Most of us were told in our younger years that money can’t buy you happiness.
And yet, the concept of ‘financial wellbeing’ is that money can buy you happiness – if you know how and where to use it. But more importantly, you need to have a clear picture of what actually makes you happy in the first place.
This story is about two very opposite people: Mark and Stella. They never knew each other, and as individuals, they couldn’t have been at more different ends of the spectrum in just about every respect. It’s therefore of no surprise that their respective attitudes to money and wellbeing were poles apart. I find both of their stories fascinating, and have learned a lot from my experiences with them, which influence my own perception of money and happiness to this very day.
Mark was a client that I worked with many years ago. There’s no beating around the bush – he was a wealthy guy. None of us will ever know quite how wealthy, though, because he played his cards very close to his chest – only divulging what he wanted his professional advisers to know about him.
We know that he had a serious mistrust of investments and virtually any institution that had anything to do with his money. He kept stacks of cash in various different currencies all over the place and (most probably) buried in his back garden. It gave him some kind of comfort to live that way.
Mark had a very specialist job that only a few people in the world had the knowledge and skills to do. His particular skillset meant that he was regularly contracted to work for various different governments, regimes, groups and individuals in all corners of the globe. It opened his eyes to things that happen in other parts of the world, and I’ve long speculated, probably contributed to his mistrust of people and institutions that hold themselves out publicly to be uncorrupted and trustworthy.
The thing is, probably borne from his compounded experiences over his working life, Mark sometimes felt isolated. Whether this is something that he contributed to through his own behaviour towards others, or whether this was a state of mind that he’d created for himself over the years, we’ll never know. He lived in a house in a remote area of the countryside with its own moat around it. There were suits of armour in his hallway. He clearly lived well and had no problem spending money.
He was married twice, and the first marriage resulted in two children, who went on to become successful people in their own right. His second marriage failed as well (and I believe it was his choice to end it) but he bought his ex-wife a very nice home and voluntarily made sure she was more than financially secure for life. They remained good friends throughout.
However, despite all his money and privilege, Mark was still a deeply unhappy man. He seemed to have it all – the financial security, the bachelor lifestyle, the interesting career, the children, reasonable health, good relationships with his friends. So why was he so unhappy?
Over time, we noticed the problem. His business was so successful that his team was running things smoothly without him, so he no longer needed to work. His exes found new partners. His friends hung around with other couples, and his single friends got into new relationships. But more fundamentally, his kids had grown up, left home, become busy with their careers, and got partners and commitments of their own.
Gradually, the visits and social events slowed down and Mark became increasingly lonely. He would try to buy his children’s affection by offering them money if they came round to visit. Trouble is, they were already financially secure and didn’t need what he was offering them. His glorious home became a prison of isolation – too remote for people to travel to for an evening with him. His fear of losing everything meant that he never did anything, never went anywhere, and it made him prickly and increasingly mistrusting.
Ultimately, Mark died in his 60s of heart failure. He died alone in his cavernous house, surrounded by tonnes of cash, assets and material goods that hadn’t brought him happiness for decades. He lived very comfortably, but not necessarily well.
I will always remember him as someone that had a house-full of valuables, and yet had nothing of real value. For Mark, all the money in the world didn’t buy him happiness.
Here’s a lady that will never have money. She was born into a poor, working class family and sent out to work from the age of 10, at weekends and after school. She never actually finished her education or had the opportunity to do so – the family lived hand-to-mouth and every single person in that house worked extremely hard to bring what little money they could to the table.
Stella’s mother would gather up all their earnings at the end of the week and allocate it between bills and housekeeping. All of their clothes were hand-made by her mother (a seamstress by trade) and the kids wore hand-me-downs where possible. Stella doesn’t recall ever owning a ‘new’ item of clothing as a child – they were always things that her brother had grown out of. She never had a proper school uniform (they couldn’t afford it) and was regularly caned by the headmistress for being sent to school in non-regulation items. Life was tough.
And yet, out of such poverty she became incredibly resourceful; learning to grow her own vegetables in the back garden and making her own clothes when she was old enough to operate a sewing machine.
Money was scarce in her adulthood, too. The lack of education meant that she had little prospect of landing a professional role, but she made the most of the skills that she had. She worked as a top secretary in London during the 1960s, then gave it all up a decade later to get married and move down to the coast to have children.
Fast-forward 20-odd years and Stella’s marriage had failed. She was left with two kids, a 16-hour a day job and a pile of debts. With very little education about how money works, she’d repeatedly racked up store cards, credit cards and maxed out balances on just about every catalogue you can think of to hold everything together. The interest rates she was paying were crippling, but the institutions kept enticing her with bigger credit limits and lower monthly minimum repayment terms until it got to the stage where she was literally “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.
The problem is – none of it was for her. She’d gone without having basic things (including food, electricity and her own bathwater) for so much of her childhood that she didn’t want anyone else to have to experience the kind of poverty that she had. She was generous to a fault, and every penny she had – and all the credit she borrowed on top – went on her family and friends.
Ultimately, around 15 years later, she had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. Although deeply upsetting for her, it was a cathartic experience that enabled her to wipe the slate clean and stop running from debt collectors. She accepted that she would never – and could never – have money. If she did, she’d just give it away. So, she spent her retirement doing good things for other people in ways that didn’t involve money.
She devoted the decade of her 60’s (during which time she was diagnosed with cancer on three separate occasions) to setting up and running voluntary day-care centres for the elderly. Every week she co-ordinated the groups, put on entertainment, shopped and cooked for 40 or more people, cleared up, and did it all again the next day in a different location. She also ran a charity shop, which she worked in at the weekends, did mobile toenail cutting for people in sheltered housing, and set up support groups offering free reflexology, massage and healing to people suffering from cancer. All of this, she did on a voluntary basis for nothing but the occasional tip from a satisfied customer. Her only income was from the State Pension, and her entire home was furnished with second-hand goods and charity shop bargains, which she was extremely proud of.
A few years ago, one of her day-care centres won the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services. She was invited to Buckingham Palace for a garden party, and she says it was one of the highlights of her life. Her outfit for the day was purchased for £5 from her charity shop. But she didn’t care; she finally realised that you can achieve happiness, real wealth, and be ‘enough’ in this life either with or without money. All you need is a generous heart and determination.
Stella is now 74, and still works full time on a voluntary basis running day care centres, the charity shop, and providing her alternative therapies to the elderly and terminally ill. She has no intention of stopping until she drops. It gives her a reason to get out of bed every day, and through her various vocations she’s met some wonderful people, collected some amazing stories, and made many life-long friends.
Materially, she has nothing of value – and yet everything about her is more valuable than anything money can buy.
The moral of this story is that wellbeing isn’t just something you can only achieve, or offer to others, if you have money. Some of the most generous people I’ve ever met have very little in financial terms, and yet they stand shoulder to shoulder with people that have abundant wealth – volunteering to help others, making a real difference, and making friends with each other.
When it comes to generosity and our ability as humans to do amazing things, one thing is very clear: we don’t need money to enable us, and it will never divide or define us.