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How much do we need to be happy?

Published October 02. 2010 09:00AM

While I was interviewing a pastor about a financial course at his church, he happened to mention as an aside that he and his wife just bought a home.

I have to tell you that buying a home now in southwest Florida is a bit like putting a coin in one of those jackpot machines and getting a huge return for your money.

The bargains are almost unbelievable.

For those of us who already own homes here in Paradise, it's a sad story. We have to watch the value of our homes plummet like a crazy bungee jumper free-falling off a bridge.

While it's a terrible time to sell a home, it's a terrific time to buy one. Those lucky enough to be in that position are snatching up luxury properties for a mere fraction of their value.

I've seen what were once million dollar waterfront homes selling for around $200,000. And there are some entry-level homes, complete with pools that are bank foreclosures, selling for $30,000 to $40,000.

"There are so many big, beautiful homes out there. It's tempting to buy one of them," admitted the pastor.

Instead of snatching up one of those bargain priced luxury homes, he and his wife bought a modest home.

I asked him why he by-passed those gorgeous new models there for the taking.

"Sure, we could buy a big home," he said. "But then we're committed to years of higher taxes, higher insurance and higher maintenance bills."

He then said something that has resonated with me ever since: "People always want bigger homes and more of everything. How much is enough?"

Indeed, how much is enough?

That question brings to mind an interview I did a while back with a man who said he has to work seven days a week because, no matter what they have, it isn't enough. His wife needs more.

After he worked to afford a new house for his family, they had to furnish it. The list of things they "need" goes on and on, he said. Since they live in the suburbs, they also need another car for their teenager to drive.

Meanwhile, he had a stress-induced heart attack and is still working seven days a week to pay for their things. While he wishes he had more time to spend with his family, that's impossible, he said, because there are always so many bills to pay.

How much stuff is enough?

How much is enough to make you happy?

It's true that some wise souls have acquired the gift of being content with what they have, regardless of how much or how little that is. But even some who claim they are content have occasional relapses.

When we truthfully analyze how we spend money, most of us will find there is room for improvement.

Last night my husband and I had a conversation about our entertainment budget. Ask me how much we spend on entertainment and I will say, "Next to nothing. Everything we like to do is free - kayaking, biking, swimming, and dancing. We live an active lifestyle for very little money."

That's my version of the truth. But when my husband pointed out how many times our social events involve eating out, I had to re-evaluate my thinking.

We belong to a kayak club, a boat club and a dance group. In addition, I belong to an exercise group and a shell club. All of these groups are made up of people with whom we enjoy socializing. But I was surprised to think about how much of this socializing involves getting together for lunch or dinner.

I love to cook and I often invite people in for dinner. Or, we get together and play games or cards. But the clubs we enjoy so much habitually plan social events that involve eating out.

While we're having a wonderful time in life, eating out that many times is making our wallets slimmer and our waistlines thicker.

Even though I don't like to decline social invitations, I know I have to do it by reminding myself of the all-important question: How much is enough?

Ever since my conversations with that minister, I am reevaluating my spending habits. While I've always been frugal and don't get caught up in the credit card trap, I find I buy even less when I remember the minister's burning question: how much is enough?

The other day I found a blouse on sale and was ready to buy it because I "need" it to go with my brown slacks. But then I remembered the minister's admonishment that we all need to make better use of our money to help those who can't even afford food.

I decided the minister is right. The food bank needs my donations more than I need another blouse.

Regardless of our good intentions, it's easier than we think to get sucked into abandoning a simple, inexpensive lifestyle.

But it's illuminating to keep asking ourselves revealing questions: How much is enough?

How much do we really need to be happy?

And, do we find that happiness in things or in people we love?

How we answer those questions defines who we are and how content we are with our life.

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