Money & Meaning
Everyone has dreams of wealth. But how do you take the steps to put those dreams in place? Let me share some of what I’ve learned over thirty years of advising clients as they walk through the labyrinths of their lives. As an advisor, I’ve had the privilege of witnessing people articulate their visions, take leaps of faith to achieve those goals, deal with numerous setbacks along the way, and ultimately find a sense of joy and well-being that is what wealth is all about.
Part of what I’ve observed is that over time, people’s relationship to what they may think of as “wealth” evolves. It almost always starts off with organizing what they have and analyzing that. As they accumulate wealth, we need to invest it and apply it in strategies to help them realize their dreams.
But it’s not “money” per se that brings joy. I’ve also observed many unhappy people who had plenty of money. That doesn’t solve life’s problems. Where I see transformation is with a shift of attitude. A slow recognition of appreciating what we already have. Understanding we have enough to care for ourselves and our families. That is no small feat and can take most of a lifetime to achieve. But it is possible when you look at it through a slightly shifted lens.
Applying universal principles of gratitude, mindfulness, and discernment can enhance the process of evolving to your best self. By taking what you have right now, envisioning your goals, working steadily on your plan, you can watch your dreams take shape. It changes you as a person. It’s about more than you. Your journey can be extremely rewarding and can happen at any level of wealth.
When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.
Good Financial Planning is Transformative
Life is complicated and messy. Even if you do plan for your future, life will throw you curve balls. All of us need to learn how to adapt and survive. COVID-19 has shown us the importance of adaptability in dramatic fashion. Planning can help make these transitions a little easier.
Before we jump into the techniques and practicalities of financial planning, let’s take a moment to think about why you’re doing this at all. After all, many people never do any financial planning. They live day-to-day and often don’t understand why things don’t get better. Financial planning takes your precious time and it’s not always fun. So why do it?
Let’s look at some typical financial situations before and after doing planning.
Do you see some things you recognize?
- Every time the market goes through a correction, you wonder if you’re going to be OK. Your anxiety levels soar.
- You have no idea how to value your financial assets. No real clue if things are getting better or worse from year-to-year.
- You spend every paycheck and have very little savings. You are constantly frustrated when unexpected bills come up and you don’t have the savings to pay them. You get into a cycle of not paying one bill to pay another. You don’t really know where your money goes. It just goes.
- You have lots of accounts held at many places. Old brokerage accounts. Old retirement plans. You haven’t looked at how they are invested in a long time. You’re afraid to look.
- If you died, no one would have a clue where to find any of your important papers or passwords. Financial records are shoved in a drawer or closet in no particular order.
- Every time you look for something, you waste time and are frustrated.
- You know what you owe and what you own. You can see how your financial situation changed from last year to this year.
- You have prioritized how you want to allocate your cash flows. When you get a paycheck, money automatically flows into savings and into your checking account to spend.
- You have prioritized your financial goals. You see progress on both shortterm and long-term goals.
- When the stock market corrects, you know you’ve planned for this and your long-range plan will still be OK.
- You feel a sense of financial freedom. You have what you need and can afford to do some of the things you really want to do with your life.
- Your accounts are consolidated and simplified. You don’t have lots of accounts all over the place anymore. It’s much easier to review your investments.
- You have automated your savings. Just like your retirement plan at work, you save a healthy amount each paycheck into your brokerage account. That money is automatically invested.
- You’ve talked with your family about what to do when someone dies. You feel a sense of peace that you’ve planned what you can and your family will have some security.
Please notice, nowhere did I list “You beat the market.” In the grand scheme of financial planning, that’s almost irrelevant. Today many people use passive investing where you buy the market as a whole—you don’t try to beat it. Most important is that you achieve your objectives—both financial and life goals.
Financial planning has the potential to help you live a life that makes you happier. If you want to achieve your dreams of wealth, you’ll need work on two things: 1) applying principles of sound money management and 2) recognizing and appreciating joy and contentment already in your life. Finding how the two interrelate can open this transformational process of financial alchemy. A little heart and a little math are required.
Any Dream of Wealth Starts with Intention
The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
By thinking about what you want to accomplish at the start of each day, you consciously plant the seed for what’s important to you. Even if the day is completely blown away with distractions and setbacks, your mind will lead you back to what you wanted to do that day.
There is joy in being able to focus on what you value. For example, I might start out with the intention to be more creative today. Or to be of service to each person that crosses my path. Or to notice something beautiful about my surroundings. This brings me joy.
Every time I think about money, I think about intention. What is this money supposed to do? Grow? Provide security? If you don’t know what your objective is, you can’t measure your progress. For example, we live in times of great financial volatility. If my intention is to provide stability in someone’s portfolio, then I invest in a way that makes that a priority. In that case, we aren’t trying to maximize returns. We are trying to help the person find a level of risk that is appropriate for their wellbeing.
Whatever your dream, it starts with intention. What are you trying to do? At some point, you may need to ask yourself, how much is enough? When do you know if you have what you need to be happy and comfortable or whatever your intention is? The only way is by starting with this affirming step on the path to realizing your dreams.
Transforming Your Relationship with Money is Multi-Dimensional
If you wait to enjoy your life until you reach your ultimate goals, you may be waiting a long time. Take time to celebrate life right now. Of course we all want to think about where we want to go next and how to make that happen, but it’s important to also take time now to appreciate what we already have and how precious that is.
The great Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh is masterful in his teachings on mindfulness. He reminds us that we need to think about our breathing, our heartbeat, our steps as we walk.
Breathing and walking in mindfulness puts us in touch with the miracles of life all around us, and our compulsive thinking will dissipate very naturally. Happiness arises as we become more aware of the many wonders available to us.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to the basics—like breathing or walking. It is calming the mind so that you focus on where you are right now and what you are doing. Clearing the mind and focusing puts things in perspective. That in turn can lead to joy through simplicity and clarity.
Being mindful with money can mean many things—looking at a Net Worth Statement and realizing how much you already have (people always seem surprised when they see it all added up), inventorying what you own and seeing how much of that you aren’t even using or enjoying, or recognizing that the people in your life need your time and attention as well as financial support.
In your portfolio, it can mean knowing what you own and why. Many times it’s easier to stick with your strategy if it resonates personally with your own value system. And as your assets grow, you can be mindful of how you share that wealth with others to create a better world.
Being mindful can help you when you are overwhelmed. Focusing on the basics can help you put one foot in front of the other. As financial advisors, we witness our clients walk through all kinds of extremely challenging situations— death of a loved one, serious illness, loss of a job or home. Good advisors help as much behaviorally as they do numerically.
Mindfulness means being truly present with life and allowing it to unfold without judging it. ” The 22 Non-Negot iable Laws of W ellness, Greg Anderson
To me, gratitude is key to achieving true wealth. There is no question that there is power in the simple exercise of counting your blessings. As I’ve observed my most successful clients, they find satisfaction and contentment in their everyday lives even as they strive for the next milestone. And they give back in recognition of what has propelled them to success.
Part of being grateful is to appreciate what we have. It’s so easy to forget this simple lesson. Unconsciously we slip into wanting more and appreciating what we have less. I’ve witnessed the phenomena of “spending creep” where you earn more money, but you still don’t seem to have enough. That’s why it’s critical to periodically examine where your money goes.
We forget that it’s our choice how to allocate our money. We can choose to spend it on things that bring us joy and get us closer to our dreams. It’s a classic trap to get so busy making more money that we no longer have time to be grateful for what we have.
The three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.
Working Through Times of Hardship
Part of transforming your relationship with money is working through challenges and finding your way forward. It might not be obvious at first that you can find glimpses of joy in times of great sadness or difficult circumstances. It takes a greater awareness to realize this type of mindset.
Nkosi Johnson, a South African Aids activist, said at the age of twelve “Do all you can with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are.” I try to remember that short little phrase whenever possible. I am inspired by people who have overcome life’s challenges and risen to the occasion.
Almost everyone goes through adversity on the way to realizing their dreams. It’s all about getting up and trying again. One of the greatest values we offer to our clients is acting as a sounding board. What else can we try when Plan A didn’t work?
Even when you have lost someone or face overwhelming challenges, there are little things that you can recognize that can bring you peace. You may find solace in nature or art or music. Or there may be people–children or grandchildren– that create a legacy that can continue to be your footprint in time.
It’s freeing to let go. But it’s not always easy to do. This can be as simple as clearing out your closet. Or as complex as selling a business that you’ve spent your life building. But letting go of past patterns or old mental scripts about money may be just what you need to do to move forward.
Part of letting go is allowing someone else to have a chance to experience the joy of creation. It is an act of generosity. They may choose a different way of approaching a similar opportunity. I see this when we start to work with families who want to prepare their adult children to take on more responsibilities for inheriting wealth. Or when a business owner is preparing for succession.
Change is inevitable. Transitions are at the heart of financial planning and when people most often seek out an advisor. Most change is emotional as well as logistical. Getting another perspective can help you make your best decision about what to do next.
A big part of our role as advisors is helping you clean up financial messes. That is especially true when we start a new engagement. There is a period of three months or so where we gather all the financial papers that you need to organize and start the process of consolidating your assets. Having someone motivate you to take the time to really think about what you want in your life can be a game changer as you work toward your dreams of wealth.
Being, Not Doing
To truly transform your relationship with money, you may have to stop doing and start being. This is part of where our advanced society has lost something that we used to know: we need time to appreciate what we have. Our culture encourages us to add more and more in our lives and that becomes unhealthy at some point. We’ve forgotten how to say no to taking on more and making time to just enjoy life.
Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.
When you go on vacation, you may get a glimpse of simply being. Why can’t this concept become more a part of daily life? Of course you need to go to work and take care of your families, but you also need to make “being” a priority. You may meditate first thing in the morning before anyone else is up. You may carve out a couple hours on the weekend to just chill with no agenda. You may decide to say “no” more often.
In 2020, a global pandemic forced all of us to change virtually overnight. Working from home immediately changed our routines. Many of us found ourselves re-examining how we prioritized our lives. Although we grieve for the human tragedy caused by this disease, in some ways we have been given the gift of reorienting ourselves with space and time. By adapting, even to massive change, we may find we emerge from this with a greater sense of well-being born from unexpected circumstances.
So how can you transform your relationship with money? Perhaps it’s finding the right mix of risk and reward with your investments that allows you to be at peace. Or putting your plan in place and knowing that you’ve prepared for periods of downturns and that you will be OK. Or maybe it’s being aware of what you can and can’t afford—and finding happiness in what you already have. It’s that sense of all is well even in times of great uncertainty.
It’s inspiring and exciting to think about how life may change for you by combining the elements of good financial planning and the creation of wellbeing in your life. But it all starts with intention. What do you want from life?