How to Be Rich

If a 15 percent raise is all you need, consider this.
From the July 2007 Trumpet Print Edition

If you are like most people in America, Britain and Australia, you believe that if your annual income were 10 to 20 percent bigger, you would have it made.

Is it true? A little perspective is in order.

Looking at what the average person in these countries possesses, nearly everyone in human history would call it royal-scale luxury. In the richest nations in history, we have come to expect what most people never dreamed of.

Even Americans 50 years ago had only one third the wealth of Americans today. Living standards in Britain have likewise tripled in the last half century. The average American home is over 2,400 square feet, 2 _ times the average 1950 home. Since 1950, Americans have consumed more resources than everyone who ever lived before them combined.

And yet, somehow we don’t feel rich. Ten to 20 percent more—that’s all we need.

It’s a sick fact: Generally, no matter how much money we make, we feel we need more. And the more we earn, the more obsessed we grow with earning more.

Why? The median family income in the U.S. is over $46,000, unprecedented for a nation this size. Why then, with measurements of our wealth so high and still rising, have measurements of our happiness and personal satisfaction remained so stubbornly static—even gone down?

Still sure that raise will satisfy you? Experience says it won’t.

What will? Research proves that if you want a big raise in happiness and personal satisfaction, more yearly pay won’t do. You’ll have to seek it somewhere else.

Feeling Deprived

It’s hard for people in prosperous nations to realize it, but money can’t buy happiness. High income does not equal high fulfillment. Even if we say we know that, in most cases, deep down we just don’t buy it.

Sixty-two percent of Australians think they can’t afford to buy everything they really need, according to a 2002 Newspoll survey. Even among the richest 20 percent of Australian households, almost half (46 percent) agree: They need more money to cover their needs. That’s right, their needs.

This is a serious lack of perspective. Half of the richest people in one of the world’s richest nations simply don’t know what needs are.

Surveys show that as incomes grow, the ability to discern wants from needs shrivels. Luxuries become necessities. A second car, a cell phone, a big-screen tv with satellite hookup, a laptop with wireless Internet—people think they just can’t live without them. (Of course, thousands of years of human experience prove otherwise.)

How is it possible that the most prosperous people in history feel deprived? “If you start making $100,000 a year, it takes $200,000 to make you happy,” explains Ed Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist. “People just start expecting more out of life.”

Surely the inability to differentiate between what we want and what we need is one of the primary sources of our discontent—and one of the things we must fix if we want to be truly rich.

Though the prosperity of the general public is higher than ever, getting trapped on the gerbil wheel of materialism is hardly a new problem. It was almost 2,000 years ago that Jesus Christ warned, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15, Revised Standard Version). This simple wisdom is easy to lose sight of in our consumerist culture—it is simply overwhelmed by precisely the opposite message.

That message—drummed into us in a jillion ways each day—is this: No matter how much you have, it ain’t enough.

Manufacturing “Needs”

The average American spends over $21,000 a year on consumer goods—from fast food to laptops. Consuming defines our lives. And the lubricating oil of our economic system is advertising. Ads help us obtain the things we need, and our economy simply wouldn’t function without them.

Most of us believe we are somehow immune to advertising—but if this were true, the business would go bust. With 16 minutes per hour of prime-time television devoted to hawking wares, the average American will spend a full year of his life watching commercials. Ads assault us on the Internet and the radio, in magazines, shops and billboards—even on school textbooks and in lunchrooms (many schools receive enormous payoffs if their students buy so much soda-pop or other goods). These ads have one goal: stated crassly, to separate us from our money.

An ad-based culture comes with some nasty side effects. Widespread as they are, ads dictate and reinforce many of the norms and beliefs of our culture. And to do their job, ads must create in us a yearning—convince us of needs we don’t necessarily have. In many cases, this means appealing to our worst side: our vanity, greed, covetousness, lust; it means exaggerating and misrepresenting, being dishonest or deceptive. The ads tell us that spending money is actually saving money, that we can’t afford to pass up this purchase, that if we wait we’ll miss out. The ads tell us that we deserve to be pampered and spoiled, that we’ve earned the right to treat ourselves royally, and that anything less would be just plain wrong. The ads tell us that buying things will boost our satisfaction, relieve our depression, grow our circle of friends, solve our family problems, and supply us the quickest path to robust health and a future of ease. (Experience, on the other hand, tells us that buying things usually just gets us more things—more things that need to be taken care of, more things that break.)

“Sometimes advertisers try to make us laugh or make us think, but mostly they make us feel deprived, inadequate or anxious,” Clive Hamilton wrote in his book Affluenza. That sense of deprivation, inadequacy or anxiety is what drives us to keep buying. Essentially, it is the nagging idea that happiness is just one purchase away.

A marketing director for the Chicago Tribune put it this way: “The well-being of our entire system depends on how much motivation is supplied the consumer to make him continue wanting” (emphasis mine).

And spot ads are just the start; they are no match for hour-long programs that preach the gospel of consumerism. On abc’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, for example, a team of designers leads an army of workers to convert a family’s house into the home of their dreams. New cars, home theaters, shopping sprees and over-the-top purchases rain upon the chosen family in fulfillment of every whispered whim. The show’s warm-fuzzy message—that good families deserve the best (and I mean the best, including a large plasma-screen tv in every room)—packs a powerful consumerist punch. Clearly, stuff brings happiness. The viewer is happy for the family, but at the end of the show can’t help but look around and notice how extremely un-madeover his or her own home is.

Children are especially susceptible to advertising’s promises of instant gratification. A Stanford study found that a single 30-second tv ad can influence the brand choices of children as young as age 2. And young people represent enormous buying power: Research shows not only that purchases made by 4-to-12-year-olds exceeded $30 billion in 2002, but also that children, thanks to the “nag factor,” directly influenced $330 billion worth of their parents’ purchases. Knowing a gold mine when they spot one, marketers specifically aim commercials at children to get them to cajole Mom and Dad into purchases. Juliet Schor’s Born to Buy cites an industry estimate that children influence even the car their parents buy in two out of three cases.

No doubt about it: The upcoming generations of super-consumers are ready. Our children are growing up with unprecedented expectations about what constitutes a tolerable standard of living.

Clearly, if we truly want to be rich, one thing we must do is discern and reject these lies—not just the overt falsehoods, but also the misleading implications—so routinely hurled at us. Before we spend, we need to really consider whether we’re doing so out of a genuine need—even a genuine want—or out of an artificial yearning that some marketer has injected into us. Sometimes this requires being brutally honest with ourselves.

Keeping Up With the Rockefellers

What do we really need? In his 1999 book Luxury Fever, Cornell economist Robert Frank highlighted our unhelpful tendency to measure what we “need” by what the people around us have. It’s the old “keeping up with the Joneses” trap.

But who are the Joneses? Our media-glutted, celebrity-soaked culture places us in constant contact with examples of hyper-affluence far beyond what the guy next door has. We’re not just trying to keep up with the Joneses—we’re trying to keep up with the Rockefellers.

The Apostle Paul evidently knew what he was talking about when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:12 that “they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise.” The simple truth is, our habit of comparing what we have with what others have is another major source of our dissatisfaction. As Gore Vidal once said, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Not exactly a mindset that makes one rich.

One extraordinary finding Hamilton quotes in his book is that most people would rather earn $50,000 a year if the average was $40,000 than earn $70,000 if the average was $100,000. They would take a $20,000 pay cut just to remain above average! No wonder some describe runaway consumerism as affluenza: It’s a sickness that addles the brain.

That shocking statistic shows how easy it is to allow material things to delineate our social status, to dictate our sense of self-worth—even to define who we are. And it’s not that we need these particular things in order to feel good—we just need more than the other guy.

Of course, that’s a sure formula for unhappiness. Someone will always have more than we have.

It is worth checking our life’s balance sheet to see just how steep a price we are paying for such materialistic thinking. Then we can evaluate whether we are really pursuing the right kind of riches.

The Price of Overconsumption

Plenty of evidence backs up the declaration in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money”—and the things that money can buy—is a “root of all evil.” Hyper-consumption certainly comes with a host of problems.

One problem in particular has become epidemic in wealthy Western nations: skyrocketing personal debt. Try explaining this to folks in the Third World.

We can shake our heads at the superstar who blows a multimillion-dollar salary and goes into the red—but the same thing is happening on a smaller scale throughout the Western world. As much as our incomes are rising, our spending is rising more. Credit is ridiculously easy to come by, and going without is apparently no longer an option. The “you deserve it now” message has us by the throat. Gone are the days of saving up for a big purchase; the new saving is “post-saving”—buying on credit and paying over time.

Of course, that isn’t actually saving. In fact, the big myth about credit cards is that they enable you to get more things. In truth, more things now means far fewer things later. Consider. The average household in affluent America carries $8,400 in credit card debt. Paying that off requires cutting your spending in three separate ways: reining in your overspending, carving the $8,400 out of your present spending, and paying the interest on the debt. Shelling out $200 a month at 15 percent interest would tack $3,600 of interest onto that $8,400 and take five long years to pay off.

Unburying ourselves from debt like that is an enormous burden. Proverbs 22:7 accurately describes debt as a type of slavery: “The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.” Like many other aspects of super-consumerism, debt can take steep additional tolls on our lives.

Take our families, for example. To make enough money to pay for lavish lifestyles, people are working longer hours, often at more stressful jobs. Families consider two incomes a necessity. With most parents working outside the home (in the u.s., over 7 in 10 mom-aged married women), an estimated 57 percent of our children do not have full-time parental supervision. Many parents lament having to spend more time at work than would be ideal for their families (80 percent of Australians, in another Newspoll survey)—but far fewer cut back on work in order to prioritize their families over the additional earnings.

Choosing material goods over family also exacts its toll in another, subtler way. More and more couples are looking at the costs of having children and deciding they cannot afford parenthood. This, again, in the richest societies in history. Perhaps no trend exposes our skewed values more: We are simply unwilling to give up life’s luxuries—fleeting and hollow as they are—for the sake of something as pricey as family—enduring and precious as it is.

Those couples who do have children fight materialism in other ways. Americans spend six hours a week shopping—compared to only 40 minutes a week playing with their children. With parental examples like these, then, it’s no surprise that as children grow into teenagers, consumerist influences contribute heavily to the generation gap. Polls show that parents become substantially concerned about the effect of materialism on their children through these years as the powerful lure of youth culture divides teens from their families. In addition, as more and more families fill their homes with surround sound theaters and other gadgets to plug into, socialization and communion dwindles. Family members become strangers.

These trends are also visible outside the home, as neighbors lose touch with one another and civic organizations wither for lack of participation. Hyper-consumerism creates a nation of selfish pleasure-seekers and loners.

Add up all these factors—including more stress, overwork, social isolation—and one begins to see why fatter paychecks have not brought more happiness.

“There’s evidence that people who place a high value on money, possessions, appearance and fame are more likely to be suffering from depression, anxiety and personality disorders,” says Oliver James, author of Affluenza (there are a few books by this title). In fact, the u.s.—particularly in its urban, industrialized areas—has the highest rate of mental illness in the world, with Britain, Australia and Canada following close behind.

Frankly, the way of get is making us sick.

How to Be Rich

The good news is, just diagnosing the problem can put us on the road to recovery in our own lives. We have already considered a few strategies for conquering the tendencies that produce dissatisfaction. They boil down to simply recognizing the ways that consumerism creates the illusion of fulfillment, and forgoing those pursuits in favor of something with substance.

What has substance? Where are the true riches in life? What really matters?

Clear your mind of the consumerist nonsense, and the answers quickly begin to come clear. Your family relationships. Loving your spouse. Teaching your children. Doing good for others. Making use of your talents and abilities. Seeking a relationship with God. Living a morally upright life. These are the things that fulfill us and satisfy us, the things that multiply our happiness.

This is true wealth. The degree to which we sacrifice these things in pursuit of material things, we become poorer.

If the way of get is making us sick, the way of give can make us well.

Researchers into the problems associated with mega-consumption have gravitated toward these sorts of answers. What they generally do not acknowledge, but what is patently obvious, is that such solutions point toward the ancient wisdom contained in the Holy Bible.

The message of the Bible is that human beings are incomplete—there is a void in our lives. That void can only be filled by God’s presence. Sensing that void, people try to fill it in any number of ways—in affluent societies, most commonly with things. But it is impossible to fill a spiritual void with material goods. Our book The Incredible Human Potential, which we offer to you free upon request, explains this truth in detail and shows how God can fill that void in your own life.

Jesus Christ tells us not to accumulate treasures on Earth, which can break down, fall apart or be stolen (Matthew 6:19). Instead, a Christian is to seek incorruptible spiritual treasures (verses 20-21).

The Apostle Paul offered this timeless wisdom: “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (see Colossians 3:1-2). He followed his own advice and remained always content, whatever his physical circumstances—rich or poor, better or worse (Philippians 4:11-12).

Here is Paul’s excellent advice to the rich—and surely the average American, Briton or Australian would qualify: “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed” (1 Timothy 6:17-19, Revised Standard Version). God richly furnishes us. Be rich in good deeds. Take hold of life indeed. It’s clear how applying this instruction would keep us free from the traps of wealth.

When we begin to set our affections on things on this Earth, it is easy to lose this perspective. There will always be plenty of material things we lack. Combat dissatisfaction by being thankful. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude for those blessings we already possess—particularly the spiritual blessings. When we concentrate on and worry about what we don’t have, we make ourselves poor. When we are grateful for and content with everything we do have, we discover how rich we truly are.

A lack of contentment is really a lack of perspective. If you are anxious about what you’ll eat or drink, your perspective is off, Christ instructs us. Just be thankful you have a life to sustain with food and drink! Don’t fret about clothes—be thankful you have a body to clothe! (read Matthew 6:25-34).

It goes against conventional consumerist wisdom to say so, but we must not be afraid of depriving our children of some things. What do our children want? Not things. Time. Time from Dad and Mom. Things can clutter their lives. When we detect in our children a feeling of entitlement, we need to scale back on some of those things. (Woe be to any of us when we start feeling entitled to what are actually luxuries.)

Doing so is simply following God’s example as a parent. Read the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy; it vividly shows how God walks the line between blessing His people and spoiling them. Just as the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, God had a powerful message for them—one extremely relevant in our world today. If you remain obedient, He told them, I’ll bless you abundantly! Then He reminded them of how much gratitude they owed Him for bringing them to where they were. Surely they looked back on their time in the wilderness as a massive trial—but God said, Look, I orchestrated that whole experience. I was right with you the whole time, and it was all for your spiritual benefit. Remember that. Now, as you enter the Promised Land, I want you to enjoy it to the full! But remember where it came from. That prosperity is not a result of your own doing! Be thankful, and don’t take it for granted.

How thoroughly up to date that speech is! God knows human nature well enough to know there is a danger of getting our minds too much onto physical things and off Him.

God has much to give; He could prosper each one of us to the heights in a minute! But He knows that instant prosperity can hurt us, and, if we let Him guide our lives, He only supplies what we can handle. Like any parent, He wants to bless us abundantly. But when He detects skewed perspective, then He thinks twice about blessing us. And sometimes He withholds blessings in order to benefit our character.

“Two things have I required of thee; deny me them not before I die,” reads a prayer recorded in Proverbs 30:7-9: “… [G]ive me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with food convenient for me: Lest I be full, and deny thee, and say, Who is the Lord? or lest I be poor, and steal, and take the name of my God in vain.” These few verses contain much wisdom. They provide insight into how God must reason when considering which blessings to extend to us and which to withhold.

In the end, God is primarily after our character development. Sometimes physical blessing helps us develop character. Sometimes deprivation helps us even more.

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (James 1:17). Make a mental list of all the good and perfect gifts your Father has given you. God even tells us to count our trials as blessings since, if we respond to them correctly, they produce positive spiritual growth in us (e.g. verses 2-3).

What peace and joy flood into our lives when we focus on the real, the true, the incorruptible, the eternal—when we can sincerely thank our great God for all the blessings He gives us, even our trials! Greed shrinks; discontent dissolves; materialism melts away. When thankfulness moves in, it brings its companion, contentment. This balanced perspective, on top of providing all of these benefits, will probably fatten your wallet.

That is how to truly be rich!