Happier Than Income or Paying Down Debt

The growing appreciation of behavioral psychology in investing is basically us admitting that we aren’t perfectly rational. When you make people automatically opt-in to 401(k) plans and make their contributions increase automatically, they save more. We value stocks more simply because we own them (“endowment effect”). We hate losing money more than we enjoy winning (“loss aversion”).

A recent research paper tells us (in my own words) that having liquid cash has a stronger correlation effect to happiness than having a bigger retirement portfolio, a higher income, or paying down your debt. This is coming from the NYT article Yes, Numbers Matter in Money Decisions, but So Do Emotions linking to the Kitces post Buying Happiness And Life Satisfaction With Greater Cash-On-Hand Reserves linking to academic paper How Your Bank Balance Buys Happiness: The Importance of “Cash on Hand” to Life Satisfaction. Here’s the abstract:

Our results suggest that having a buffer of money available in checking and savings accounts confers a sense of financial security, which in turn is associated with greater life satisfaction. The strength of this association was comparable to the effect of investments—which may themselves be liquid assets (e.g., money market accounts)—and slightly greater than the effect of debt status. By contrast, higher income and spending—the amounts going into or out of a person’s bank account—were not associated with increased financial well-being after liquid wealth was included in the model. This finding suggests that people with low liquid account balances may feel more economically distressed—and thus less satisfied with their lives—than their peers with higher balances, even if their incomes and spending, considered separately from their account balances, would predict high financial security.