Yes, Money Can Buy (Some) Happiness

Gregory Karp
By Gregory Karp 
Edited by Kenley Young

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

If you have a few extra bucks that you don’t need for necessities like rent or loan payments, consider shopping for happiness.

From ancient philosophers to current experts in behavioral economics, people have been pondering the link between money and happiness. Among them is author Gretchen Rubin, who thinks about happiness for a living. She’s written several books on happiness, including “The Happiness Project” and the forthcoming “Outer Order, Inner Calm.”

She helped think through the question of whether you can use discretionary money to buy happiness. Short answer: probably not. But you can definitely spend money to increase it. A lifetime happiness shopping list might go like this.

Buy better relationships

Key to happiness is how you deal with other humans. It’s a recurring theme. “So if you’re spending your money to broaden relationships or deepen relationships, that’s a good way to spend your money,” Rubin said. Use discretionary money to attend a college reunion or a friend’s destination wedding.

A corollary, especially for younger adults: Buy a social life. Young adults often experience an intense period of socializing with friends, searching for life partners and networking for career opportunities — all potential sources of happiness. Maybe increase social bar-and-restaurant spending or pay for a dating app.

Ready for a new credit card?
Create a NerdWallet account for insight on your credit score and personalized recommendations for the right card for you.

Buy experiences — and some things

The usual advice is “buy experiences, not things.” But that requires a deeper dive.

“What I find is often the line between experiences and things is not that clear,” Rubin said. A bicycle can provide an experience, and a new camera can preserve one. So buy experiences, especially with other people, but also think about buying material things that allow you to have experiences or enhance them.

Buy solutions

Also known as “throw money at the problem” or “buy back time.”

“One thing that makes people happier is to feel they have control over their time and they’re not doing boring chores,” Rubin said. So that could mean paying someone else to do yardwork or using a full-service laundry. It’s the balancing act of money vs. time. If you have a little extra money — probably because you sold your time to an employer — buy back time by paying for convenience.

Buy according to your interests

What represents a happy experience for one person is not necessarily the same for another. Someone who mostly dines out should probably not use discretionary money to buy a fancy set of kitchen knives. But someone who loves to cook? Maybe so.

Rubin reminds us, “Beautiful tools make work a joy.”

Buy discipline

Want to improve your diet or fitness but have trouble summoning motivation? Use your money. That might mean choosing a pricier gym that’s more convenient or even hiring a personal trainer to add accountability. At the supermarket, it could mean buying healthy foods that are more convenient, like bagged salad.

“If you can make it slightly easier to get yourself to do something you want to do, that’s a good way to spend your money,” Rubin said.

Buy stress relief

Is there a simple fix for recurring arguments or sources of stress, especially with a significant other? If you argue about a messy home, can you afford maid service? Or, can you afford not to get maid service?

“The question is always, ‘Is it cheaper than marriage counseling?’” Rubin quipped.

Buy money peace

“One of the greatest luxuries money can buy is the freedom not to think about money,” Rubin said. “And financial security is something that really contributes to people’s happiness.”

Paying off debt is a good idea, and building an emergency fund is an especially good one. It provides cash for not only real emergencies, like a car repair, but all those emergencies in our heads that never happen but keep us up at night because they might. Happiness is silencing the haunting what-if voices.

“The freedom from worry is a big boost to happiness,” she said.

Buy wiggle room

If you have extra cash, use it to allow yourself to be sloppy without consequence. It could be as simple as buying a few extra pairs of underwear so you’re not pressed to do laundry every seven days.

Buy a do-gooder high

Be charitable. “Contributing to others is a great way to support the causes you believe in and put your values into the world,” Rubin said.

If you add a few of these purchases to your life’s shopping cart, chances are you’ll be happier when you check out.

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

Find the right credit card for you.

Whether you want to pay less interest or earn more rewards, the right card's out there. Just answer a few questions and we'll narrow the search for you.

Get Started
Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.