books consumerism economics generosity lifestyle poverty wealth

How much is enough?

‘How much is enough?’ is a question usually posed with a sigh and a shrug. It belongs in the same category as ‘how long is a piece of string?’ – it’s an abstraction, best dealt with in general terms. And it’s mobile. Everyone has their own idea of how much money or stuff they need, but then their wages go up and lo and behold, so does their concept of enough.

But, I’m writing about the question today because two books I’ve been reading recently have both managed to put a pretty precise figure on it. According to John Naish in his book ‘‘, you will be content if you stay “on or slightly above the median-earning level of your country and avoid competing socially in materialistic terms.” That makes ‘enough’ around £355 a week.

So now you know.

Meanwhile in ‘‘, Oliver James declares that to meet all your basic living requirements in the UK would “require an annual income of only £15,000”.

I can concur. Not so long ago I lived perfectly happily on these sorts of numbers. So is that really enough? That depends on what you value most, and whether you actually want enough. If you like time more than money, for example, that’s enough. If you like cars and holidays, then clearly no, it isn’t. But it can be, and that’s the important thing. It’s there for those that want it, and some people take it.

Ronald Sider wanted to give more away, and so developed a formula to work out what him and his family would keep from what he earned. Starting with the American official poverty line for a family of four, which was some $18,000 at the time, he gives away an increasing percentage for every thousand dollars he earns over that figure.

John Wesley worked out that he could live on £28 a year. (This was the 1720s mind you)  At the time he earned £30, so he gave the remaining two. By the end of his life he was earning £1,400 a year as a successful author, but he still lived on £28.

The management guru Charles Handy sits down with his wife at the beginning of the year and they work out how much they need, add 20% for luck, and take just enough speaking engagements to match that amount.

Tom Hodgkinson of the is a big advocate of enough. He argues that all work should be divided into ten three and a half hour shifts each week, and we could choose to work as many of those as we needed. At some points in our life we would work all ten, at other times five or six.

Of course the point in all this is that enough is where you choose to find it. It has certain parameters – a floor, and no ceiling – you probably do have enough, but whether you recognise it or not depends whether you look up or down.


  1. An interesting perspective; I would imagine that most people would think The Number is $1million, $10 million or even $100 million [insert currency pf choice] …

  2. “Meanwhile in ‘The Selfish Capitalist‘, Oliver James declares that to meet all your basic living requirements in the UK would ‘require an annual income of only £15,000’.”

    I agree: My wife and I live comfortably on about £16,000p.a., and I’d rather do a more enjoyable job for £15,000p.a. than take a pay rise of a grand and stay where I am.

  3. I would not want to dispute Oliver James’s figure, but only add that is quite possible to live on a lot less than that, and still give a lot away. I think giving away is the key. If you stop pouring out, God can’t pour any more in.
    Another factor you have not mentioned though is having children. They do not have to be expensive at all. The difficult issue is not the cost of raising children, but the need to help them to understand that value is not attached to price tag, in a society where all their peers will press them hard in another direction. To raise children now, and protect them from consumerist greed, is a monumental challenge.

  4. I agree, and raising non-consumerist children must be one of the biggest challenges for those who want to see an end to our oppressively materialist society. A big part of that, according to James’ book, is not having both parents working, at least not between the ages of one and six.
    And, as a student I lived on less than the figure quoted here, and not felt like I was missing out on anything. I can honestly say I could live quite happily on a similar sum again, and I expect in time I will.

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