What does money mean to you? Would you be happy if you had just enough to cover your bills, plus maybe a little more for an occasional dinner out? Are you hoping to send your children to an expensive college, or retire in style? Do you have debts you need to pay off? Are you saving up to buy a house or take a dream vacation?

How much money would be enough?

I’ve been thinking a lot about money lately and the choices we make about it, because my own income took a big jump between 2013 and 2014, which fortunately financed our move from the East Coast to the West Coast but unfortunately left us with some tax debt. Now I have some decisions to make about how much I need to make, and how many hours a week I should be working.

It’s forced me to ask myself how much money is enough for me and my family. If you’ve never asked yourself the same question, consider asking it now.

Though most of us ask for raises and some even buy lottery tickets, the truth is that money doesn’t lead to happiness past a certain very limited point. That point changes depending where you live, since cost of living is widely variable from place to place. But throughout most of the United States, that number is five figures, not six–somewhere between $65,000 and $99,000 per year. In other words, it’s not so much that money buys happiness as that not having enough money for a comfortable life can cause unhappiness.

Even when we’re well aware of the research, most of us do want an income above that level. Nothing wrong with that. But remember that money is really nothing but numbers in a bank statement, balance sheet, pay stub, or investment account. It’s the meaning we apply to those simple little digits that give money its power to entrance and sometimes enslave us.

So before you get sucked into a desperate and unending effort to raise those numbers just a little bit, stop and ask yourself exactly what money means to you. The answers are different for everyone. But here are some of the most common:

1. A score card

The world of business can seem like a giant game, and the more money you take home at the end of a week or a month, the more you’re winning the game. It doesn’t even matter what you do with the money, so long as you’re making more than the next person. This is why most employers guard their employees’ salaries as deep, dark secret.

The only problem with this approach is, no matter how much you make, there will always be someone making more than you, even if it’s Warren Buffett. If this is your measure of success, you may never feel you’ve gotten there.

2. Validation

To confuse the issue, success in the business world is scored in dollars for the most part. If you start a business and it has millions of dollars in sales after the first year, that means customers like what you’re doing and your company is a success. If your revenues are counted in the hundreds, your company is seen as a failure.

Fair enough, but remember that even if you’re an entrepreneur, your company’s income and your own are not precisely the same thing. And while it’s true that any company needs to turn a profit, or at least break even, to stay alive for the long term, it’s equally true that organizations whose only purpose is to make money rarely do well over the long run. If that’s your only goal, consider finding one or two more.

3. Stuff you can buy

We live in a consumer society, so it’s natural for all of us to feel the urge to possess the next smartphone, the newest smartwatch, that perfect article of clothing or that spectacular vacation. That’s fine–but none of these neat-o possessions really has anything to do with happiness. And if you’re too busy or important to leave work completely behind for a week or two, that spectacular vacation will be wasted on you.

4. Security

I have a friend who likes having a year’s salary in his savings account at all times. It makes him feel safe, and I don’t blame him. Years ago, he was left a single parent with an uncertain income and he built a business from scratch so that his family would always be provided for.

If you’ve ever lived through hard times, something I admit I haven’t, no one can blame you for wanting the sense of security money can provide. But here again, stop and ask yourself how much is enough, acknowledging that you can’t plan or provide for every possible catastrophe. Set that number as a goal. Otherwise you could wind up saving forever and never stopping to spend money actually enjoying your life.

5. A happy retirement

We’ve all been told ad nauseam that we need to plan for, retirement. And I’ll admit to being old enough that this advice is tough to ignore. But here again, you don’t have to, and shouldn’t, be saving every penny. Determine what you think you’ll need–consider working with a financial planner to get that number right–and then relax about it. You want a comfortable retirement, but it’s a bad bargain to give up your happiness now to get it.

6. Love

For some people, money is the best or only way they know to express love. I know–my father was one of them. Every time I came home from college, he would want to sit down and talk to me about his will, his peculiar way of telling me he missed me. Ironically, he ran into bankruptcy before he died and wound up leaving me nothing. Except for a hollow feeling and a lot of regret for the missed opportunities he had to show me he loved me in a more straightforward way. Don’t let this happen to you.

7. A good life for your children

What parent doesn’t want this? If what money means to you is the chance to give your children every advantage and educational opportunity–especially if you didn’t have them yourself–that makes a lot of sense. Just keep in mind that your children’s lives likely won’t turn out the way you plan. I’ve known too many people whose parents sprang for Ivy League educations only to see their offspring take off on bohemian careers such as guitar-playing or songwriting. Besides, the best gift you can give your children–and anyone else in your life–will always be yourself.

8. Freedom

This is what a lot of us are working for–the chance to finally tell our employers, creditors, or anyone else, to go take a hike because we have what we need. It’s the reason many of us want to start businesses. Freedom is a great goal. Just remember that it’s an attainable goal, and it may be more attainable than you think, if you’re willing to give up some extraneous expenses.

If freedom is your desire, you want to spend as much time as possible actually enjoying it. So figure out what the minimum amount of money is that you need to set yourself free, and then go for it. Chances are, it’s closer than you think.

Published on: Sep 8, 2015