There is an old saying that we should stop once we’ve had enough.
But here is a question: what is enough?
Not too little.
Not too much.
Can you define it? Is it feeling satiated? Comfortably fulfilled? Needing no more? Wanting no more?
The dictionary describes enough as possessing “as much or as many as required” or “the required degree or extent”.
Which seems a bit vague and subjective. How do we determine what is required?
Back to the dictionary. Required is defined as “officially compulsory, or otherwise considered essential; indispensable”. Which sounds definitive. The meeting of a need.
But then that certainty immediately gets watered down by the next definition of required, “in keeping with one’s wishes; desired”. Desired? That sounds like a want, not a need.
Two very different things.
You need to eat. Why? Because, according to the timeless wisdom of my father: “if you don’t eat, you don’t shit, and if you don’t shit you die”. It is hard to argue with that kind of logic.
You want to win the lottery. Why? So that you will have enough.
Enough so that you no longer have to work.
Enough so that you no longer need to worry.
Enough so that you can do anything you want.
Would you recognise “enough” when you saw it?
Be consciously aware of it in the moment? At the point of decision making?
Is it something that we recognise at the time? In a similar manner to the way we recognise art. Attraction. Ethics. Obscenity. Talent.
Or is “enough” only knowable in hindsight? Something reflected upon once the outcome was determined?
Like the difference between bravery and stupidity. Grit or stubbornness. Investing or speculation.
Many years ago, my friend Lewis and I used to visit the buffet at Pizza Hut. We took the “all you can eat” promotion as a personal challenge. Repeatedly lining up for more. Until we had either eaten our body weight in pizza or been asked to leave by a store manager horrified at watching their profits being physically consumed before their very eyes.
Eventually advancing age, and driving a desk for a living, conspired to slow my metabolism. I reached the age where I could no longer outrun a dubious diet that included too much beer and pizza.
My adventures with Lewis taught me a few valuable lessons about “enough”.
The first lesson was “just because I can eat a whole pizza doesn’t mean that I should”. I became mindful of portion size. Of eating out of hunger rather than habit or boredom. Of how much effort was involved in working off what I consumed. In short, of being consciously aware of when I had enough.
The second lesson was related to what became known as the patented “Lewis manoeuvre”. This involved my friend disappearing into the bathroom moments before the restaurant bill arrived, and only emerging again once it had been paid. Lewis never had “enough” money!
While Lewis exhibited miserly tendencies, he had good reason. As a teenager, he had listened to all those “if I only knew then what I know now” financial stories told by friends and family.
“I wish I had gotten on the property ladder earlier”.
“The best time to buy a property was 20 years ago”.
“80 years ago my grandparents bought their house for £500. Today it is worth over £1,000,000”.
“Rent is dead money, paying down your landlord’s mortgage rather than your own”.
As soon as he turned 18, Lewis bought an overpriced flat in a poor location on the outskirts of town. He paid for it using a 100% interest only mortgage, a self-certifying “liar’s loan”. He had no savings, so he borrowed the buying costs too.
For a time, Lewis felt pretty good about life. He had “enough”.
He owned his own home, at a younger age than anybody he knew. A home he could do what he liked with. A home nobody could ever take away from him. Providing shelter. Certainty. Security.
His cashflow was under control, the interest only mortgage payments were slightly less than the neighbourhood market rent. Best of all, he didn’t have to worry about maintaining the building and grounds, the building’s management company took care of all that hassle.
Somewhat predictably, all good things come to an end.
Within relatively quick succession the property market tanked, interest rates surged, and the building’s owner went to war with its management company over alleged misappropriation of funds.
Lewis’s dream turned into a nightmare.
He couldn’t afford to stay in the flat, the higher mortgage interest payments were beyond his means.
He couldn’t afford to sell, the lower market prices would no longer clear the outstanding mortgage balance. A negative equity trap.
He couldn’t afford the eye-watering supplementary service charge, required to pay for urgent building repairs once the sinking fund had been exhausted by legal fees.
Lewis felt totally and utterly screwed.
In a similar situation, some of us would have rented out a room to a lodger to help with cashflow. Others would have moved somewhere cheaper, and rented the whole flat out to tenants.
Ever the lateral thinker, Lewis decided to get married. Proposing to his then girlfriend. Inviting her to move in. Talking up economies of scale achieved through cohabitating. Hoping her wages would tide him over until property prices recovered.
The lesson was that living beyond our means produces a feeling that there can never be “enough”.
Four years later, Lewis’s wife had “enough”. They got divorced.
The flat was flogged off. Bought for a song by a cashed-up investor, who found opportunity in the misfortune of others.
There was no communal property to divvy up. No spoils of war to carry off. Everything had been sold to try and bridge the gap between the high mortgage balance and low property price.
His now ex-wife walked away with nothing.
Lewis was forced to swallow his pride and borrow the shortfall from those same family members who had espoused the wonders of homeownership.
Collectively they shared more unsolicited housing wisdom.
“Too much house”.
“Too much debt”.
“Much too soon”.
Rather than being disappointed or distraught at the shitty hand life had dealt him, Lewis felt an overwhelming sense of relief. A vast weight had been lifted from his shoulders. The flat had represented living life according to the expectations of others. What he “should” do.
He was done with that now.
No house meant no mortgage.
No mortgage meant no further need to continue working in a soul-destroying job. In an unfulfilling profession chosen solely for its earning potential. At the end of an epic commute that consumed more waking hours than any sane person would voluntarily endure.
He felt free.
Lewis quit his job. Packed up his things. Jumped on a plane bound for somewhere with better weather and a lower cost of living. He had always fancied the idea of being a charter boat captain. Living a simple life spent taking tourists out fishing, diving, or island hopping by day. Enjoying the company of his neighbours at the local watering hole by night.
He didn’t earn much. But that was ok, because his new lifestyle didn’t cost much. He made “enough”.
Needing little. Wanting less.
Some of the difference was set aside for the day he could captain no more. His new surroundings were enjoyable for the able-bodied and self-sufficient. They wouldn’t be much fun when either of those things no longer held true.
The rest trickled back to repay the loan to his family. He wasn’t in any hurry, his benevolent backers considered it an advance on a future inheritance.
The third lesson was that “enough” wasn’t a number.
Neither a static trophy figure, that ignores changes in purchasing power over time. Nor an assumed cash flow stream capable of covering anticipated lifestyle costs based on our current tastes and priorities.
“Enough” was a perspective. A feeling. Appreciative and content with what we already have. Aware that while there could always be more, the yearning for it fades from behavioural driver to background noise.
Lewis figured that out younger than most.
Many of us don’t get there until old age takes away the option of “more”. No time left to recover. Forcing us to making our peace with what we have. Accept that this is all there is. Then make the best of it.
For some of us, there can never be “enough“. Always yearning. Never satisfied. Ambitious to the very end.