Some Final Words on Money and Happiness

by Laura Rowley

I spent this week in Ohio at my brother-in-law's funeral. He died at 58 of a brain tumor after a long battle that he fought with diligence and patience and quiet humor. At a Catholic funeral, the priest gives a homily, or short talk, on the Bible readings. If you want a homily, the priest said, look at Bob's life.

Bob was married 38 years, a father of five, an engineer, the guy who volunteered to wire his parish church when personal computers first came out. He was the runner who competed in dozens of 10K races with his whole family, but never got an individual trophy because he insisted on keeping pace with the slowest runner. With Bob, no one was left behind.

He grew up one of eight children in a small town in Illinois, the son of a postman and a homemaker, where he took the American dream to heart. He was loyal, faithful, kind and positive in the extreme. We used to joke about how Bob would say hello with a bone-crushing hug and then tell you, four or five times, "You're great, you're great, you're a star!" As one friend wrote in an online condolence, "I am sure everyone will always remember him for seeing that 'star' in all of us."

There is nothing like the funeral of a very good person to put life in proper perspective. I've been thinking about money too much lately, a symptom of being in your mid-40s — an age that tends to come with a mortgage, three kids and New Jersey property taxes. And a certain amount of money is important; it buys crucial things like groceries and health care and a home in a safe neighborhood. But it is no substitute for creativity or character. As Bob's son said at the funeral, Bob's goal wasn't to guarantee that his kids were comfortable and secure. He wanted them to get an education and learn to be committed and disciplined so they could do that for themselves.

In fact, Bob was so devoted to his kids' education that he actually enrolled in the same calculus class with his son at the community college so he could help him with homework. Not that his son wasn't bright — it was just that he was still in high school. Bob wasn't wealthy, but he wouldn't let his goals be sidetracked by a little thing like the skyrocketing cost of college tuition. He figured out how the kids could earn high school credits while they were still in grammar school, community college credits while they were in high school, finish their bachelor's degrees at the state university two years ahead of their peers, and in a few cases move right on to law school.

And making money is important. But it isn't worth starving your relationships of the time they need to flourish, or your community of the gifts you have to offer. Bob's wake was attended by some of the families of kids he coached in soccer. The head of the local parks department wrote in an online condolence: "Bob was such an inspiration to many children in the Parks and Recreation programs. I'm sure he is in Heaven teaching soccer right now. I will never forget him and his positive attitude."

When I wrote the book "Money and Happiness" in 2005, just before I joined Yahoo! Finance, my thesis was that if you could clearly identify what you value most in life, set goals around those things, and use money as a tool to help you achieve them, you would find happiness. Not the immediate gratification, smiley-face kind of happy, but long-term contentment. Because everyone knows that pursuing your values is not the easy road and can mean short-term sacrifice — like taking calculus again when you're in your 40s, or coaching a squirrelly bunch of 9-year-olds in soccer when you could be laying in a hammock reading the Sunday paper.

I still believe that theory about money and happiness. But what I've learned over the last six years of writing this column is that money is something you should kind of watch from the corner of your eye while you live your real life. You obviously can't take it with you, and when someone writes the homily of your life, they're more apt to remember your attitude, character, creativity and spirit of generosity, than what you did or didn't do with your money or how much of it you had. So it makes sense to me to earn it doing something you value, something that gifts other people and the world rather than diminishing them. Save, invest and spend it the same way, reflecting your values, in a spirit of generosity and joy. And remember it's important, but it's not everything.


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