Misdefining success can crush you

“Here’s the deal, Pete. I’m a successful guy. I make over $200k per year, I drive a BMW, and live in a $500k house. But we can’t get ahead financially. It’s a constant struggle. We are actually racking up debt. What are we doing wrong?”

I get some form of this question at least twice per week. It comes in different forms, but I usually hear “why don’t my high income and superior intelligence result in financial stability?”  It’s actually a pretty simple answer: high income and superior intelligence have nothing to do with financial stability. They can, however, provide you things that you can mistake for financial success. And this is where the party begins. And by ‘party’, I mean ‘misery’.

I’m about to ruin a Dan Brown book for you. But if you’ve read one, then you’ve read them all. In The DaVinci Code the characters are looking for the Holy Grail (the cup used at The Last Supper). Loooooooong story short, the Holiest of Holies…wait…I think that’s different. Okay, the long-sought after cup isn’t actually a cup. The “big secret is different” than what the characters were expecting. (This isn’t where I reveal that I am actually a descendent of Jesus Christ. Although I did grow a beard this week). My point? You can run all over the world trying to find what you are looking for, but setting your sights on the wrong prize will lead to failure every time. The same can be said for your financial life.

Take a moment and ask yourself “what does financial success look like?” Does it mean that you have the perfect job? Does it mean that you make $300k per year? Let’s define success for you, and then make sure that it makes sense. Let’s make sure that your definition won’t actually lead you to a financial catastrophe. I think through my own journey of “success” discovery, and I shake my head in awe. I almost screwed up badly.

Over the last 12 years, I have defined my own idea of personal success in several different ways. I’m going to share these with you. I’m embarrassed by some of them, but I’m pleased with my current definition of success.

The earliest and saddest success goal that I had was to “make more money than my dad did.” I shuttered having just typed those words for the first time. I’ve done several a-hole things over my lifetime, but trivializing my father’s life’s work by setting my income against his, is as bad as it gets. I truly feel shame for this. My dad reads my blog. Pops, I’m sorry. Dick move by me. Thank God my brain has continued to develop.

Next was a $1000 watch. I wanted to buy a TAG Heuer watch. Every successful person that I knew had either a Rolex or a TAG Heuer. I’m not much of a Rolex guy, so the TAG was the watch for me. I set a sales goal in the first year of my career, hit the goal, took $1100 cash into a jewelry store, and bought the watch. I was so proud. I was a success. What a dick. I’m so embarrassed by this time in my life that I can’t even bring myself to wear this watch anymore.

My next definition of success was to “be able to afford whatever I wanted”. Okay, that’s not terrible, but it’s not great. This definition had me “chasing dollars” to accomplish my goal. I have found that to be a fruitless journey. Being “able to afford whatever I want” doesn’t really work because my idea of “afford” is pretty subjective. Most people get into financial trouble because they buy things that they subjectively think that they can afford, when in fact they objectively cannot.

My current definition of success has me feeling very peaceful. To me, success is not striving to have more, but constantly needing less to feel satisfied with my life. I don’t want to strive to have more. I want to strive to be comfortable with less. Since I have taken on this definition, my income and wealth have grown substantially. For example, several people have complimented me on my wedding band. It cost me $12. I tell them this. Mrs. Planner gave it to me for our 10 year anniversary because it’s the one I wanted. People don’t believe me that it costs $12. It’s a very cool looking ring. They are in even more disbelief when they see that I have no shame over wearing a $12 wedding band. This wedding band has taken on dual meanings for me. First and foremost, it’s my sign of commitment to my marriage. But second, it’s my daily reminder that money WILL NOT define me.

What are you striving for? Will it lead to financial ruin? My current definition of success may not work for you, but that’s okay. Create your own definition.

15 thoughts on “Misdefining success can crush you

  1. As the proud wearer of a $10 sterling silver Wal-Mart wedding band myself, for the exact same reasons you state, I love this post. I also love the imagery you’ve presented, of the airplane to the watch to the ring on your bare hand, very poetic. I wish my father had been around long enough to teach me more about what’s important in life. Keep writing, Pete, you’re doing great.

  2. When I looked for engagement rings, the ones I liked the most were all $4,000 to $6,000. My car didn’t cost that much and who asks their under-employed boyfriend for a ring like that? Walmart actually has nice rings for $50. I’m more excited about spending the rest of my life with him than worrying about how big or expensive my ring is. We’re sure as heck not going into debt over it!

  3. You should post a pic in the style of Marcus Schrenker. Replace the plane with your bike and the Lexus with your paid off pre-owned car.

  4. “I want to strive to be comfortable with less” is my favorite quote from above. It reminds me of the Sheryl Crow song Soak Up The Sun, where she sings, “It’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

  5. My husband and I choose to live with secondhand furniture rather than put ourselves further into debt to buy things we don’t need. Last fall we had to buy a new vehicle after my car was starting to fail and we chose to buy a minivan because it was more economical, more room, and we could buy a newer, less miles minivan for the same price as an older, more miles SUV. My friends thought we were crazy but for us we would rather have something that fits our needs rather than worry about being trendy or care that I’m 30 years old and driving a minivan. It gets my kid safely to where he needs to go and fits my budget, and that’s good enough for me. Next step is for the husband and I to clearly define our definition of success and get our finances on track.

  6. Hey Peter,

    Long time reader, first time commenter.

    A guy by the name of Dave Bruno who narrowed the “things” down in his life to 100 things, max. If he wanted something new, he had to get rid of something old. He eventually wrote a book on it called The 100 Thing Challenge and maintains a blog on the topic – http://guynameddave.com/about-the-100-thing-challenge/.

    I try to adhere to the principals of the 100 Thing Challenge; reduce, refuse, and adjust your priorities. With kids, home ownership, and marriage 100 is a difficult number to achieve, but the principals are still relevant.

    It’s a worthy exercise to make a list of 100 (max) things you can’t live without and certainly gives good perspective. I keep a running list and make groupings for things (e.g. computer counts as one thing even though it has a mouse, display, etc) where appropriate.

    I like the 100 Things approach because it encourages you to spend money on things you *value* and if you want something new, you have to sacrifice something you value less than the new thing. For example, I like nice jeans (high gauge denim, double stitched) and nice jeans are expensive. I only own three pairs of jeans (i wear the same jeans all week, haha = less laundry too, ftw!). Same deal with shirts.

    You should sell the watch, donate the proceeds; it’ll make you feel better.

  7. This article really hit a nerve with me. I’ve been there (and it’s still a struggle from time to time since it has been so much infused with my DNA for decades now).

    In my previous life I sold broadcast advertising and rose to the rank of Sales Manager before dropping it completely and going back to school to become a (gasp) librarian. I know, right? While it has not been the smoothest tradition, I am relieved to be in a field where I am helping people – day in and day out. This field allows me to feel like I am contributing to society and provides me with great moments most every day.

    It pays much less. I have the lowest income of anyone in my family – including my in laws and I would think about 99% of the people I see on a regular basis. As a male in this society, to some, that makes me a bit less of a “man.” And from time to time, I do think about it. I don’t have the latest toys, I don’t have the same cars as others, our little ranch is “cozy” and we aren’t plugging away on the latest iPad or cruising over the holidays. Does it get to me sometimes? Yes. Do I think about giving up this great career for something making more money. Of course. Money and debt and “keeping up with the Joneses” is stressful. I’ve done the research. One day, they say money can’t buy you happiness. The next, that price is $75,000. The next they say, well yes, it does.
    I just know when I was making the most ever in my career (not quite six figures) I was stressed out and miserable. And I have also heard stories where money can be used as a weapon in relationships, which is horrible. (The male made the money, so he had the power – in his mind)
    I guess what it boils down to is, like you mentioned in your piece, how you define success, regardless of what the outside world dictates. Thank you for providing another way to look at our relationship to money and ideas about success.

  8. My financial life and life in general has always been to be self sufficient. From a very young age I thought and still maintain that financial success is freedom from worry about basic needs…housing, food, clothing and transportation. I have achieved this and retired at 55 3 years ago through vigilant discipline to always keep my cash flow ahead of my expenses. I’m probably not your typical American in that I have never had a vehicle payment in my life nor a finance charge on my credit cards. If I couldn’t pay cash I decided I had to wait or I could not afford it. I never cared about what other people thought about my ride. At 45 I sold a beautiful lake house at a very nice profit and bought a fixer upper lake view house for cash. Being 100% debt free for 13 years now and buying insurances against calamities allows us the freedom from financial worry. It really doesn’t take much to live a comfortable free cash flow lifestyle these days when one doesn’t have to send money for debt payments at all. People think we are rich and I would say we are comfortable because we live as always on a budget.

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