Now let's figure out what that means. How much money do you need to live comfortably? How much stuff? And how do money and stuff affect your happiness?
I've discussed these topics on numerous occasions, including in an interview by Alex Fayle on his helpful Someday Syndrome website as well as in my book. Everyone has different answers to the questions, but I was prompted to think about them again by a Los Angeles Times article today about the pay scale of media moguls that demonstrates just how huge the disparity of wealth is in the U.S right now. At one extreme:
Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Igor collected a package worth nearly $24 million for 2009. Philippe Bauman, who manages Viacom Inc., which includes the MTV networks, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures, got an almost 22% raise to $34 million. CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonless' pay more than doubled to $43.2 million. [The article consistently spells Les Moonves' name incorrectly.] News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch topped $22 million, and Time Warner Inc.'s Jeffrey Beaks received nearly $20 million.At the other extreme: the Health and Human Services Department 2009/10 federal poverty guidelines state that a family of four is at the poverty level if their income is at or below $22,050 per year (about $1838 per month). The guideline amount is the same no matter where you live.
We know that those highly compensated executives are doing just fine, but let's see how a family of four living at the poverty level would fare here in Los Angeles. According to rent.com:
If you want to live in the City of Angels, you have to pay a premium. The overall cost of living here is 33% above the national average, with housing costs tending to be among the most expensive in the nation.In the city of Los Angeles, the median cost for apartment rentals was $1699 for Q1 2008. Prices are lower in the valleys, higher in Santa Monica and other areas near the beach. That's the rent for a one-bedroom apartment, clearly not a comfortable arrangement for a family of four. We'd have to up the price by at least $100 to get another bedroom.
The most recent statistics I could find about the cost of feeding a family of four are from the USDA in 2003/2004:
Average yearly expenditures on food in U.S. urban households increased between 2003 and 2004. Over the period, annual per capita spending on food rose from $2,035 to $2,207. The 2004 average comprises $1,347 spent on food consumed at home and $860 spent on food consumed away from home. These amounts reflect a year-to-year increase of 7.9 percent in food-at-home expenditures and 9.3 percent in food-away-from-home expenditures.
We can safely assume that costs have increased, along with everything else, in the last five years, but we'll work with these figures. (Here's a related article from the USDA about "food insecurity," i.e., households with the inability to provide nutritious meals on a regular basis. This situation affected about 11% of U.S. households in 2007; it seems likely that more are affected now.)
So, that's rent at an average of $1799 per month (for two bedrooms) and food costs at ($184 per month per person x four people) $736. We're up to $2,535 per month for food and shelter, leaving nothing for everything else: utilities, telephone, clothing, transportation, child care and medical expenses.
Minimum wage in California is currently $8.00 per hour. A forty hour work week would gross $320 or approximately $1386 per month, not even enough for food and shelter. Clearly there needs to be income from more than one job.
Well, we might as well forget the rest of the math and the scraping together of pennies so eloquently explained by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. For poor families, just staying afloat is an almost impossible challenge.
But what do the ultra-rich folks do with the huge amount of "disposable income" that they have? They may start charitable foundations, endow universities or otherwise share their money generously, but they all definitely acquire the trappings of wealth: stuff -- houses, wardrobes, cars, airplanes, jewelry, the latest technological toys, maybe even a private island.
While I doubt that any of us would want to live on poverty's edge, in constant fear for our very survival, I also doubt that we'd assume that being ultra-rich would guarantee happiness (witness the divorces, custody battles, intra-family power struggles, alcoholism, drug addictions and suicides among the rich for proof that's not the case). It would be disingenuous to claim that life wouldn't be easier or more pleasant with tons of money, but how much money is enough? How much stuff is enough?
I'd like to hear what you think. How much do you need to be comfortable? What are the qualities of life that affect your happiness?
© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: foxumon at stock.xchng.hu