Money may not be able to buy happiness outright, but it sure can help.
That’s according to a new poll of around 2,000 people from financial services company Empower in conjunction with The Harris Poll, which found Americans believe they need to earn just over $284,000 per year to be happy. Currently, the median household in the U.S. earns around $74,580; respondents to Empower’s survey had a median salary of $65,000.
The true number needed to be happier may be smaller than that: the estimates of what’s needed are all relatively similar across generations—clocking in between $124,000 to $130,000 for Gen Z, Gen X, and baby boomers—except for millennials, an outlier who say they’d need $525,000, driving up the average. Empower credits the large discrepancy to “substantial headwinds millennials have experienced, including the 2008 financial crisis when many were entering the workforce, volatility brought on by the pandemic, and currently some of the highest inflation and mortgage rates in decades.”
Indeed, the generation has faced one financial setback after another, including those outlined by Empower as well as substantially more student loan debt than previous generations. An Empower spokesperson also pointed to the deterioration of pension plans and issues with Social Security weighing heavily on millennials. Plus, the pandemic and record high interest rates are also occurring during their core wealth accumulation years.
While the jump from the median income to $284,000 might seem large, there are also variations there. “For many, incremental gains can do wonders: $25,000 would increase 42% of Americans’ financial happiness for six months,” writes Empower. For a third of people, an extra $15,000 would do the trick, while 17% would be happier with just $5,000.
Still, most people surveyed said a median income of $95,000 would make them happy and less stressed. The highest earners, with a median income of $250,000, said $350,000 would do the trick.
That those who earn the most said they’d need the biggest raises to feel happier isn’t surprising; it is in line with prior research. The notion that happiness tops out at an annual salary of $75,000, for example, is an oft-quoted statistic that has been found to be flawed—and it doesn’t take a scientific study to figure out why. Inflation, rising interest rates, and student loan debt were just some of the stressors people pointed to in Empower’s poll. Indeed, more than 70% told the company having more money would solve most of their problems.
The secret to financial happiness
Empower doesn’t define happiness, or what happiness means. But respondents told the firm it has a lot to do with the simple stuff: being able to pay bills on time, being debt free, and having the ability to enjoy small luxuries, like a cup of coffee, without worry. Many pegged happiness as having a plan and being independent, and around 60% of Americans believe that money can indeed buy them that peace of mind.
There are some other generational differences when it comes to money. While 44% of Americans in general associate happiness with having a good work-life balance, 55% of millennials and 58% of Gen Z do—hardly a surprise to those who have paid attention to work trends like so-called quiet quitting and soft life over the past few years.
That said, it makes sense why millennials might have a skewed sense of how much money they need to be happy: 45% of respondents told Empower that owning a home is just as important to their financial well-being as having a good work-life balance. Though they are catching up somewhat in midlife, millennials have famously been locked out of the housing market—and with interest rates still significantly higher than they have been the past few years and prices around all-time highs, it is becoming increasingly difficult for first-time buyers to break into the current market. “Home equity has proven elusive, with less Millennials owning a place compared to previous generations, a major source of wealth creation for Gen X and Boomers,” an Empower spokesperson told Fortune.
Just 17% of respondents said reaching a certain net worth would bring them financial happiness. But if they had to put a number on it, it would be $1.2 million, on average. Once again, millennials quoted the highest net worth figure, close to $1.7 million. Gen X came in right around $1.2 million, boomers came it right under $1 million, and Gen Z said they’d need around $490,000.
That is a far cry from the current median net worth in America of $192,900, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (the average, skewed by richer Americans, clocks in at over $1 million).