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Can You Take "It" With You? Reflections on Life Planning

Move from ideas of taking to those of giving.

Key points

  • Our consumerist age encourages us to pursue expensive enjoyments, both as personal satisfactions and to enhance our status to others.
  • We should evaluate carefully what it means to have a “good time” and consider the influence of media-circulated standards in such matters.
  • More important still is thinking about our relationship to the resources we possess and how these may be better shared with others.

Some of my friends—like myself, of retirement age and beyond—have taken to using the expression, “You can’t take it with you.” I’ve noticed that people in other circumstances and stages of life are making the same declaration. In the case of my friends, at least, I find this strange because most of them have loved ones, including children and grandchildren. They care about their local community. They have no more than the usual objections to paying taxes to support programs and people. Nevertheless, they want general permission to have “me time,” whatever its costs and implications for others.

To be sure, the expression is not new. Movie buffs will remember a 1938 movie of that name starring James Stewart and Jean Arthur, based on a play by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. In the drama, a young woman from an eccentric, artistic family falls in love with a rising young banker. A dinner to introduce the prospective in-laws sets off a collision of lifestyles with comedic results.

Who would side with a coterie of bankers against a lovable crew of artists and miscreants—and particularly so during the Depression? If less bleak than the 1930s, life today continues to have its share of perils and predicaments. The powers-that-be, those social classes that the vast majority has counted on to employ them and otherwise provide security to their lives, have forsaken many of those historic commitments. The willingness of government to address these issues comes and goes. Under such circumstances, perhaps the best course is to take what satisfactions one can, while they can. “Eat, drink, and be merry,” “carpe diem,” “smell the roses,” and so forth.

I’m not such a prune as to oppose the view that people should immerse themselves deeply in the moments of their lives. Fleeting experiences are every bit as important to personhood as longer-term commitments. Memories of good times are critical to our understandings of who we are and whom we care for. “Self-care” and “mindfulness” are necessary course-corrections for those who feel themselves losing control of their own subjectivity.

However, the phrase “You can’t take it with you” suggests something quite different from simply savoring life. It means you should spend a significant portion of your economic assets—pointedly money and goods convertible to money—to garner pleasurable experiences. At the center of this vision is the idea that this money is yours (after all, “you earned it”) and that you should be able to do whatever you want with it.

Readers may respond that all this is a First World problem. If you have the funds to do something extravagant—perhaps take a cruise, bet wildly at a gambling palace, frequent a resort, or get Super Bowl tickets—go for it. Better yet, buy a vacation home to make permanent your pleasure-seeking. Just don’t ask our permission. And don’t talk about it endlessly.

However, I do want to discuss the matter a little here, because it suggests much about our societal vision of the good life and because it has implications for the lives of other people. In that spirit, consider a few issues.

Is a “good time” necessarily expensive or exotic?

Surely, none of us would answer this question in the affirmative. We know, at some level, that the best times are spent with family and friends. Doing work you love or furthering a cherished hobby or craft provides deeper satisfaction than taking a wind-surfing lesson or attending a big-time sports event. The latter excites. The former comforts, refines, and extends.

Similarly, who would argue that exotic locales are necessary to a fulfilling life? I agree that foreign travel broadens a person, but this is mostly true if the traveler confronts honestly what that distant country has to offer. Visiting a tourist enclave—with a predictable range of shops, costumed local people, and Americanized dining—is fun and not much more.

All this begets the question of why we go on these jaunts. Yes, we want new excitements. But do we also want the thrill of telling others where we are going, sending them photos while we are gone, and regaling them with stories on our return? We may even insinuate (though not say specifically) how much the affair cost. Inevitably, we claim it was “worth it.”

All too human, most of us can acknowledge our conspicuous consumption as a strategic pleasure, something we can brag about at a party or in a holiday greeting card. It makes us feel interesting and perhaps important. However, let us also reflect on whether another, less flashy activity might have generated deeper satisfactions.

Are we trapped in an upper-middle-class vision of life?

In societies with a “class” system, people typically look above themselves for visions of the good life. They believe, realistically or not, that they have opportunities to move upward and to acquire those glittering goods and services. To look downward is to see spectacles of failure, the millions who haven’t “made it.”

Historically, most of us have been grounded in communities of similarly situated people who provide models of what is reasonable and decent. Although much of this remains true, recent decades have featured an explosion of media-based narratives about life’s satisfactions. Especially prominent is the imagery of advertising, in which everyone, or so it seems, is upper-middle class.

Almost never in these ads do we see people working several jobs and struggling to get by. Instead, we are treated to a world of new cars, glossy appliances, and pristine houses. Most of the house-dwellers are young, their children well-scrubbed. If this were not enough, we see these people all dressed up and going places, even traveling to foreign countries. (Their financial advisor assures them they can afford this).

Older people are not ignored. Quite the opposite, they too are shown to be sleek, healthy, and attractive. Sometimes we see them hiking in beautiful mountains or shopping pleasurably in a European town. Alternately, they gaze dreamily from the deck of a small cruise ship. Somehow, they are having their cake and eating it too.

Clearly, there are people who can afford these pleasantries. However, most of us—who sit through the ads—cannot. The danger comes from thinking that this pattern of high-dollar consumerism is a fulfillment of life’s ambitions.

Are resources private possessions?

Older Americans remember well a style of family life in which one parent (typically the father) was the principal breadwinner. Because he earned the paycheck, he determined the outlines of the family’s lifestyle. Major financial decisions—such as changing houses, buying cars, or saving for the children’s education—were his.

Times have changed, and family relationships are more egalitarian now. Still, the prevailing view is that money belongs to the parents to do with as they choose. Dependent children may have a modest allowance, but if they want more, they should get a part-time job. If they want more than that, they should get their own place and support themselves.

It is possible to think of family planning in much broader terms. Adults may earn the money, but the distribution of this depends on the needs of the variously situated family members. Commonly then, commitments to the children’s education take precedence over a new boat; saving for retirement trumps the trip to Vegas. Helping an aging relative is yet another priority.

All this raises a more general question: Is the money we earn “ours” to do with as we wish or is it simply one element in a family’s requirements of living? Even more pointedly, do we have commitments to the rising generations—and the declining ones—that countermand our private enthusiasms? To consider such ideas is to challenge the “king in his castle” mythology that many of us grew up with.

What is “it” we are leaving behind?

To be human is to confront the fact that we will at some point “pass on.” Beliefs vary on what that next stage will be: continuity of spirit, nothingness, or still other circumstances. At any rate, we will no longer be what we have been.

A broader view of self sees not simply death but also the ongoing extension of our relationships and commitments in other people’s lives. Yes, transfers of money and property can be one aspect of this. But even more important are the human connections we have made, the memories of these in the living, and the transmission of knowledge and skill to those who follow us. Many projects we have started will be brought to new stages by others. Acts of service have unknown beneficiaries.

Doubtless, we cannot take these accomplishments “with us.” However, our life’s work doesn't need to disappear with the extinction of consciousness. Just as we have benefited from the nurturing of long-departed ancestors, so we have obligations to support generations to come. To make such commitments is to reciprocate the gift of life.

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