We generally don’t like talking about money. But, let’s face of it, most of us spend time wondering how wealthy other people are. We also tend to judge people, including ourselves, according to the purchases we make.
As CARL RICHARDS explains in the second part of this series, there are reasons why we do it. But how wealthy others are and what they choose to spend their money on are none of our business, and we rarely see the full picture anyway.
The key, he says, is to recognise our feelings and learn to talk about money in a more constructive way.
TEBI: Why do you think so people are so interested in how wealthy other people are are?
CR: I’ve been really fascinated lately by these Google searches for people’s net worth. If you type in any semi-famous person’s name, the most common search term is “net worth”, right?
I’ve been thinking about this. We’re competitive; as a species, we’re relatively competitive. I think, if we were all having moments of clarity, the thing we would want to compete on would be happiness. The problem is, there’s no unit of measurement for happiness. I can’t compare my happiness to yours.
I think — this is the kind version of it — we’re looking for an easy way to compare how happy we are, and we’ve substituted money for happiness.
But we all know that money and happiness are two different things. You can have a lot of the one and not very much of the other.
That’s right. There are layers of problems here. Problem number one is that we know those two things — money and happiness — aren’t correlated.
Then we’ve substituted money for how much money we think someone has. Nobody walks around with a net worth banner over their head. What we get to see — this is problem number two — is consumption. We’re seeing spending. Net worth and spending aren’t related either so, even if this were a good measure, we’re not measuring the right thing.
I think we all do it, and the key — the first key to stopping it — is just to be aware that, if you do that, if you’re one of those people that’s typed in that Google search, you’re not alone. Then ask yourself: What’s the point? Why buy into that system?
As you say, our perception of people’s wealth, based on their consumption, is often very much at odds with reality, isn’t it?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run into this. You can’t judge a book by its cover. In the States we often say, “big hat, no cattle”. There’s a lot of big hat, no cattle.
The dilemma is: (a) it doesn’t matter, (b) there’s no real way to tell, and (c) it’s really none of our business.
I can tell you hundreds of stories of people where I’m like, “That’s irresponsible spending!” It was my job, as their financial adviser, to ask questions. Then I would realise why they spent their money that way.
One example was a friend of mine, who every winter would go helicopter skiing. His name was Todd. I remember saying to him, “Todd, you really should be saving that money.”
As we dug deeper, I understood that his profession was massively stressful, and that trip was allowing him to continue to do the work that he did. He also claimed it was keeping his marriage together! Suddenly those heli-skiing trips didn’t look like an extravagant expense.
I have another friend, a therapist, who seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of money, but it kept him alive! You don’t know that from the outside; you have no clue. So the best way to approach this is just to realise that we know nothing about what’s going on behind the scenes.
Of course, we don’t just judge others on what they spend their money on; we judge ourselves as well.
Yes, there’s so much shame and guilt built into this thing called money. We all thought it was about numbers; but it’s about feelings. And shame and guilt and blame are some of the strongest emotions around money.
We could just go such a long way if we could start by recognising our emotions. I remember I was in the car with my son once. I can’t remember how old he was; maybe ten, 11 or 12. We drove past a neighbour’s house and they’d just purchased a water-skiing boat and my son said, “Oh, they must be rich!”
I remember saying to him, “That’s none of your business.” As soon as I said it, I thought to myself, “Why didn’t I use that as an opportunity to have a discussion?” I could have said, “Oh that’s interesting. Tell me a bit more about why you think that?”
So I think step one is just to notice when we’re making those judgements, and step two is to figure out how to talk about it.
Realise too that you’re going to be clumsy. Give yourself permission to be clumsy. Nobody’s trained you. Particularly in the UK, we’ve been taught that you never talk about money. It’s one of these incredibly important subjects, and we don’t know how to talk about it.
The only way forward, particularly around these emotions of shame and judgement and guilt, the only way forward is to learn to start having discussions about it.
CARL RICHARDS is a Certified Financial Planner and the founder of Behavior Gap, a communications consultancy for financial advice firms. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times and a frequent keynote speaker.
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