How Much is Enough?

This article appears in the Spring Issue of RealLife Magazine:

There is a question that John D. Rockefeller was once asked by a reporter.  “How much money is enough?”.  His response was, “Just a little bit more.”

It is a common human affliction that we are unable to balance wanting more with having enough.  It’s the tug of war that we play between today and tomorrow, between spending and saving.  And it’s good and bad.

Every day there are close to 8 billion people waking up on planet Earth with the drive and aspiration to better themselves and their lives.  This evolutionary instinct in each of us is part of the reason why humans have been so successful and why life continues to improve year after year.  There is a collective benefit to the human race in each individual wanting more. 

For the individual itself though, I question the benefit.  Some people go through life never having an answer to the question “how much is enough”.  The constant search for more leaves them stuck on a never-ending treadmill and further and further from contentment, joy and peace.


Michael Norton of Harvard Business School asked people how happy they were on a scale of one to ten and how much more money they would need in order to reach ten.  The answers?  Everyone said two to three times as much money, regardless of how much they had. 

Norton says that when we think about how satisfied we are, we ask ourselves two questions.  Am I doing better than I was before?  And Am I doing better than other people?  Money is an easy(ish) dimension in which to compare yourself so we look to things like the size of our house, or the number of houses, or the type of car we drive to answer those two questions.

The problem is that knowing how much is enough is hard.  Vicki Robin (author of Your Money or Your Life) defines enough as “the quality of having everything you need and want but nothing in excess, nothing that burdens you.”  Brian Portnoy wrote in The Geometry of Wealth, “Enough is hard.  It is harder than more.” 

Studies have shown that the transition from work to retirement can be one of the unhappiest times of our life because it’s right then in that moment that we stop chasing more.  We suppress an evolutionary part of us – the part of our brain that says more is always better.

Gratitude is a key component of feeling like you have enough.  Epictetus, the Greek Stoic Philosopher, is quoted as saying “He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” 

If you find yourself thinking ‘just a little bit more’ my challenge to you is to question the sort of life you want to lead.  Have a conversation with your partner, bring the topic up.  If you want to answer the question, you probably won’t do it alone.

I leave you with a quote from fellow blogger, Michael Batnick.

At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, the late Kurt Vonnegut informs his pal, author Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel, Catch-22, over its whole history. Heller responds, “Yes, but I have something he will never have – enough.