Contentment and endless striving: err too much on one side, and people will say you’re settling. Err too much the other way, and you’re someone who is never satisfied. Always yearning for more.
How do we balance being content with finances while also being goal-oriented, mindful people who genuinely care about how we treat our money? Well first, let’s explore the more nefarious money-mindsets that prevail in today’s world. By doing this, we’ll have a better understanding of how we should think about money.
Dangerous Money Mindsets
MONEY IS EVIL. Biggie Smalls might’ve been onto something when he said ‘mo’ money, mo’ problems’. And while having money, especially an excess of money, can certainly complicate things, some would contend that money in every sense is an evil, if not at least a necessary evil. Even the Christian Bible speaks to the complex issue that can be money. “For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6-10).
So let’s profile those who might think money is pernicious in all its forms: Oftentimes, these people quite literally look down their noses at others who have an arbitrary amount of wealth or status. They judge from afar. They assume things about the personalities of those with wealth. Perhaps they do this because they had a life event where money burned them or they were raised to see money as something to be hated. To them, the 1%’s of the world are the worst. They’re evil. The rich somehow pay less in taxes than the poor. “The man” is out to squash the little guy while he makes an extra buck in the process. Any indication of abundance or ‘doing well’ is to be scoffed at. It is holier to have less, which, in a way, becomes its own form of virtue signaling. I remember an FCA leader telling me “I should be off to the big city making a bunch of money, but I chose this path instead”. I sarcastically thought “I guess I should drop out of college while I still can”. It felt like I was being made to feel guilty for wanting to make a decent wage. If these are the extreme beliefs of those who despise money, what then, would a person look like who wraps all their self-worth and life’s meaning up in money?
MONEY IS EVERYTHING. Completely contrary to the first money mindset, there are those who worship at the altar of the dollar. You know who they are. Every opportunity to earn or spend more is an opportunity worth jumping at. For some, the ‘money is everything’ mindset is all about what money can get you. Some fresh clothes, the swaggiest car on the lot, or the getaway of a lifetime. Ostensibly, money can buy happiness for these individuals (more on that later). For others, it may be about prestige, power, and leveraging themselves against those without money. And for others, money means security, comfort, and knowing that everything is as it should be.
When their status is threatened, or their consumerism is stunted, or their security is snatched away, stress runs amok. An unstable financial environment wreaks havoc on those who put all their stock in the number zeroes at the end of their bank account. For those with few resources, money is to be spent. The tax refund funds the trip to Disney despite mounting debt. The pay raise goes to the new Apple Watch. Every little bit of margin is seen as an opportunity to spend. A study from UNICEF demonstrated that teens from impoverished families are more materialistic than their affluent peers (Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, 2014). Part of this is a marketing problem, and part of it is a mindset problem. In this sense, wealth, or having ‘made it’ is marked by consumer purchases, as Malcolm Forbes noted: “He who dies with the most toys wins”. Indeed, a sad reality for many, and extragenerational poverty can be the result–promulgating the vicious cycle that is the working poor.
MONEY IS NOTHING. And finally, there are those who don’t feel strongly either way about their means, rich or poor. They’ve become unconscious to the state of their finances, not aware of how much is coming in or going out. Unconscious to what the future may or may not hold for them; going through the motions daily. They don’t care about flashing their wealth if they have it, and if they’re poor, they don’t care much to complain about those who do. In a sense, those are positive attributes. In another, the problem with indifference is that eventually, the bottom falls out. In his best-selling book Atomic Habits, James Clear says that your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits. A little indifference now and again won’t wreck your finances, but years of indifference tends to build on itself. Mr. Clear applies this beautifully to every aspect of life “Your net worth is a lagging measure of your spending habits. Your weight is a lagging measure of your eating habits. Your knowledge is a lagging measure of your learning habits. You get what you repeat” (2018). So a dismissive comment like “I’ll save when I’m older” doesn’t hurt too much at 20 years old, but if you continue repeating that when you’re 25, and then 35, and then 40, well, now you’ve done yourself a massive disservice. Indifference now will force you into a panic later.
Even though the first two mindsets are caricaturistic in nature (yelled from the rooftops, so to speak), it doesn’t mean that indifferent individuals, ones that seem more care-free or ‘go with the flow’, aren’t harming their personal finances. They are.
COMBO MINDSETS. Undoubtedly, there are combinations of the three mindsets listed above. Some days we might envy the movie star with the Lamborghini and huge crib. Other days, we might spend a little too much on our shopping trip – giving into the false promises of consumption. And still, other days we may tire when thinking about investing in our retirement – hoping our worry and anxiety will all just go away. It would be difficult not to fall victim to these beliefs at some point in time. No one is purely one-dimensional, and since no one is one-dimensional, finding contentment in our finances, then, is also a multifaceted issue. Below is my ‘how-to’ guide in finding contentment with our finances.
How To Find Contentment
#1. Realize your situation. The enemy of ignorance is knowledge. So a good first step toward contentment is knowing where you’re at. Answering these questions will start you on the right path. What’s your net worth? How much debt do you have? How much money, if any, are you stashing away for retirement? How can you increase your income (if you find it necessary)? Simply knowing your money situation makes it more difficult to focus on others. By doing this, you refuse to be indifferent.
#2. Strike a vision. Once you know where you’re at, you need to consider where you want to go. Silence the nagging voice of indifference and be honest with yourself. Do you want to be debt free? Do you want to pay off your house early? What about saving up for a house? Maybe you have a retirement age in mind. How will you set yourself up for success? Everyone has different priorities, and it’s important that you call yours by name. Everything else is passivity, and that’s no way to treat your finances. By striking a vision for your future, you refuse to believe money is evil.
#3. Stay in your lane. Now that you have a handle on your money situation and you’ve created a vision for a positive financial future, just be. There’s no need to envy the wealthy. No need to look down on those with less. No need to sit indifferently while your money situation deteriorates. Appreciate what you do have. Most of us, even those with very little to their name, have far, far more than humans have had over the history of mankind. According to the Wall Street Journal, 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the last twenty-five years (2018). We would think this would make us more content when it seems like the opposite has happened. By staying in your lane and keeping things in perspective, you refuse to make money everything in your life.
#4. Understand that money can only do so much for you. It’s well-documented that an income of about $75,000 a year can give you the ideal amount of emotional stability in day-to-day living (Purdue). And no doubt, that isn’t a figure to be ignored; many people only wish to make that type of income. The more alarming statistic from the same study, however, is that earning more money past this mark doesn’t equal more happiness, running completely contrary to what greater society would tell us. In fact, the research indicates that the higher your income, the more you expect your wealth to do for you, likely falling prey to societal comparisons. So if you think a greater income will bring you more contentment or happiness or fulfillment, you may find that to be a lost cause.
Money itself can only do so much to fulfill us. Perhaps it’s time to look outside of purely financial-related things for contentment. Perhaps it’s time to be content with our current situation while also being aware of the changes we’re making to improve it. What money mindset do you naturally cling to? Do you have extremely negative connotations about the topic of money? Do you worship it? Do you prefer never to think about it? Depending on your response, you may be naturally inclined to those feelings, or you’ve been conditioned to feel that way because of your environment. In any sense, work through those feelings, ask yourself good, honest questions about your personal finances, and move forward in contentment.