the soaring prices for housing and transportation? Is the need for more money compounded by the crunch of student loan debt? Or is it the ever looming presence of social media millionaires?

As perfectly explained in a Quartz article, “At no other point in history have the underclasses of society better understood how the wealthy live. The chimera of life’s material desires is everywhere thanks to the prismatic filters of Instagram and Snapchat. They range from the infinitely absurd — stacks of cash on yachts moored in Monaco — to the mundane, made exotic, like lattes sprinkled with gold flakes. This is the currency of social media: the privilege of enviable experience hoarded by the already rich and influential.”

With social media working as the best marketing tool ever, this external push to ‘possess more and more’, can only be likened to a poison, slowly leaching away at our collective mental well being. We are constantly encouraged to consume, albeit objects or experiences, in an economy based on our perpetual FOMO.

Despite the external pressures to appear like a well heeled doctor, I’m grateful for my community, that keeps me stable. I’m blessed to have friends, who enjoy nice things but are also into making prudent financial choices. My mother often says that even billionaires can only wear one pair of pants at a time or drive one car at a time. And my partner who always reminds me of intangibles like kindness and generosity of spirit, are really what matter in this lifetime. When the ‘possession’ anxiety [need to amass more stuff] sets in, I step back and remind myself of the invaluable work I do helping others on a daily basis. I think of the trade off of freedom for more money and understanding that buying things is not a long term mental health fix.

*Read more at am taar wellness. https://www.amtaarwellness.com/subscribe