It is not a new question. We find some version of it in the liturgy of various world religions, on the covers of books by financial services professionals and economists, and in the title of an 82-second song by the punk band Bad Religion, that decries our "rapacity, tenacity, capacity for more."
But addressing the question is an appropriate task right now, given an unpredictable president-elect and a Congress nominally behind him poised to make good on at least some promises to change our financial lives. Absent any certainty about what will happen in Washington, we can at least try to get ourselves square in our heads about what feels like enough for us.
How much do any of us really know about what our spending, saving and giving add up to? Could we draw an accurate pie chart that reflects a year of household outflows?
This is not another call to write down everything you spend in a notebook. But it is a reminder that if you don't like what you see when you glance at the credit or debit card statement or the pile of receipts, then it's time to reconsider a few things. My colleague Carl Richards has offered short courses here recently on spending awareness and aligning spending with values.
"Money's value is, in part, as an observational tool, as something to meditate on," said Vicki Robin, whose classic book Your Money or Your Life is an excellent longer course on defining enough. "Does spending money bring you pleasure in proportion to the hours that you spent earning it?"
She, too, is reluctant to order anyone to start new spreadsheets. She does note, however, that you probably won't achieve Zen mastery with just two breaths or forgiveness and enlightenment by taking communion once in a while. "Rigor is the tiller on your boat," she said.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Once you have a baseline on spending and quantity, the qualitative work begins.
Manisha Thakor, director of wealth strategies for women at the financial advisory firm Buckingham, speaks often on the topic of defining enough and laments all the noise that gets in the way of getting it right. First, there is nonreality television, where every policewoman, nurse and paralegal live much larger than their professional station in life would suggest is possible. "All these humid East Coast cities, and they're clearly getting a $40 blowout before every shift," she said.
Switch from television to a smaller screen, and you are confronted with curated social media profiles, where everyone is editing themselves. Combine that with the ever-present pressure to maintain a prominent personal brand, and it's no wonder that so many people think that the right definition of enough is just a little bit more. "It just creates this feeling of lack," Ms. Thakor said.
She said that one good place to start is the most elementary of benchmarks. She is often surprised, for instance, by how few people have heard of the basic one that Elizabeth Warren suggested years ago when she was still a professor: Spend 50 percent on needs, 30 percent on wants and 20 percent on savings.