Time to Reset Expectations
We all know people who make a lot of money yet always seem to struggle to get by. (Or we read about the now famous University of Chicago professor who blogged about the trouble he and his family were having making ends meet while earning more than $250,000 a year.)
At the same time, there are plenty of people who manage to be content on much, much less.
How can that be?
Part of the problem is centered on what we expect from money. Our expectations drive many of our financial decisions, and often we don’t even think about why we do the things we do with money. There are at least three things to think about here.
1) Family Expectations This is where it all starts. Many of us have complicated feelings related to the expectations of our families. There might be a desire to live up to a standard set by older siblings or parents, and the expectations of a spouse or children have a lot of influence on us too. Anyone who has looked a child in the eyes and told her she can’t have something really important to her because it costs too much can appreciate just how complicated feelings and expectations about money can be.
2) Peer Expectations I think this one is a subtle twist on the classic problem of keeping up with the Joneses. We like to think that we don’t walk around overtly trying to keep up with our friends in terms of what we buy, but there is no doubt that what our friends do has an impact on how we act.
If we continually spend time around people that are taking expensive trips to the beach, it’s very easy to start telling ourselves that we should be going, too. After all, if they can do it, then why can’t we? And will we be able to remain friends with them if we don’t do what they do?
3) Societal Expectations The message everywhere is that spending will make us happy, so we start to expect that to be true. It reminds me of the Zen story about the old, wise fish that asks two young fish, “Boys, how’s the water?” And they reply, “What water?” The expectation that spending leads to contentment has become the water we swim in. But most of the time, we don’t even know we’re swimming.
Regardless of income, we need to take the time to inspect what we expect from money. This is true for all of us, but it might be especially true if you make plenty of money and still feel like you’re struggling to get by.
This sketch and post originally appeared in the New York Times on October 11, 2010.