Do You Work To Live?

When I spent a college semester abroad in Spain, one phrase the locals liked to say was “Americans live to work while Spaniards work to live.”  I want you to read that quote again and think about its meaning.  Why do you live?  Is it to work or to enjoy life?

Do You Work To Live?
Is this a fishing boat or a pleasure boat?

Lets look at the difference between the two distinct parts of this quote.  Regardless of your nationality, do you live to work or work to live?

Americans Work to Live.

Although I was only a college junior, I felt quite proud when I first heard this quote.  I thought, that's why the U.S. is the most economically prosperous nation in the history of the world.  Granted we are an imperfect nation since we are governed my leaders who are just as human as you & I, but historically anybody with a hard work ethic can greatly improve their socioeconomic status in America.  It's the reason people have immigrated here from all over the world for over 200 years.  People left (& continue to leave) the Old World because of “the American Dream.”

Do You Work To Live?
Are you only working the job you have because you have to “have” a McMansion?

Now for the negative viewpoint in a nutshell.  Are we working to live just to maintain our lifestyles?  Do we really need a McMansion, exotic vacations, cable tv with 1,000 channels, & going out to eat at least once per week?  These are some of the things that make America great & at the same time also make us a slave to our jobs.

To other parts of the world, we are working crazy hours only to afford bigger & better material goods that we will eventually want to replace for something even larger.  Meanwhile, we are sacrificing our health & families for material success.

Is everything that glitters gold?  By living in America, can we build our very own “Stairway to Heaven?”  Not in the physical sense.

Everything in life comes at a price whether it's physical or relational.    

Now let's look at the second part of that quote…

Spaniards Work To Live

Do You Work To Live?
La Giralda, a must-see of the Sevilla Cathedral, where I spent a semester abroad.

Not just Spaniards, but Europeans & other cultures in general.  One thing I picked up on while in Spain, was the value of family & the slower pace of life.  There are government programs that help spur this lifestyle, but as a whole the Spaniards only worked as much as possible to live a modest lifestyle.  As a result, most European countries have higher life expectancy rates than the U.S. does!

Although it took some minor adjustment, most stores shutdown for lunch and were closed on Sundays.   They have their version of Wal-Mart & Walgreen's that constantly remain open, but businesses as a whole adhere to this tradition.  Here, Chick-Fil-A & banks seem to be the only businesses open only for 6 days each week.

Don't get me wrong, there are people who worked “la vida americana” (the American life) by working a job with lots of hours.  The daughter of my host family, was one of those who worked those hours as the store manager of a McDonald's of all places.   On a trip to Rome, our hostel host worked 2 or 3 jobs just to make ends meet.

For full disclosure, I studied abroad in the spring of 2007.  Right before the Great Recession & the continuing economic woes that have stuck with southern Europe since then.  Spain currently has an unemployment rate of 24%, one of the highest rates in Europe.  If I was to study today, I am curious if they would be as proud about “working to live.”

What I Learned From This Experience

I learned a lot from my semester abroad and not just in the classroom.  The real learning came from interacting with people from a different cultures whether it was my host family, local acquaintances, or meeting other foreigners visiting the city.

There are certain things us Americans took for granted in the States.

Here are some things I took for granted:

  • Awesome Job Market
    • I never tried finding a job in Europe, but my host family said be grateful you do not live in Spain as the few “good” jobs for my generation were very competitive.  I had my pick of several job offers after college.  This might be different in other parts of Europe, as Spain historically has either been rich or poor without much economic middle ground.
  • Hot Water On Demand
    • In most countries it's not uncommon for people to ignite the pilot light for the water heater several minutes before taking a morning shower in order to have hot water.  Here, you just wait a couple seconds and eventually the water turns from cold to hot with a limitless supply.
      • My host family was one of the few that left the pilot light burning, so my roommate & I didn't have this issue.  We were blessed with an awesome family that fed us really well too.
  • Air Conditioning
    • Most of the homes in Europe are old and only have room air conditioners (not central air that cools the entire house).  AC is becoming more common, but you might expect power outages because the grid is overloaded & electricity is more expensive translating to a higher power bill.
  • Processed Foods For Dessert
    • This norm was also changing over in Europe, historically dessert has been a piece of fruit because of money.  We have fruit as a snack or part of a meal and eat cake or ice cream for dessert.  If my wife was to hand me a piece of fruit for dessert on a normal basis, I would think she was trying to tell me to lose weight.
      • Fruit was our nightly dessert because of tradition, simplicity (no cooking required), and cost.

These might seem like trivial things, but they are luxuries I got accustomed too.  Ask others (or yourself) who have been abroad for any length of time, and their list will have some similarities to mine.

Whether you like the American lifestyle or not, there are certain things in life that we have come to expect.

How Do You Live Your Life?

I want you to look at your own life.

Write down three things you could not live without.

Now, write down three reasons you work the current job you do.

Compare those six items and see how they compare.

My six items don't all align.

J. Money recently posted “A Reminder From The Mexican Fisherman” along with some other talking points I have heard recently, made me think of my own travels abroad & seeing how people who had less “stuff” than me appeared to be happier with life & more generous with the belongings they did have.

Too often we get caught up in the notion of living for the moment.  Doing whatever it takes to “keep up with the Joneses” despite the fact that Mr. & Mrs. Jones probably won't give us the first dollar to help payoff our debts when we tell them we want what they have but found out the hard way we can't afford it.

I think one verse can superbly sum up the reason some people work to live while others live to work, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

I personally worked a crazy job for several years because I was chasing the dollar.  Being single & having a mountain of student loans, I was willing to sacrifice my personal life to work virtually non-stop for a paycheck.  After paying off my debts, I stuck with it because I had a 50% savings rate & probably wouldn't accomplish that anywhere else.  Becoming a husband & parent changed my priorities and I was no longer willing to put in the same hours as I previously did for a corporation.

It's been almost a year since I left, the company is still in business & I've been able to realize life is more than just working to put money in a bank account.  We all need money to live & save for the future when so we do not have to work, but our life shouldn't feel like it will end if we do not work every ounce of daylight or cannot go to Disney every spring.

What should we do instead?  Put people first.   

I think the one distinct difference between the American & Spaniard view on work is the emphasis on other people.  I'm not saying Americans are 100% wrong or the Spaniards are 100% correct, we can both learn from each other.

We think we “need” a 3,000 square foot house & a vehicle with a leather interior.  As a result we “have” to work 70 hour a week jobs because those are the only ones with salaries high enough to pay the mortgage & car payment.

Guess What?

You & your children are only young once.  They will eventually move out & hopefully they will come and visit you, if they aren't too busy working to pay for their own  mansion & limousine.

How important is that big house, when you only use 1,000 sq. feet of it it when they move away?

Beyond your own children, how about helping others.  We are all blessed with different gifts & positions in society.   If you have been blessed with wealth (this can be as little as having extra food or a spare set of clothing, not simply being a millionaire), share it with others.

I don't have life figured out (never will) & I can be tons more unselfish than I currently am.  I also hope I never return to the “living to work” mentality.

We can all learn to enjoy life & be content with what we have.  There is nothing wrong with pursuing a high quality of life.  All of us don't need to live modestly in a cloister wearing sackcloth to simply work to live.

Everybody has needed to work since Adam & Eve in order to eat & have a place to sleep.  Hard work can bring financial independence & a disposable income.  If you want to buy a fast car (like I did) or take your family to Disney, do it.

Just don't work solely to buy what you want today, because you will never be able to buy back today tomorrow.

Does your lifestyle compliment or conflict with your view of work?  What “life lesson” have you learned from interacting with foreigners?

Thanks For Reading,


Josh founded Money Buffalo in 2015 to help people get out of debt and make smart financial decisions. He is currently a full-time personal finance writer with work featured in Forbes Advisor, Fox Business, and Credible.