Financial Independence: it's not about the money.
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This is going to sound greedy, but I’ve always wanted to be rich. If you grew up without much, you probably feel me.

My mom and I would go to the grocery store on Sundays, and I’d watch my dad hustling his way through the produce section, where he worked. We were always on a strict grocery budget, and if I wanted something, the answer was typically “we can’t afford it.” I thought it was funny that my dad worked at the grocery store and we couldn’t afford a lot of stuff from that very store.

We were broke enough for public assistance, but we had enough that my parents felt we could get by without it. We weren’t starving, but money was a constant obstacle.

I grew up thinking money could solve just about anything. I knew it wasn’t everything, but I also knew, as the saying* goes, “it’s “better to have money and not need it, than to need it and not have it.”

* By “saying” I mean a sample in a Geto Boys song I heard.   

The Money-Happiness Benchmark

Contrary to what I told myself when I had to put back the Oreos, money can buy happiness.  A few years ago, a study made the rounds that validated Daniel Tosh’s “ever seen a sad person on a WaveRunner”  joke. According to the Wall Street Journal:

It turns out there is a specific dollar number, or income plateau, after which more money has no measurable effect on day-to-day contentment. The magic income: $75,000 a year. As people earn more money, their day-to-day happiness rises. Until you hit $75,000. After that, it is just more stuff, with no gain in happiness.

Of course, the numbers vary, but a comfortable income can make your day-to-day life pretty cushy, and this study supports that. It makes sense: you don’t have to worry about bills as much. You don’t have to worry about whether you can afford a nice dinner. To me, that $75,000 benchmark simply represents the freeing feeling of financial security. Money makes you happy the same way not having a rare illness makes you happy: you have a lot less to worry about.

That said, the interpretation of the study is kind of, well, wrong. It’s not the money that makes you happy. It’s the fact that you can buy Oreos without feeling guilty. Now that’s happiness. (Especially the limited edition Birthday Cake Oreos).

How Money Takes Over

It might seem like nitpicking, but I think it’s important to make the distinction between money and what you get out of money (security, freedom, and options). When you latch onto the idea that money can buy happiness and solve your problems, money starts to rule your life. That’s exactly what happened to me when I made it my goal to get rich. Money kept me from going to the college I wanted, living in the city I wanted, and even having the career I wanted, because I always put it before anything else. In fact, I still have trouble not allowing money to run my life.

On the other hand, when you define what makes you happy–the freedom to spend lavishly at the grocery store or travel the world or support your family–you can put a dollar amount on your goal instead of aimlessly trying to buy happiness.

It might be more or less than $75,000, but we all have a money-happiness benchmark: the price it takes to eliminate common worries and enjoy a comfortable life.

Happiness and Satisfaction

Like a lot of personal finance junkies, my ultimate goal is financial independence. First, I wanted to get out of debt. Then, I wanted to be financially secure. And now, someday, I’d like to have “sufficient personal wealth to live, without having to work actively for basic necessities,” as Wikipedia defines it.

Sufficient personal wealth sounds awesome. But this idea of the money-happiness benchmark left me wondering: what’s the point? Why do I want unlimited money? Sure, a WaveRunner would be nice, but like the study says, after a certain point, it’s just more stuff.

To answer that question, it helps to dig deeper into that study. While the study found that day-to-day happiness plateaued after $75,000, people who earned more experienced a different kind of happiness. They were more satisfied with their lives in the long-term, big picture, so to speak.

I think I know why, and again, it doesn’t have anything to do with money. I think it’s more about freedom. When you have a lot in the bank, you typically have the freedom and control to do whatever you want. Thus, the fewer worries you have, the happier you are day-to-day. And the more control you have over your life, the more satisfied you are with it in general.

Redefining Financial Independence

To me, financial independence isn’t just about being able to stand on your own financially. It’s actually about independence from your finances. It’s the ability to do the things you love without checking in with your budget.

My goal isn’t to get rich, really. My goal is to do whatever the hell I want to do with my life, and that’s not greedy–that’s human. Of course, the irony is that it takes money to not care about money. But for me at least, it’s important to remember that money isn’t the goal. Because when money is the goal, money is in control. When you define your own goals, you’re in control, and that’s all managing money is: not letting it get between you and what matters to you most.

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Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Her book GET MONEY will be available on 3/27/18 with Hachette Books.