I’m getting more questions about what this election will mean for people’s personal financial situations than I’ve received in any previous election that I can remember. Financial advisers almost twice my age tell me the same thing. While I’m sure there are many reasons for these questions, I submit that the primary one is this: Our collective anxiety around money has never been higher. People are scared, and at the root of that fear is money (or the lack thereof).
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Money is an interesting actor that plays two roles in our lives. In the first, money equals money. It fits in a spreadsheet. It’s something to be calculated. In the other, money equals stories. It’s what we tell ourselves about our relationship with money.
Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “Only the paranoid survive.” Ring a bell? If so, it’s probably because that’s the title of a book by Andrew S. Grove, the former chairman and chief executive of Intel. When I read this book in late 1999, I bought into the need to always be looking for opportunities and to live my life at full throttle. I was afraid that if I stopped for even a moment just to rest, relax and recover, I wouldn’t “make it” (whatever that means). I was paranoid, and I was surviving — but just barely.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about the growing tribe of people who value experiences over security in their lives. But there is something that I didn’t say then that I want to emphasize: You don’t necessarily have to trade experience and financial security off against each other.
I want to talk to you about scary markets. For the sake of this particular subject, I want to be blunt and a little bit in your face. So for the next few minutes, please, just think of me less as your friend and more as your Scary Markets Drill Sergeant. O.K.? Great.
In life, there are certain nonnegotiables we simply must have. Think food, water and shelter for starters. Nobody will ask, “Is it worth it to eat?” It’s just something you do to stay alive. But deciding what to eat? That’s a different question. Will I eat the bologna or prosciutto? Drink tap water or bottled? And anything discretionary — anything that has even the slightest element of choice in it — invariably deals with a question we find ourselves asking all the time. “Is it worth it?”
You probably know the refrains by now: Experiences trump stuff. Experiences tend to bring us happiness. More stuff tends to breed discontent. There’s a wealth of research to back up these ideas up. But the idea that you can leave a stable job, a 401(k), sell your house, retrofit your van and spend a couple of years living out of it by yourself, or with your spouse, or even with your kids, is something completely different. Not only is it different, it’s mind-blowing. This mind-blowing concept is not the choice of experience over stuff. It’s not even experience over stability. It’s experience over security. And that is a very fascinating development in our culture.
I talk to many people who have problems with spending. Sometimes it’s friends. Sometimes it’s co-workers. Sometimes it’s neighbors. And yes, sometimes I talk to myself about my own struggles. What I’ve discovered over the years is that most of our problems do not come down to income. Instead, we don’t notice enough. Spending mindlessly, without even thinking about it, has become a national bad habit. And we all know how hard it is to break habits. So we make the same mistakes over and over again.
Now that more financial professionals are going to have to act in their customer’s best interest, where can you actually find someone who will really, truly, for sure do that? It seems like a simple question, but it’s not. I’ve been around the financial planning industry for 20 years, and one of the hardest (and most common) questions I’m asked is, “How do I find an advisor who I can trust?”
I was driving with a friend recently and telling him about some projects that really excited me. I mentioned a new book I’m working on, an article I’m writing and this new hobby of adventure motorcycling in the desert. He interrupted me and said, “How do you stay so motivated and so excited about things?” It caught me off guard. I hadn’t really considered the “why” behind my list of activities. But as I thought about it, I realized that the one aspect each of these projects had to make me so motivated — the common thread — was the feeling of being in just a little over my head. In other words, doing things despite the fact that, as the marketing guru Seth Godin likes to say, “this might not work.”