When $300k Feels Like $100k

There was an article at Bloomberg this week with the title, “A $300,000 Salary Feels Like $100,000 in The Priciest US Cities,” and I would like to say two things about that: 1) I bet these sorts of articles are reliably the most clicked articles, and 2) I’m grateful for the reminder right there in the title that, after the point of basic needs-meeting, so much that happens in our financial lives comes down to “feels like.”

In New York City it takes a salary of $300,000 to feel like $100,000, because taxes and cost of living are high, relative to other places like Houston or Memphis, for example. Now, I’m tempted to argue that if you are earning $300,000 in New York City, you could probably find meaningful employment in either Houston or Memphis, and I feel like I would rather live in either of those places anyway. But it’s not so simple is it? What if your family is there in NYC, what if you’ve lived there your whole life and get some utility from living there that can’t be easily quantified by take-home pay and cost of living adjustments? $300k feeling like $100k might be a trade you would happily make.

A lot of things can feel like they aren’t enough. A salary, a house, a vacation, a retirement lifestyle. And the key is not to ignore those feelings or attempt to not feel them–they’re real! What’s more, the feelings are sometimes our best gauge for what’s good and right.

No, the key is to simply be aware of the tendencies of our own individual “feel likes” and the sorts of action they drive us toward. Sometimes when we feel that something is not enough, then the healthy thing to do is to spend money on more. But if that is the primary action we are driven toward–toward a direct relationship between spending and happiness–then it might be a good chance to remind ourselves that happiness and joy can include economic transactions, but cannot be owned by them.

There are real moments in our lives when happiness can be bought, but those moments need to be balanced with happiness that is found, given, hiked for, and even sometimes delayed. Otherwise, and this is as strong a guarantee as I know how to give, the happiness we believe we must purchase will turn out to be nothing but misery.

Morgan Housel wrote a couple weeks ago about this topic through the lens of the 27-man crew of the Endurance, the ship that got stranded in Antarctic ice in 1915. Somehow, after 19 months of rowing 800 miles in sub-zero temperatures, they all (not one of them died!) landed at a whaling station on an island 1,600 miles east of Argentina.

From Housel’s post:

Author Alfred Lansing writes:

Every comfort the whaling station could provide was placed at the disposal of Shackleton [and crew]. They first enjoyed the glorious luxury of a long bath, followed by a shave. Then new clothes were given to them from the station’s storehouse.

They were then served a hot meal, and slept for 12 hours.

Can you imagine?

Hopefully it won’t take a harrowing, life-threatening journey across Antarctic ice for us to realize that at any moment we are surrounded by sources of joy and happiness which money has nothing to do with!


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Jared Korver
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A product of small-town North Carolina (Carthage, to be exact), I’m proudly married to my best friend and co-adventurer, Amy. Together, we have two sons–Miles and Charlie–and could more or less start a library from our home. I love being outside, can’t read enough, am in the habit of writing haikus, and find food and coffee to be among life’s greatest treasures.