2.2.2.2 If less is more, then more is also less
Less of one thing means more of another, and money is only a small part of this

There’s no such thing as a free lunch

‘Less’ and ‘more’ both come with a cost, because they indicate a trade, not a state to be aimed for
‘Less is more’ usually indicates incoming idiocy.
It could be the wise motto of a person who’s internalised seeing the opportunity cost of every money decision. Of someone who sees beyond myopic money boundaries, and knows that more of one thing is always less of another. Who when presented with a ‘more’ is on alert for the corresponding ‘less’. Who is on guard against the narrowing of options that characterises the salesperson’s surreptitious art.[1] Who, in short, sees less and more not as isolated signals of deprivation and abundance, but as two sides of a trade.
Such a person wouldn’t be caught comparing House A to House B without also comparing both to retiring 20 years sooner. They’d acknowledge that choosing between a holiday to Budapest or Bucharest may be easier, but choosing between any holiday and coaching in one’s favourite pastime, say, is wiser.
Recall the couple from the story that opened this chapter: they discovered less job wasn’t only less money, but more time with children, and more energy in that time (among a host of other things). Parents on the whole know that having children means less of everything tangible and more of stuff that isn’t.
There are, naturally, opportunity costs everywhere, from the mental clutter associated with material clutter, to worries about loss associated with possessions of any kind. Becoming wiser with money is in part a process of seeing opportunity costs as clearly as monetary ones. And – because thoroughly analysing opportunity costs with every decision is impossible – of establishing them as the decision-making default.
Rewiring ourselves in this way is vital, because some lessons can be learnt only in hindsight. For example, most of us understand that the worst in-the-moment events often have the best long-term effects; but few understand it so well that the next apparently terrible moment inspires not a cascade of negative emotions, but sparks an immediate speculation for what the bright side will turn out to be.
However, when we hear ‘less is more’, this web of wiser thinking is never what it means. Its common translation is: ‘simple is better’.[2] And in the contexts in which it’s often used, this is dangerous.
*
‘Less is more’ is used to justify moving away from a ‘more’. Not on the grounds that the (total, opportunity) cost is too high, but on the grounds that ‘more’ is bad. Whether emblematic of an ideology or simply sour grapes, it’s the sign of a mind stuck in self-deception.
The judgment is still firmly numerical, rather than narrative: something is good because it is small in number, not because that small number is telling a better story. Even when the aim is ‘having’ less, the focus is still the having something, not the process of becoming something. And by sounding like a conscious conclusion, it masks understanding rather than increases it. Blindly swinging via soundbites from one unconscious conclusion to another is evidence of avoiding thinking, not doing any.
This isn’t about minimalism; it’s about making better money decisions. Minimalism can be a means to seeing more clearly, but it’s commonly used instead as an excuse for not looking. This isn’t about the output: two people can end up in the exact same external place (say, identically furnished homes, or identical investment portfolios) and it be right for one and wrong for the other. Financial Enlightenment is a participatory process, not a destination.
Minimalism is better than Mammonism, because it’s inherently less wasteful, but it’s still stuck playing the same self-deceptive game. As with the earning maximisers v spending minimisers we saw earlier,[3] minimalism can be useful as a temporary means towards a greater end – cutting back on everything before building back up only what’s truly important, based on a more conscious examination of one’s life. But it is not an end in itself. Seeing minimalism as an end in itself doesn’t so obviously waste resources, but it’s delaying the decision on how to allocate them, not making it.
In the grand cost-benefit analysis of life, self-deceived minds are blinded by the benefits, and blind to the costs. We see mansions, but not the unenjoyed hours. We see titles, but not the existential turmoil. We see the abilities projected, but not the responsibilities repressed. We see the show of wealth performance, not the reality of wealth possession. We remain blind to what Thoreau deemed the real cost of a thing: ‘the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it.’[i]
I’ve been lucky on this score. Firstly, by studying economics. As noted earlier, the specific models you see in an economics textbook are notoriously mostly nonsense, but that’s not the point. You train to see trades. Everywhere. Secondly, with a career in financial planning, I ended up in the best position to see inside the heads of those that had the most money to trade. You think any one of them woke up every morning and felt good about their mansions anew? Of course not: it was just a house. The same way everyone else’s house is just a house.[4] No 'gratitude journal' can change that.

The billion-pound thought experiment

Having more money requires more working out what to do with it. Not less. More money provides more opportunity for turning it into a Good Life, but this doesn’t just happen. The unexamined life doesn’t stop being not worth living because there are more monetary opportunities you’re not examining.
One of the most disappointing aspects of working in financial planning is being reminded that one of the main motivations for racking up stacks of cash is to avoid thinking about how to allocate it. As above, we err when we see money only in terms of ability rather than responsibility. This is moronic. Failing to think about money is a guaranteed way to waste it. To pursue money so you don’t have to think about it is to believe that being able to spend blindly without going broke is a better aim than using your money to improve your life.
Imagine you have enough money to do absolutely whatever you want. The sort of sum that leaves you zero excuses for not being able to open doors, realise dreams, mould the world as you see fit. Now double it. For the sake of argument, let’s call it £500 million.[5] Now imagine someone gives you another £500 million. Remember, the first £500 million was enough for you to live as perfectly as possible. So this second one is a detraction from that. There are worse burdens, but it is a burden nonetheless. Even if you just give it away, there are costs to doing so. And of course a huge amount of responsibility. You’re basically a mini government, or aid organisation, whether you want to be or not. You know the enormous good £500 million can do. You have to be some sort of monster to just blow it or burn it. But your perfect life didn’t include making this decision.
Travel back from your imaginary billion to your real-life sum. At what point does the responsibility go away?

Healthy balance

There are few things for which more is always better; money is not one of them
I’d like you to meet Nigel. Nigel was an awkward, miserable, client. The sort of smart-arse pernickety type that made my boss hunt for excuses to not see him. For most financial advisers of the ex-insurance salesmen variety, clients that ask questions are the worst part of the job.
Nigel’s business, which seemed to cause him nothing but grief, and which he stuck with more because he’d built it than because he liked it, was looking like it could be sold.
‘So how much would be enough?’ my boss asked. ‘How much would be enough to do whatever you felt like for the rest of your life?’
‘£2.5 million,’ Nigel rushed back, clearly having calculated it already.
Fast forward six months. Nigel’s back. He’s brought his wife with him, albeit it looks like this was not his choice. He’s sold his business.
‘So how much did you get?’
‘£10 million.’
‘Wow. Congratulations. So is that it? Have you left yet, or are you still winding down?’
His wife smiled. Or rather smirked.
‘No, no. I’m staying on, actually. I’ve an earn-out deal that means if I stay for another five years, albeit without a salary – I get another £15 million.’
Nigel had no plans for this extra money, of course. He’d already got four times as much as his ‘enough to do anything’ sum. In his hunt for justification, he did not say anything about what he’d do with the money, for himself, or others. Instead he bumbled out some noises about stewarding the business, and ‘being there’ for his team. After none of these survived an interrogation that never progressed beyond a gentle tickling, my boss was moved to suggest that whatever message Nigel was struggling to send, the one being received was that Nigel was choosing to spend his time with his colleagues rather than with his wife and two young children. His wife agreed.
Nigel wasn’t really choosing this, of course. But when a brain wired by a lifetime of unhelpful messages about money met a great big sack of it, he saw only numbers, blind to their more important narrative consequences. Through the narrow lens of ’20 years to make £10 million, and only five more to make another 15!’ there was only one choice. His wife, however, could see other choices more clearly. Ones that would undoubtedly enrich their lives in ways extra money could not.
In the end, Nigel walked away from the job. He still sends my old boss a card every year to thank him for the tickles.
*
As Nigel and our billion-pound thought experiment show, when we widen our sights, and see the trade-offs inherent in every decision, we see that more money is not always a Good Thing. The only things for which it can be half-decently argued that more is always better are not bought, or earned, but experienced as side-effects. Your life cannot be too Good, you cannot be too wise, or too courageous, or too thoughtful, or too loving, etc. Though you can spend too much money, time, or energy actively trying to become these things.[6]
A common defence of a blind devotion to chasing more money as an unalloyed good is that money can be used to buy time. This is true, of course. Just as it’s true that we buy money with time and energy, commonly by selling our best time and energy to an employer.[7]
Far too much ‘buying time’ would be better avoided by cutting out the middleman. But when stuck believing that more numbers are better numbers, it’s easy to fall into the trap that selling health to buy money and then using that money to pay for a personal trainer is better than living healthily for free in the first place.
Moreover, most of the people you hear preaching about ‘buying time’ are doing nothing of the sort. They’re mostly trying to justify being incapable of finding enjoyment in doing the washing up or using public transport. No one shouts louder about buying time than a workaholic that is too stressed to enjoy simply breathing, and believes if something is free it cannot possibly be fulfilling.
*
The Good Life is not a weighted average. Drift too far from ‘enough’ on any component, and life as a whole starts to suffer. And money is by miles the area where most drifting into excess happens, and will continue to happen unless we rid ourselves of the belief that more of it is always better.
Nigel’s additional money did not offset health or relationship concerns. Yet he – and countless others – act as if it does. What makes Nigel worse is that throughout his life, nothing had ever stood in the way of the chance to fulfil his potential.[8] I never met a client that wouldn’t swap millions in the bank for better health into middle- and old-age. But hold up a mirror to how they’d dedicated their lives up to that point to doing the exact opposite and they’d look away, refusing to acknowledge that they’d firstly made some poor choices, and secondly still had plenty of time to correct them. They’d use their money not for improving their health, but for making it ever-easier to stay sedentary.
*
The Greeks had a word, sophrosyne – which conceptualised an idea of excellence of character and soundness of mind. When combined in one well-balanced individual, this combo naturally gave rise to other virtues – such as decorum and self-control – as side-effects. Though often translated as ‘temperance’ or ‘moderation’, these suggest ‘settling’, which sophrosyne shouldn’t. Sophrosyne – like ‘enough’ in the context of this section – has nothing to do with settling. It is a form of self-control, but in the sense of rejoicing in control by yourself, not by others, as opposed to desiring and then denying something.
It is an active understanding and embracing of the balance that makes for a Good Life. It is a means of tempting yourself into the Good Life, by engaging with the actions that cultivate it. It is a bridge between where you are and where you want to be. It links the apprehensive feelings associated with the short-term discomfort attached to any sort of desirable growth with the excitement of doing that growing. Once you’ve got there, not only is the apprehension gone away, but so is the yearning to fulfil that part of your potential. It is the thrill a fearless child feels on going to a music lesson to spend an hour being crap at playing an instrument.
As anyone who’s ever stood on a slackline knows only too embarrassingly, balance is active, not passive. Balance isn’t about not moving; it’s about incredibly refined, skilful movement. It is the opposite of the soul-killing existential inertia we looked at in Part One.[9]
Importantly, balancing in life, like balancing on a slackline, happens as a side-effect. All good outcomes do. You don’t balance by trying to balance. You balance by making the right movements that each in-the-moment set of circumstances require. Do this often enough, and you start to do it automatically. The work is not in the performance but in controlling your environment in order to learn. If you’re striving after it, you’re doing it wrong.
And whereas when learning it may be helpful to break down those movements into each arm, or foot, or toe, or core, it works only when you put it all back together and see the body as a whole. Moving from seeing isolated numbers to a whole human is the purpose of this chapter.
Money management means nothing if it’s not part of human-meaning management. Nigel learnt, and the rest of us should remember, that ‘Any man who does not think that what he has is more than ample is an unhappy man, even if he is the master of the whole world.’[ii]

Can you count?

To make wiser decisions, recognise that you cannot count accurately
You may have been doing it since you were three, but you’re crap at counting. Don’t worry, everybody is. Sure, you can add one to any given number, but you can’t count in a meaningful way. Recognising this is key to making wiser decisions.
In terms of how numbers translate to meaning, counting tends to go something like: one, two, three, some, lots, loads. We’ve seen how important precise appreciation of opportunity costs can be to making wiser decisions. Recognising commonly overlooked inputs is crucial, but if you can’t count them properly, your decision-making could still suck.
When it comes to getting a grip on making the most of your resources, it would be great if you could appropriately distinguish between a million and a billion, but you can’t. No one cares 1,000 times more about a billion than a million. They’re both ‘loads’. One is intellectually a bit bigger than the other, but in terms of guiding our actions, one unimaginably large number is pretty much the same as the next one.
This is a problem, because to make wiser decisions, we often need to be sensitive to this sort of scale, but our decisions are driven by feelings that aren’t up to the job. In these situations, we need to find a way to delegate the decisions to the calculators. This often feels weird and inhuman, but not doing so could lead to inhuman actions.
This is felt most keenly in donating to charity, where our gifts tend to be subject to the assertion possibly misattributed to Stalin, that ‘a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ One ‘identifiable victim’ will forever exert more influence over our wallets than a million otherwise identical souls.
As Nate Soares wrote:[iii]
The loss of a human life with all is joys and all its sorrows is tragic no matter what the cause, and the tragedy is not reduced simply because I was far away, or because I did not know of it, or because I did not know how to help, or because I was not personally responsible. Knowing this, I care about every single individual on this planet. The problem is, my brain is simply incapable of taking the amount of caring I feel for a single person and scaling it up by a billion times. I lack the internal capacity to feel that much. My care-o-meter simply doesn't go up that far. And this is a problem.
This isn’t just about charity (though as we’ll see later, that has a uniquely important role to play in – selfishly – allocating resources towards each individual interpretation of a Good Life). Just as Soares continues, that ‘prominent altruists aren't the people who have a larger care-o-meter, they're the people who have learned not to trust their care-o-meters’, so those living well aren’t those that are better calculators of the opportunity cost of every decision. They’re the ones who’ve learned to better control their decision-making machinery. Who’ve learnt to live examined lives with a view to focusing on what makes their lives better and ignoring everything else. Who’ve learnt, as per our earlier discussion of ‘the two types of financial errors’,[10] to cultivate better filters for problem formulation, and better processes for problem solving.
Alas, the mind-altering drug of ‘more’ makes us abandon any idea of a filter. And it doesn’t matter how great your processing power is if you’re tidying up stuff that should’ve just been thrown away.[11]
There is, however, a potential upside. Our inability to cope with big numbers is bad when thinking about the world, but it could be good if we’re thinking only of ourselves. If we learnt to trust that we were incapable of feeling any different if we hoarded wealth on any part of the ‘loads’ scale, from ‘can easily afford the odd holiday’ to ‘billionaire’, we’d probably waste less of our lives trying to gain more wealth simply for the sake of it and do something a bit more meaningful instead. We may come to understand, as explained by Derren Brown in Happy, that ‘while it remains clear that having less than you need is a source of unhappiness, having more than you need does not make you happier.’[iv]

I hope you found this useful. If you did, sign up to get regular insights in your inbox. If you didn't, sign up to get extra content as redress.

Have something to say? Go here. Witty comments welcomed. Insightful ones win prizes. Reading guaranteed. Replying not.

---
[1] As described in ‘Are you a human being or a human having?’ in the previous section.
[2] Add footnote when written up simple-complicated-complex bit somewhere
[4] Beyond a very low threshold of it not falling apart, or forcing you to fall over people that bring you down.
[5] The number is, of course, irrelevant. If you believe you need more than this to live as perfectly as possible, or indeed spend more than a few seconds trying to work out what your ‘number’ is, by all means pick a bigger number, though please do also seek help. If you believe you need billions to live as well as you possibly can, something is truly, terribly, wrong, and you need faster and better help than any book will ever be able to provide.
[6] This is not the place to dig more deeply into this, as it mostly leads to an unhelpful fight over definitions of what, say, being ‘too loving’ really means. For our purposes, it is enough to conclude, with Epicurus, that ‘Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.’
[7] And not only the contracted hours, of course, as anyone who’s ever ‘taken their work home’ in the form of stressed shoulders and poor posture knows only too well and ignores only too easily.
[8] As per Part 1, Section 4.1, ‘watching people squander opportunities is never joyful…’ – maybe even more so for a Nigel than for a Messi or a Michelangelo, given there are so many more Nigels out there.
---
[i] Henry David Thoreau, Walden
[ii] Epicurus, quoted in Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic
[iii] Nate Soares, On Caring, http://mindingourway.com/on-caring
[iv] Derren Brown, Happy