Is Money Really Everything?

By Timothy Moore · October 17, 2023 · 9 minute read

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Is Money Really Everything?

Some people may believe that money is everything, but is it actually? After all, money is embedded in a sense of well-being, from healthcare to the ability to pursue one’s passions. Money grants security and freedom — and, at its core, it ensures basic survival.

But research also suggests that having more money is correlated with depression and can lead to more stress. Comparing money with one’s peers can create dissatisfaction, and money arguments are the second-highest cause of divorce.

So is money really everything in life? Here’s a closer look at:

•   Is money everything in life?

•   What can money do for us?

•   What can money not do for us?

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Needing Money to Survive

Money has the ability to improve one’s life, but it can also create complications and lead to unhappiness. The question of whether a person needs more money to be happy is certainly up for debate (and researchers continue to conduct new studies about this very topic), but amid all the misconceptions about money, there is a fundamental truth: We need money to survive.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), poverty and low-income status can lead to shorter life expectancy, higher death rates for the 14 leading causes of death, and higher infant mortality rates.

From food and shelter to health care and education, money provides the things needed to survive.

What Money Can Do For Us

Is money everything? Probably not: Things like love, friendship, time, and passion are all important aspects of life (though money can help in those areas —for example, money can enable you to pursue passions and afford experiences with family and friends).

But even if money isn’t everything, it can do a lot of important things, such as:

Meeting Basic Needs

Money allows us to meet our most basic needs, like food, shelter, and health care. Without those things, we would die.

On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a popular tenet of psychology — humans must satisfy such basic needs before they can focus on more complex needs like love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

Recommended: How to Manage Your Money

Paying Down Debts

Multiple studies indicate that carrying debt is bad for your mental and physical health. Adverse effects include high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and even a weakened immune system.

On top of that, debt can lead to money fights with a significant other. It can also impact your ability to secure credit in the future — whether for a car, house, or even a credit card.

Thus, having enough money to pay down your debts can help avoid a lot of figurative and literal headaches.

Recommended: Paying Off Debt: 9 Strategies to Try

Improving Our Quality of Life

Beyond meeting basic needs, money can help improve quality of life. Having more money makes it easier to see expensive doctors, join a gym, and buy healthier foods. It also enables the pursuit of higher education without needing to open a student loan.

Money also allows you to afford experiences with friends and family — whether it’s going to a concert, affording a family vacation, or just having a drink with a coworker. Beyond that, money allows a person to pursue passions and hobbies, such as gardening, woodworking, painting, playing in sports leagues, and fixing up cars.

Feeling Secure and Free

Having enough money to pay the bills and provide for your family can create a sense of security. With a well-padded emergency fund, you may not worry about the cost of emergencies like unexpected vet bills or car trouble like those living paycheck to paycheck might.

Not only can money provide you with a sense of security, but it can also give you more freedom to pursue passions and buy material goods you enjoy without worrying about the price tag.

Recommended: 5 Ways to Achieve Financial Security

Making a Difference

Parents with more money may be able to provide things for their children that others cannot — like better education for a more promising future. Beyond your own family, money can allow you to make a difference in the world through charitable donations to causes you care about.

What Money Can’t Do For Us

After reading the list above, you may wonder, Is everything about money? While money can purchase material possessions and enable certain experiences, there are some things money simply cannot do.

Buying More Time

No matter how much money you have, no one can buy more time. If you spend a large chunk of your life working at a job you don’t like — and miss out on experiences and memories with people you love — you can’t buy that time back. And while deep pockets can perhaps enhance one’s health and healthcare, it’s not as if it can necessarily extend your life.

Creating Real Relationships

You cannot buy connections with true friends and family. You may win new friends with more money, but real relationships are based on love and respect for one another. The more time you spend trying to make money, the less time you’ll have to focus on building relationships with people you care about.

Recommended: How to Change Your Money Mindset

Fulfilling Passions

Some people may have high-paying jobs and love what they do. But others may take high-paying jobs just for the paycheck, even if there’s something else they’d rather be doing.

While it’s important to earn money to care for yourself and family, remember that it’s also valuable to allow yourself to do things that make you happy.

Can Money Buy You Happiness?

Is money everything in life? Clearly, money can offer security and opportunities — and allow you to meet basic needs — but there are other things in life worth pursuing.

But can money buy you happiness? Science says yes, though researchers continue to debate the extent to which it can.

More than a decade ago, Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton released their now-famous research that indicates money does buy you happiness, to a certain point. According to this research, money no longer improves emotional well-being and happiness beyond $75,000 a year.

A more recent study, however, throws that into question. The 2021 paper by Matthew Killingsworth demonstrates a continued, linear correlation between money and happiness beyond $75,000. That is, a person who makes $100,000 a year could scientifically be happier than one who makes $75,000.

Of course, other research demonstrates that money leads to unhappiness. For example, per capita income in the United States increased by 150% from 1946 to 1990, yet the percentage of people who considered themselves happy dropped during that time.

Research also shows that more income can mean more stress, that materialism can contribute to unhappiness, and that comparing one’s finances with one’s peers can contribute to dissatisfaction.

So can money buy you happiness? The answer: yes and no.

Recommended: 30 Low-Stress Jobs for Introverts

What’s More Important Than Money?

Science can only go so far to prove fundamental truths about the human experience. How can a person truly measure the value of love, family, and friendship to each individual? And how can you separate money from things you deem important, like your mental and physical health?

Understanding that it’s a nuanced subject, here are some things that you may find are more important than wealth; things that refute the the idea that money is everything:

•   Love: For many people, sharing love and companionship with friends, family, partners, and children is paramount. It’s the most valuable thing in the world.

•   Health: Having a sound body and sound mind are important. Many rely on jobs for health insurance and the money they need to afford everything from prescriptions to gym memberships to emergency room visits. However, one can overdo it at work. It can be important to remember to also focus on your mental health, especially if you’re working too much and too hard to earn your money.

•   Passion: While some people would prefer to work a high-pressure job for more money, the Great Resignation (in which people left their jobs in droves as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed) has shown us that many people would rather pursue their passions and accept a lower paycheck for it. To them, a passion-filled life is more important than money.

•   Time: Each person has a finite amount of time in life. If you spend too much of it focused on making money, you may miss out on life-changing experiences and wonderful memories with friends and family.

Recommended: How to Save Money While Living Sustainably

The Takeaway

Money can allow you to satisfy basic needs like food and shelter, but it may also enable you to pursue higher education, access higher-quality health care, and fund experiences and hobbies that you are passionate about. That said, money can never buy you more time or true relationships, and having more money may even make you unhappy. So while money may matter, it’s not necessarily what makes the world go around when one thinks about happiness at a basic, human level.

3 Money Tips

1.    Typically, checking accounts don’t earn interest. However, some accounts do, and online banks are more likely than brick-and-mortar banks to offer you the best rates.

2.    If you’re creating a budget, try the 50/30/20 budget rule. Allocate 50% of your after-tax income to the “needs” of life, like living expenses and debt. Spend 30% on wants, and then save the remaining 20% towards saving for your long-term goals.

3.    When you feel the urge to buy something that isn’t in your budget, try the 30-day rule. Make a note of the item in your calendar for 30 days into the future. When the date rolls around, there’s a good chance the “gotta have it” feeling will have subsided.

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Where did the phrase “money isn’t everything” come from?

The origin of the phrase “money isn’t everything” isn’t clear, but it’s a common expression in the English language. The intent of the expression is that you shouldn’t focus solely on money because other things — love, friendship, time, passion, etc. — are also important and can bring you happiness.

What happens if we are too dependent on money?

Money is important for affording the basic things we need to survive, but research shows that focusing too much on money can lead to more stress, isolate us from people we care about, and even cause depression.

Is too much money a bad thing to have?

We need money to survive and to improve our quality of life. Having more money allows us to care for ourselves and the people we love. However, if you’re earning that money at the expense of your mental and physical health — and missing out on core life experiences because you’re busy with work — having more money could be a bad thing. Some research indicates that having more money can lead to unhappiness and even depression.

Photo credit: iStock/Irina Kashaeva

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