Financial Literacy

Melissa Leong’s new book wants you to look past money to find happiness

By: Jessica Mach on January 7, 2019
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In South Korea, there is a term, 시발비용 (shibal-biyong), that directly translates to “fuck expense.” Rolling off the tongue, the term registers as vulgar, but the way it is used locally — to refer to the things that tired workers spend their money on to make life more bearable — is decidedly banal. In South Korea, where the average number of hours that people work per year are the longest of any developed country in the world, the antidote to overwork and its attendant deprivations (sleep, rest, recreation) is not necessarily making up for those exact deprivations during off-hours. Instead, it’s spending money.

I was reminded of the concept while reading Melissa Leong’s Happy Go Money: Spend Smart, Save Right and Enjoy Life (Jan. 8, ECW Press), since one of its main objectives is to get readers to consider why they spend money the way that they do. As far as I know, there is no equivalent term to shibal-biyong in English, but ours is a culture that certainly warrants one. Overwork, after all, is common in Canada too, with many people working above and beyond the standard 40 hours a week between their full-time jobs and “side hustles” — not to mention the time they might devote to childcare, care for other family members, or housework.

For the overworked among us, our first impulse for dealing with the stress and fatigue of too much work is rarely to quit but instead to punctuate our days with small pleasures: lunches out with coworkers, afternoon lattes from the café down the block, online shopping, drinks after work. None of these things actually address the fundamental reasons why we’re tired in the first place, but they feel good to do. “When we buy something, we get a delicious burst of dopamine in the brain,” writes Leong. The nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain colloquially associated with “sex and money,” is “activated when humans receive a reward, whether drugs, money or food.”

So how do we cultivate a happiness that lasts? This question is what drives Leong’s Happy Go Money. Leong is suspicious of short-term highs. What she wants instead is a satisfaction that’s both sustained and sustainable, and her book aims to teach readers how to leverage money to achieve it. Happy Go Money does not overestimate the extent of money’s power, though. For Leong, money is both foundational to, and intrinsically limited in its ability to bring us, happiness — a concept that, in the book, is often understood less as an existential state, and more as a psychological one that you can hack your way into with a few smart tricks. Some of them involve money. Some of them don’t.

For Leong, money is both foundational to, and intrinsically limited in its ability to bring us, happiness

Make no mistake, though: Happy Go Money is no Silicon Valley-style treatise on how to chemically rewire your brain. Leong’s strategies, for starters, are decidedly less faddish: there are no boutique vitamins involved, no microdosing on rarified powders, and, besides the recommendation of some well-known apps, very little tech. Instead, the book draws on generalized and long-established studies from neurologists and sociologists about how money makes people happy, and how it doesn’t. Reading the book, most of the findings — e.g., people get more meaningful satisfaction from their relationships than from buying stuff; people with incomes above a certain threshold are statistically less happy than people with incomes below that same threshold — weren’t new to me, and I suspect that they won't be new to a lot of other readers, either. But, in my case, I have known these things and believed that they were true, but have still never based any of my life decisions around them. Leong seems to understand that most people face the same conundrum, and beyond reminding them of what they already know, Happy Go Money is concerned with investigating why they don’t take this knowledge and put it into practice.

The answer, Leong suggests, is noise: in a culture that’s seemingly oriented around spending money, and in an economy that literally relies on people doing so to propel itself forward, we’re constantly, ceaselessly, being told to buy. So how do we cut through the noise and start discovering — and actually doing — the things that will bring us meaningful and enduring joy? Develop new approaches to your money, says Leong. Look at what you consider benchmarks of “success” — owning a home, for instance, or having a full-time, stable job — and adjust them so that they are more in line with what you’re realistically capable of achieving, and what the current market is like. Reframe your financial struggles (“I’m too broke-ass to buy this”) as deliberate choices (“I’m kicking my debt’s ass”). Remember the psychological commonplace that “scarcity boosts appreciation” and practice more delayed gratification. Consider the things that are statistically proven to propel happiness — security, strong social bonds — and configure your spending so that it both fosters and shelters them.

In a culture that’s seemingly oriented around spending money, and in an economy that literally relies on people doing so to propel itself forward, we’re constantly, ceaselessly, being told to buy

The back-to-basics approach of Leong’s book is not especially new in the personal finance space. Last January, Cait Flanders published her phenomenally popular book The Year of Less — a memoir on the first 12 months of Flanders’ two-year shopping ban that saw her cutting down on spending as well as purging what she estimated as 70% of her belongings, Marie Kondo-style. The book would go on to become a Wall Street Journal bestseller, in addition to one of the 10 most-borrowed library books in Canada and Australia. Renouncing materialism and identifying less tangible sources of joy have now ironically become a profitable market (Kondo herself debuted a Netflix show, billed as a “makeover series,” earlier this month) — an indication, no doubt, of a broader cultural reaction to the growing ubiquity of people and advertisers constantly trying to sell us things, especially on social media. Happy Go Money fits neatly into this trend, offering lucid and actionable advice on how to be more mindful of our spending, and more honest about what we value.

If the concept isn’t exactly unique, what sets Happy Go Money apart is the voice: the book is so, so fun to read. Even independent of her career as a “money expert,” Leong is conspicuously and tirelessly accomplished: a former full-time reporter at the Toronto Star and the National Post, she is also a salsa dancer and choreographer, the author of a best-selling teen vampire novel series, a mother, and a non-profit volunteer. That incandescent energy burns through Happy Go Money, with a wit that never flags. Throughout the book, Leong refers to her husband, who loves to shop online, as MOFO (“More orders from online?”). She writes that before Valentine’s day, she reminds her husband not to waste his money buying her chocolates because “I already deal with a baby filled with brown treats.” In a section on how our families influence our spending habits, Leong recalls an argument between her parents about the kind of toilet paper that they each wanted to buy and “what my dad’s butt deserved.” When her friend starts talking about insurance, Leong’s “eyes cross as I achieve boregasm.” The overall effect is like your best, funniest friend giving you no-bullshit, whip-smart advice, and, given Leong’s background and expertise, there’s little doubt that that advice is sound. If you want to learn how to be happy, reading this book would be a good place to start.