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“The Less Money Matters to You, the More Careful You Need to Be With It.”

Happiness interview: Zac Bissonnette.

I met personal finance expert Zac Bissonnette when we were on a panel together, and I was impressed by his command of the research and statistics related to working, debt, higher education costs, and money -- particularly because he was still in college! He's now entering his senior year at the University of Massachusetts.

His new book, Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents, just came out.

The relationship between money and happiness is one of the most complex, and most emotionally charged, topics within the large subject of happiness, so I was very interested to hear what Zac had to say.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Zac: A few years ago – when I was in high school -- my dad was going through a ton of financial problems that culminated in him living at a friend’s house.

My dad was born in 1948 and is a classic hippie; He lived in a treehouse in a state park for awhile in the early 1970s, he’s a carpenter, and he is probably the coolest, most loving person I know.

But he’s never really given much thought to money. He always said that it wasn’t important to him and that it didn’t matter. So I was sitting on the couch with him at his friend’s house watching the Red Sox (weirdly, this was the same game during which Denis Leary gave his famous pro-Jewish baseball player/anti-Mel Gibson rant, which is guaranteed to make you happy if you haven’t seen it before) and I asked him, just off the top of my head: “Who do you think thinks about money more? You or Bill Gates?”
And I’ll never forget his response: “Without a doubt, me. I spent my whole life thinking I was above money and that it didn’t matter and now it dominates my life and is all I think about. It’s like money is exacting its cruel revenge on me.”

I interviewed you once for a piece and you told me that “Money affects happiness primarily in the negative” and that’s exactly right. When it comes to happiness, the less money matters to you, the more careful you need to be with it. If you don’t like thinking about money and don’t pay enough attention to it, it will one day become all you think about.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
One of the most discouraging things I see in a lot of young people is a defeatist mentality when it comes to their financial lives: “Student loans are a fact of life, and I’ll be repaying them well into my forties. I wish Congress would do something to make my life better.” I remember a high school history teacher telling our class that in a joking way – “This is the way it is: You’re going to graduate with a bunch of debt and it will be with you for a long time.”

The problem with this defeatist mentality is that it leads people to lose the financial game without even trying to play it. What I’m saying is this: Before you resign yourself to $20,000, $30,000, or even $100,000 in student loans for an undergraduate education, stop and look at all the alternatives and get creative: Is there a way to do this debt-free? What if I attend a cheaper public college instead of a fancy private one? If I work 30-hour weeks during the summer, my parents drive their car an extra year instead of getting a new one, and we sell some stuff on eBay and cut back on dining out, can we make this work.

I started working when I was in high school and saved a huge chunk of everything I earned – enough that I’ve been able to pay for college in cash without help from my parents. That makes my mom happy and if mom’s happy, everybody’s happy.

What’s something that people think will make them happy – and put a lot of effort into getting – that often doesn’t lead to the desired result?
Without a doubt, it’s the college admissions game.

In recent years, we’ve seen a considerable amount of research showing that the financial benefits to attending an elite college are not as strong as most people think. A study at NYU found that, once you control for SAT scores and high school GPAs, at least 60% -- and possibly a lot more – of the gap in earnings between graduates of elite schools and graduates of non-elite schools is eliminated. A study conducted at Princeton found that students who get into elite schools but attend less selective schools earn the same amount of money as students who attend elite schools.

In other words, a tremendous amount of stress and an entire cottage industry of admissions gurus and magazines has been built around a shell game of selling people something that they often can’t afford that doesn’t deliver nearly the benefit that people are thinking it will – and very possibly doesn’t deliver any benefit at all. And they’re borrowing an amount of money that will impede their pursuit of happiness to make it happen and getting really stressed out in the process. It’s sad.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Everything in Gretchen’s book. [Awww, Zac!]

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
This is going to sound like a totally weird answer, especially because of my age – but I guess most answers to this question are probably strange.

When I’m not happy, I listen to Perry Como and it gives me an instant happiness boost. I first heard his version of ""Magic Moments" (an exceptionally cheesy, sentimental song) in the car with my mother when I was in sixth grade and, for whatever reason, ever since then I’ve turned to him for “feel good” music.

Incidentally, one of the better (and more apocryphal) quotes on happiness is sometimes attributed to Perry Como: “Happiness is a byproduct of making other people happy.”
If Debt-Free U can help people make college selection and financing decisions that will enable them to have a shot at the happy life that I believe everyone deserves, I’ll be happy.

* I was intrigued by this study which suggests that people who have something to do, even something pointless, are happier than those who are idle. One question about the study, however: the "something to do" was to take a walk, which itself boosts happiness. So was the effect from the mere activity or from the walking?

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