My kindergarten teacher told me to keep my eyes on my own work.
We spend the rest of our lives ignoring that advice.
As much as I love talking about strategies to save thousands of dollars on taxes or dealing with a complex estate situation (and I sure do!) I can’t move the needle to impact your life as much as my kindergarten teacher’s instruction can. And until we come to face the facts, I’m shooting mist at a wildfire.
What exactly am I getting at? This word: enough.
Jack Bogle, the founder of Vanguard, tells this story in his book, aptly titled Enough:
“At a party given by a billionaire on Shelter Island, Kurt Vonnegut informs his pad, Joseph Heller, that their host, a hedge fund manager, had made more money in a single day than Heller had earned from his wildly popular novel Catch-22 over its whole history. Heller responds, ‘Yes, but I have something he will never have … enough.’
Enough. I was stunned by the simple eloquence of that word – stunned for two reasons: first, because I have been given so much in my own life and, second, because Joseph Heller couldn’t have been more accurate.
For a critical element of our society, including many of the wealthiest and most powerful among us, there seems to be no limit today on what enough entails.”
There are two big hurdles that people need to overcome on their financial journey. The first one is margin. Do you have room in case the washer or car breaks down to get it fixed or replaced? If not you will be in a cycle of credit cards and consumer debt.
This first hurdle is a big one to overcome. In fact over 60% of Americans can’t cover a $1,000 expense. But the second hurdle is even harder. Once we have margin in our lives, we tend to start accumulating, but we rarely consider where to draw the line. We think that more is better, but never consider the severe negative impact on over-accumulation.
That’s the second hurdle: determining what ‘enough’ is.
Morgan Housel in The Psychology of Money says that “the hardest financial skill is getting the goalpost to stop moving…. Modern capitalism is a pro at two things: generating wealth and generating envy.” Once we achieve a certain level of wealth, it’s easy to keep reaching for the next best thing. But in our culture, striving for more isn’t seen as a bad thing; it’s actually highly encouraged (You want a better life, go out there and get it)!
And because it’s highly encouraged (aka “what everyone else is doing) we don’t think about what the consequences of such actions are.
Juliet Schor in The Overspent American says, “This is not to say that most Americans make consumer purchases solely to fool others about who they really are. It is not to say that we are a nation of crass status-seekers. Or that people who purchase more than they need are simply demonstrating a base materialism, in the sense of valuing material possessions above all else. But it is to say that, unlike the millionaires next door, who are not driven to use their wealth to create an attractive image of themselves, many of us are continually comparing our own lifestyle and possessions to those of a select group of people we respect and want to be like, people whose sense of what’s important in life seems close to our own [emphasis mine].
Here’s Housel again: “the ceiling of social comparison is so high that virtually no one will ever hit it. Which means it’s a battle that can never be won, or that the only way to win is to not fight to begin with – to accept that you might have enough, even if it’s less than those around you.”
The question we should be asking
The consequences of these comparisons, this accumulation, this work, work, work to have a bigger home, nicer cars, social status, and cooler trips are that the end result is pretty empty when you look at it. Sure, having a lot of stuff is pretty convenient and nice. But is not having it what really makes life difficult? No, tragedies are what make life difficult. Accidents. Sickness. Broken relationships.
The financial profession is mainly committed to answering this question: How much wealth can be generated?
I think we need to start asking ourselves and our clients more questions like this: What is enough?
When we’ve decided what enough is, our lives are marked by gratitude, contentment and love. When we pursue more because someone else has more, our lives become marked by pride, anxiety, and indifference to others.
In conscience, I dare not fail to acknowledge the plight of millions of our fellow citizens (and billions around the world) who don’t have enough. The truth is this: the game of life isn’t about money or more; it’s about working to transform our homes, our communities, our country, and our world.
The solution can’t be found in this simple article. Maybe you can start by asking yourself: What is enough for me?