Originally seen in USA Today and The Indianapolis Star
I received an email last week that’s stuck with me since I first read it. A successful business owner is struggling to find financial solace, despite his self-admitted stability. His family, friends and business partner can’t seem to come to terms with his trepidation and dissatisfaction. And most disturbingly, his financial regrets are choking away any possible joy. He’s a tortured soul searching for understanding and inner peace.
Tim was a midlevel executive with a major financial institution and was highly compensated. He felt invincible. He made money, and he spent money. But then, poof. Just like that, his can’t-lose career turned on a dime. He lost his job, struggled financially, went on a quest to create stability, actually created stability and now cannot sleep easily, despite knowing he has savings, retirement funds and college funds. He did all the right things during his financial recovery. He downsized his lifestyle and saved more than he consumed. He’s fully recovered on paper, yet his psyche has not recovered.
One paragraph of his email struck me in particular: “Everyone tries to compare me to other people. Yes, I know I am fortunate in many ways but the point is — NOTHING gives me financial peace! It is damaging my quality of life. I struggle to enjoy the successes, or take any sort of comfort from the stability I seem to have built.”
You could say he lost his mojo, if you happen to believe in mojo.
It reads like this — had money and mojo. Lost money and mojo. Regained money. Can’t find mojo.
When you do everything you are supposed to be doing, but you still can’t find inner peace, then there has to be more to the story.
I learned long ago that telling someone “not to worry” is a waste of breath. Worriers will always worry. Therefore, let’s instead focus on trying to regain that feeling of accomplishment. Tim used to feel accomplished, and now he no longer does. Good, bad or otherwise, people with high incomes who then turn right back around and spend those incomes feel as though they have accomplished something. Other than a punch-riddled frequent customer punch card, they haven’t really accomplished anything. The two concepts are easily confused. Making a ton of money, buying a bunch of stuff and then living it up seem to be symptoms of success. They aren’t. They’re symptoms of wasted opportunity, which can grow into regret.
I’ve let go of most of my financial regrets, but some people aren’t able to do that. I’m very upset at myself for not taking my financial life more seriously in my mid-20s. I was a consumer, not a saver. When I run the calculations showing how much money I would have had I just invested a bit more along the way, I get a little bit sad. My regret isn’t fueled by greed, but more out of a feeling of underachievement. Most people feel this way. They either regret the amount of student loans they took on, the lack of money they saved, the car they never should have purchased, but they eventually get over it, especially if they have since found stability. Tim, on the other hand, has not yet made the turn.
In my estimation, Tim’s lack of satisfaction is an extension of his vast regret. We only earn a finite amount of income throughout our careers, and Tim may have figured out that he wasted his. Put that together with Tim’s reality of not finding joy in blowing through large amounts of income anymore, and you can easily see why stability isn’t satisfying.
The truth is, financial stability is heinously boring. From my experience, some people never get the buzz they’re looking for from stability. I have seen a large number of people flip the switch from compulsive spender to obsessed saver, and joy and peace eventually follow, but not everyone relocates that joy within stability.
Another element is at play here as well — control.
When you get blindsided by forces out of your control, there’s no reason to think you will ever regain control. Tim’s situation reminds me how little control we really have, especially when our finite income is consumed so quickly. Even then, no matter how prepared we are, we’re still never really in complete control of our financial lives. There are too many variables. From our employers to the stock market, to the housing market and beyond, we’re not immune to the ills of forces beyond our control. We all need the economy around us to do what we need it to do. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it temporarily ruins our lives. I too am very uncomfortable with this reality. We can only control our role in the equation. We cannot control the outside forces.
I think of it as an angry junkyard dog on a thick chain. I have faith in two things: staying away from the dog, as measured by the length of his chain and the strength of the chain. I can only control one of those elements, and you better believe I know the length of that chain. The other element requires faith. Not necessarily faith in a higher power, but faith the chain will do its job. Sometimes the chain breaks. And when it does, it’s hard to have faith in the chain once again. There are people scattered all over this great country who got bit when the chain snapped. Many have recovered on paper, and many of those folks still haven’t recovered psychologically.
Tim is not alone. He went through a very traumatic experience, but I refuse to believe a person can’t eventually identify a satisfactory state of being. It takes time, it takes patience, and it requires you to regain faith in the chain once again.
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Peter Dunn a.k.a. Pete the Planner® is an award-winning financial mind and a former comedian. He’s a USA TODAY columnist, author of ten books, and is the host of the popular radio show and podcast, The Pete the Planner Show. Pete is considered one of the foremost experts on financial wellness in the world, but he’s just as likely to talk your ear off about bass fishing.