7 smart ways to buy happiness

Money may be tight, but that doesn't mean you have to stop spending altogether. Rather, use these tips to get the most joy for your cash.

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By MP Dunleavey

After the supercharged spending spree so many Americans have been on these past few years, using your money to buy a happier, more satisfying way of life turns out to be the wisest move you could make.

Here's why: Countless studies have shown that most humans fail to realize what makes them happy. Typically, we spend on short-term glitz instead of long-term satisfaction. And that often leads to misery -- not to mention loads of debt.

Right now, we all need to make a giant U-turn. When money's tight, it's vital to spend in a way that yields the biggest payoff, emotionally as well as financially. Buying more stuff just won't do it.

What follows are seven ways you can use your wallet to turn around your life and your finances. (That's a big promise, but I wouldn't say it if I hadn't experienced it myself.)

1. Relationships

Friends, Romans, countrymen, kids and spousal units: Studies indicate we're happiest when we feel connected to others. People with strong relationships tend to be happier and healthier, and live longer on average, according to psychologist Martin Seligman and many other researchers.

Buy a Porsche or go fishing?

How can you invest more in these bonds of family and friendship? Splurge on a plane ticket to see your best friend. Get your buddies together and buy season tickets to your favorite team -- or the opera. Treat a friend to dinner.

After all, what would really make your month -- another pair of shoes from Piperlime or spending time with someone you love?

2. Time

Would you trade some of the money you make to have more time? A survey by Fortune magazine indicated most people would. Time is one asset that always seems to be in short supply; a free hour or two (or an unexpected day off) can feel like a windfall.

To buy yourself some time:

  • As part of a raise or promotion, ask for additional time off.

  • Explore flex-time options. A surprising number of companies support flexible work programs.

  • Consider paying others to do the chores you loathe because they eat up your time, from hiring a teen to do yardwork to paying a pro to do your taxes, paint the kitchen or organize the garage.

For a little bit of money, you can regain a chunk of your life.

3. Health

Some good health can be chalked up to genetics, but a lot of the rest is lifestyle. And buying good health is a lot like investing in the stock market: Steady investments at regular intervals are the best way to see big gains.

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A few suggestions: Pay a bit more to join the gym that's closer to where you work, so you'll actually use it. Shell out for biweekly acupuncture visits. Buy the pricier healthful meal instead the Happy Meal. And take your vitamins.

4. Learning

Humans are born to grow. Research by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced "CHIK-sent-mee-high"), who created the concept of "flow" -- the state of wholly contented absorption in a task -- suggests we are often happiest when engaged in activities that challenge us and hold our focus.

You've been there: when you played in that garage band, when you went scuba diving on vacation, when you determinedly embarked on "War and Peace" and then couldn't put it down. Put your money there.

Buy the damn compact disc set so you can brush up on your Mandarin. Join the local archaeology club and do local digs. Try rock climbing. Or put away your air guitar and restart that garage band. You don't need to spend much to notice the uptick in sheer joie de vivre.

5. Debt relief

Owing money downgrades your quality of life, creating so much stress that it may even make you sick or depressed, according to some studies.

Keeping your money emotions in check

Stop viewing your credit card bills as bad news; instead, treat them like updates on an underperforming asset class. By doubling or tripling your monthly payments, cutting back spending and doing everything in your power to bring your debts down to zero, you won't just be paying a bill -- you'll be increasing your own net worth.

Need a hand? MSN Money is packed with get-out-of-debt brilliance.

6. Giveaways

A surprise benefit of giving to others, or to a cause you believe in, is how good it makes you feel.

Studies show that altruism not only tickles the feel-good centers in the brain, but it also creates a sense of social bonding and mutual support that enhances your personal well-being.

You don't have to give millions to get that payoff. The most important thing isn't whether you spend money or volunteer time or contribute goods, but that whatever you share -- and however you share it -- means a lot to you.

Read to kids after school; bring canned food to a shelter; contact Kiva and help a South African woman build her business. There are countless ways to give. Just pick one that makes you happy.

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7. Security

In an economic crisis like this one, it's tempting to stop putting money aside for the long term, but taking the reins of your future will make you feel more in control now and will beef up that cushion you might need someday.

Investing in . . . investing

A first step is to sign up for your company retirement plan (many Americans don't) or open an individual retirement account. At some companies, such as Fidelity, you can open an account with very little money as long as you set up automatic contributions.

Retirement is a huge topic, you can read more here at MSN Money. Making small, steady investments now can create double happiness: peace of mind now and greater wealth down the road.

Here's the real magic: When you start putting more money toward life (and less toward stuff), that shift quickly turns your financial picture from upside down to right side up. You spend less, but get more -- and in feeling more satisfied, reduce your desire to spend.

The net effect is more money saved, less debt and a sense of financial control and well-being -- oh, and more happiness. Now that's what I call getting your money's worth.

Published Nov. 27, 2008