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I’m not rich but I’m very happy

My personal take on how money & happiness mix together.

Tam Pham
Tam Pham
8 min read
I’m not rich but I’m very happy

My personal take on how money & happiness mix together

I feel like the people who say they’re not rich, are actually millionaires. And the people who say they’re very happy, are actually depressed…

So believe me when I say that I’m actually not rich AND I’m genuinely content with my life. 😂 😅

So let’s back up for a second. What is this?

I've always been curious about how people think about life’s most important areas.

Money, happiness, health, love, friendships, work, death, etc.

So I plan to write about my own mental models and share them here.

Why? Well, I think it’s fun to think about.

And more importantly, I hope I serve as a data point to see how aligned or far off we are.

I’m not trying to impose that my way is the right way. But I love reading about how ordinary people think about life.

Because people are WILD.

I don't think people share honestly enough. But hearing the inner workings of someone's mind is SO valuable and interesting.

So if you’re intrigued, here’s part 1 on something we all can't live without. Money.

I’ve honestly never cared about money.

Now, my folks weren’t balling when I grew up. My folks escaped the Vietnam war and immigrated to the states with nothing. They went to school, chose stable jobs, and worked their asses off for 30+ years (and counting).

Because of their huge sacrifices, my childhood was pretty cushy.

  • Never had to worry about food on the table
  • Always had a roof over my head in a safe neighborhood
  • Joined sports leagues, math programs, and boy scouts growing up

I’ve had multiple jobs since I was 14, but it was mostly for fun. I drove a used Yaris during my senior year of high school. I took out student loans for college. But I dropped out one year later, partly due to financial reasons.

So we weren’t no crazy rich Asians. But did I have a privileged upbringing? Absolutely.

Because things were so stable, I’ve never had to worry about my basic needs. And this abundance mentality has carried on throughout my life.

  • I could intern at cool startups without needing a paycheck.
  • I could work on a project without needing to generate revenue.

How freaking fortunate is that!?

My reckless financial decisions

When I first explored the tech world, I came across a blog post from investor Hunter Walk that stuck with me.

"Learn in your 20s. Earn in your 30s."

He was actually referring to how young people should navigate their startup careers. But I resonated with the sentiment of using your 20s to invest in yourself. Then worry about earning money later.

So I did just that, maybe to the extreme.

  • I hired a life coach. I hired a stylist. I’ve spent a bad amount on online programs, courses, and books.
  • I traveled all over the states. I made a trip to Thailand, South Africa, Mexico. + more.
  • I used all my life savings (and even had to borrow $6,000 from friends, another privilege) to go on a chess sabbatical.
  • I moved to Toronto (moving to a new country is expensive) for a new job. Made money again for three years. And then…
  • Blew all my life savings again when I traveled to Mexico and Spain for a Bachata/Spanish sabbatical

These might sound irrational and risky to most people.

Who takes six months off for a sabbatical? Who drops out of college? Why would someone move to Canada? Who pays for a life coach?

Soy yo. 😅

But let's look deeper. Why did I feel comfortable making these risky decisions?

The truth: I had a safety net.

If things went south, I could get a marketing job. I could start a side hustle. I could work as a chess teacher. I could live with my mom. I could live with my friends for a bit. I could ask my friends for a loan. I could beg my professional network for a job.

So these decisions aren't as risky at second glance. While you still may disagree, having context (hopefully) makes it easier to understand why someone would behave in this way.

Having backup plans are a HUGE privilege. If my circumstances were like my parents, I’d probably take stable jobs and save as much money as I can.

But our upbringing and situations are not the same. So it makes sense that our decisions shouldn’t be the same.

I can still learn from others. But in reality, all advice is autobiographical. People share what has worked for them in their specific situations, time period, etc.

So I like to understand their context first, take the parts I resonate with, and simply ignore the rest. After lots of trial and error, I feel like I've found clarity with what works for me and my situation.

Here are three money philosophies that have guided me through my 20s.

#1 — The point of having money is to not worry about money

If I had $100 million in the bank, I’d probably invest $15 million in index funds. Give $80 million away to my community + donations. and have $5 million on hand for whatever I want to do.

I’d think it would be really fun to give money away.

  • Surprise my mom with a house.
  • Pay off all my friends’ student loans.
  • Buy property, rent out the rooms at the lowest rate possible (to break even), and be the kindest landlord.
  • Drop $100k to 100 effective charities/non-profits. And $1 million donations to 50 organizations and causes that I really love.  
  • Have a “dreams” scholarship to give money to folks to follow their dreams.

Wholesome stuff like this. ☺️

I might open a cafe + bookstore with a gathering space to host events. Or a dance studio + language school. Something fun that suits my passions. 🙂 

Then when I die, I’ll give everything away.

My friend Alex heard this and thought I was crazy. With $100 million, he’d immediately invest in real estate and have Airbnbs all around the world.

Tam: Oh cool man. I never knew you were into real estate.

Alex: I’m not, but it’s a good investment. And it’s free money.

Tam: But why do you need more money? You already have $100 million.

Alex: Well… it’s a good investment.

Tam: So are you going to scout the locations? Find and hire property managers to run everything? Manage listings, logistics, and fires that will eventually show up?

Alex: Ah... I’ll find a right-hand person to manage everything.

Tam: Searching for someone still takes time. Especially for someone you trust to manage a lot of assets. This kinda sounds like a job. 🤷‍♂️

I've had dozens of conversations like these with friends and I never understood the logic.

Why choose to work (when you don’t need to) to make more money?

I'm not talking about avoiding all types of work. But there are two distinctions:

  1. Work you do for money, like your day job
  2. Work you do for meaning, like raising a family, learning a craft, starting a charity, building a home, etc.

If you’re into day trading or angel investing or real estate or web3 or whatever hobby that just so happens to be making money, that’s cool. Use your money to pursue your passions.

Personally, I have zero interest. I'd rather do things that I'm actually interested in. And give away the money to people who need it.

There were countless opportunities for me to make money over the past several years. I could have created a course on running virtual events at the height of the pandemic. Or be a chess streamer/YouTuber when the chess boom hit. Or even make this blog an actual business.

But I already have a full-time job that supports my life. Instead of building something purely for $, I'd rather go dance. Or hang out with friends. Or write freely here.

The whole point of having money is to not worry about it ever again.

#2 — You are already rich

This headline might sound insulting. But when I compare my life to the rest of the world, I live like a king.

I first learned about this model from the book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

This visual illustrates how the world population lives.

  1. Level 1 makes up of people who earn less than $2 a day and live in extreme poverty.
  2. Level 2 makes up of people who earn between $2 and $8 a day. Almost half the world’s population lives at this income level.
  3. Level 3 makes up of people who live between $8 – $32 per day.
  4. Level 4 makes up the richest billion people on earth live where their income is more than $32 a day

If you’re reading this right now, you’re probably in Level 4. If you earn more than $20k USD a year, you are in the top 10% of the world.

I’m not saying life is automatically easy with $20k/yr. But compared to the rest of the world, a lifestyle with a Level 4 income feels like luxury.

Over my travels, I’ve met people across all income levels. Most recently, I met a barista who crams himself in a van with 7 other people for a 3-hour commute into Mexico City. He works at a cafe for 10 hours, earns ~$15 USD a day (minimum wage in Mexico is ~$10 USD), and commutes back home for 3 hours to do it the next day.

I know it’s not always healthy to compare problems with others in the world. But dam. I have it really good…

Hearing stories like these give me so much empathy and perspective.

I truly have enough. I have more than I ever need. I can’t ever forget this.

P.S. Curious about how rich you are compared to the rest of the world? Find out here.

#3 — Consciously spend money on what lights you up

What are the things in life that make you happy? Here’s my list:

  1. Community — traveling to see friends, paying for their meals, buying gifts
  2. Health — high quality food, improving my sleep, Muay Thai classes
  3. Experiences — travel, fun dates, dance classes
  4. Learning/Growth — therapy, books, courses

and… that’s pretty much it.

These areas give me a lot of meaning and joy. I don’t hesitate to spend money here because this is why I make money in the first place!

Your categories may look completely different than mine. And that’s amazing. Who am I to judge if you wanted to buy a vintage car or a leather jacket?

If that’s what you want, go for it. Then ignore everything else.

What would I have done differently?

I'm proud of how I lived my life and how I spent my money. But here's what I would change knowing what I know now

  1. Start a Roth IRA sooner and contribute to the max every year. I only started one last year. But the second best time to plant a tree is now.
  2. Save more money, so I didn't have to burn through all my savings when I took sabbaticals.
  3. Donate money sooner. I am in an incredibly blessed position. Over the years, I could have totally avoided buying a bunch of shit I didn't need and donated that money to charity. Back then, I didn't realize how powerful it was to earn $ in USD. Luckily, it's not too late to change.
  4. Slow down my personal growth by 10%. I paid more money for more personalized solutions (like coaching 3x/month) to rush through the process. While I'm happy with my results, there was probably a more scenic route that would have been more enjoyable if I had a chill switch.
  5. Invest in Bitcoin when all my friends were doing it (and literally telling me to do it) back in 2016... 🤪

Final thoughts

Everyone has their own unique relationship with money.

Based on your upbringing and current circumstances, you may disagree with everything here. That’s awesome.

But I hope these ramblings spark discussion with others or with yourself.

If you resonate with my view on money, you might enjoy two books that have helped sharpen my thinking:

  1. The Psychology of Money: Timeless Lessons on Wealth, Greed, and HappinessAll money decisions are really emotional decisions. Here's what to look out for in your own psychology with money.
  2. I Will Teach You to Be Rich: No Guilt. No Excuses. No B.S. Just a 6-Week Program That WorksPractical guide to getting your money life in order. Love this book.

I recently gifted both books to my younger brother so he doesn't make the same mistakes that I did.

Thanks for reading! See you again next month.

With gratitude,



Tam Pham Twitter

I'm a writer and bachata dancer currently bouncing around Latin America. Trying to make the most out of my one wild and precious life.

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