Money over Meaning?

What do you believe is most important? Becoming very well off financially, or developing a meaningful philosophy of life?

Come on, now. Be honest. You are reading a personal finance blog.

A similar question has been posed to college freshman via the American Freshman Survey, a survey that has queried 15 million students over the last 50 years. Students are asked to rate life goals with varying degrees of important. In 2016, those rating “becoming very well off financially” as important rose to a high of 82%, compared with 47% rating “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” as important.¹

The priorities received equal ratings around 1978, and since then, money has quickly outpaced meaning. GenX and Millennials were similar in their ratings of importance for each of these goals. Since 2008, the percentage of college freshman rating becoming very well off as important is on the rise. Clearly the recession didn’t shift people back toward meaning over money, as some thought it would.

But it isn’t hard to imagine why. Those born after 1995, labeled iGen by lead generational researcher Jean M. Twenge in her book of the same name, came of age in a time of economic uncertainty. Surveys show their attitudes to be less idealistic and entitled when it comes to work, school, and income than Millennials were before them. Instead, they report attitudes that are more pragmatic: they believe they need to earn a high income just to make ends meet. Contrary to common perception, fewer young people today report a goal of becoming entrepreneurs compared with young people of past generations. To a group raised in the height of the safety craze as well as a recession, entrepreneurship may sound too risky.

What to make of all of this? Certainly money and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive, but they can become excluded on a practical level. Though I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, I suppose I started this blog trying with the goal of integrating the two, or at least holding both in the balance.

Placing less value on meaning can lead to some scary trends, such as less volunteering and charitable giving. Indeed, both these social practices are on the decline among Millennials and iGen. Yes, you read that right: despite all the hype about Millennials being more socially active, they only report favorable attitudes toward volunteering and charitable giving. Self-reporting in the American General Social Survey show less engagement than previous generations at the same age.

Concern with money over meaning is also contributing to what former Stanford dean Julie Lythcott-Haims calls “the college admissions arms race.” In her book How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, she laments the extreme competitiveness surrounding elite college admissions, which is viewed by many as the only path toward a financially stable life.

The problem both Lythcott-Haims and Twenge report, from their vantage point as academic faculty, is that college students are no longer there because they care. Past generations viewed college as a great privilege, an opportunity to learn and explore; now it’s simply a means to end.

Just some whiny college profs? Maybe. But what will it mean for our society if young people, usually the most passionate dreamers, are cynical or indifferent? What will it mean for charities, non-profits, and the people and causes they serve? What will it mean for professions high in meaning and relatively low in salary? I’m thinking teaching, social work, and the arts, to name a few.

Perhaps some will conclude there need not be a distinction between meaning and money. That frugality can be a way of life so all-encompassing it constitutes a controlling value. I’m no philosopher, but I think this goes too far.

Certainly we can value meaning while also making a decent living and handling money prudently. This may look differently for each person, but some principles stand out:

  1. Live on less than you make. Depending on your situation, this may mean you need to make more, or spend less. As a culture (species?) we tend to assume we need more, but a hard look at our spending may reveal otherwise.
  2. Prepare for a lifestyle in congruity with your chosen profession. When enrolled in the college of education, I had no dreams of ever living large. I figured my faith and my library card would get me through life.
  3. Do absolutely everything you can to keep your school debt in proportion with your earning potential. While in high school, use Post Secondary Education Option, AP or dual enrollment courses, and retake those standardized tests at least once for a shot at raising your score. Then apply for scholarships, re-apply each year, get a part-time job, and consider taking some courses at a community college to reduce tuition costs. And please choose a reasonably priced university.
  4. Start giving as soon as you graduate (or even before). Don’t wait till you’re making the big bucks to make regular charitable donations. Start early and small, and increase with each raise so it just feels like a natural part of your financial plan. Regular givers report this is the most fun they have with their money.
  5. Make time for people. Long hours or side hustles can be profitable for a season, but if you don’t have time for family and friends, you may be placing money over meaning in a way that compromises your mental health. If you need to, make relationships a calendar item. Schedule a family night, date nights with your spouse and children, and time with your friends, as well.
  6. If you’re working toward FIRE, what’s your goal? Doing more of what you love? Or more of what makes a difference in the world? Meaning is perhaps never more important than in such a potent position as early retirement.

Do you think it’s naive to value meaning over money? What are some ways you keep both in balance?

¹All research from the following:

Lythcott-Haims, J. (2015) How to Raise an Adult. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Twenge, J.M. (2006) Generation MeNew York, NY: Atria Books.

Twenge, J.M. (2017) iGen. New York, NY: Atria Books.

5 Responses to “Money over Meaning?”

  1. Oldster says :

    Insightful post Kalie. I do not think it is naive to value meaning over money. In fact, money without meaning is worth a lot less than one might think. One of the clearest examples of this is the difficulty in pulling the retirement trigger that a lot of folks have as the date comes closer. Often it is because one does not know what to do with their time once work is no longer a priority. Folks that have an idea how they want to spend their time do better and are less hesitant going into the new frontier of retirement. Having purpose in your life makes all the difference. No amount of money can make up for that. I know that your post was dealing more with philanthropic ideals, but the issues are related. People who donate their money and volunteer their time on issues of importance to them are, in my experience, better adjusted throughout their lives, not just on the retirement side.

  2. David Houston says :

    Maybe the these younger kids are getting brainwashed by companies like apple who release the fancy expensive phones every 1 or 2 years. And the cost of them is getting over $1000 dollars if you buy them off contract which is ridiclous.

    THen again if they didn’t have people buying the latest and greatest I wouldn’t be able to go on Kijjiji (similar to craiglist in USA) and pick up a brand new in box LG g4 for $240 dollars.

  3. Joy says :

    Such a great post and I agree with everything you said! As people who have chosen meaning over money {hubby is a missionary pilot and we live in Uganda, as opposed to making lots of money flying for airlines in the States}, we have never once regretted our lifestyle of giving or living on less. We still on our eager salary, live on less than we make, and it isn’t a difficult as people think…once you adjust your lifestyle!
    Thanks for being such a great voice of reason in the finance blogging world! 🙂

  4. Brian says :

    Good points, but I see an elephant in the room that is not being addressed. Not only has the U.S. let college costs (along with other things like healthcare) spiral out of control, we’ve also pulled the rug out from several generations of people with things like the outsourcing of jobs. Having an engineering background, I love tech, but can also see trouble ahead when things like self driving cars become mainstream. Everyone who drives for a living will be out of a job. Then we’ll see self driving semis, buses, and self flying planes. Therefore, part of the reason younger generations are different than their predecessors is lack of hope. When my parents went to college it was affordable, and you were guaranteed a job. If you weren’t college material, no problem. You graduated high school and went to work in a factory making the equivalent of $18-$20/hr. Now, those factories are in China where people work in almost slave-like conditions with extremely low pay. Meanwhile, the salary of a CEO has grown to over 400x that of an average production worker. Perhaps us late Gen X-ers and Millennials would give more if we had more to give and felt like there was hope for our financial future.

  5. emarah says :

    Very good theme, but I see that Money will be the dominant, for the obvious reason, that behind this trend people have strong motives for will change people’s ideas, and drive them to act in order to serve their interests, which is to increase their profits and influence.

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