A few weeks ago, while sifting through an old memory box, I came across one of my childhood diaries. It looked so aged; the bright pink and blue pattern on the cover had faded over time to dull pastels. But the sight of it brought me right back to that time. 1987. I was 9 years old.
I couldn’t help myself. I cracked it open. I began to read the excited, innocent and often dramatic musings that I wrote as a young girl. One entry struck me. It read:
Yesterday was the best day ever. We’re so rich. My parents bought a new Camry, and my brother and I got a bunch of new toys. I also got a new pink sweater from Mervyn’s. It’s SO CUTE! [entry continues…]”
Logic as a 9-year-old was that if we’re buying these new things, then we must have a lot of money. But, we really didn’t. My parents were financially responsible, so the fact that a new car coincided with a couple of new toys and a sweater was purely coincidental. It provides an interesting peek, however, into how I perceived wealth and money at that age. A new car, toys and clothes were indicators that we were financially set. But the reality was that while we were not living in poverty, we were not wealthy either. We were a typical middle-class family with my dad as the wage-earner and my mom who was the stay-at-home parent. We always managed to have enough, but we were far from rich.
The day I wrote that diary entry, I remember well. I recall the excitement I felt. But my feelings were connected to something greater than the thrill of newly-acquired material possessions. I couldn’t have really known, or even described the greater sense of relief I felt, but looking back now, buried under the excitement was a calm peace that comes with financial security. It may have been an illusion, but I felt it nonetheless.
Has Anything Changed?
This retrospective look back at my view of prosperity at 9-years-old got me thinking. 26 years later…what are my perceptions of wealth now? What does it mean to be successful/prosperous/wealthy? I can already say for certain that I’ve passed through several “stages” during these last 26 years.
In my late teens, being well-off meant your parents bought you a brand new car for your 16th birthday, and at anytime you could request a small lump sum of cash for a trip to the mall. You would not be questioned as to whether your household chores had been completed, as you had none. Then came the “house-poor” 20’s. I had a well-paying job; it was a race to see how much I could acquire, and I figured that the bigger the house, the more successful I must be. Cars, a larger home, TVs, nice furniture…check. Going into my 30’s, I began outsourcing various tasks I found unpleasant. A weekly cleaning service was hired, a gardener began to take care of the yards, a trip to the nail salon every week or so, an expensive hair stylist, and a monthly restaurant expenditure of $1,500 a month.
What those years represent is the chasing of a feeling. The constant, relentless pursuit of that moment when you feel that you’ve arrived and you’re finally living in abundance. But despite the fact that I was surrounded in nice things, in a spacious suburban home, with hired help taking care of less-desirable tasks, that moment didn’t come. I was still viewing prosperity through the glasses of a 9-year-old girl; if I just acquire enough, it will mean I must have lots of money. It will mean I’m financially secure. But, I wasn’t. I had cars, but no money. I had nice furniture, but no money. My kids were in private preschool, but I…had…no…money. While my gardener mowed my lawn, he probably had more in his checking account than I did.
Do You Feel Successful Now?……How About Now?……Or, Now?
But what I find interesting, is that during all of the mad, crazy spending I never felt “prosperous”. It was just my life. Even though our bank statements showed some nice deposits, it showed withdrawals at the same rate or faster. Every month was just another run on the hamster wheel. Money comes in, money goes out, without anything meaningful to show for it. Annual pay increases would come, and…nope, still didn’t feel financially secure; and they were often spent before they were earned.
When my spending finally caught up with me a few years ago, I had my first financial wake-up call. I had reached the bottom of a giant chasm, and there was nowhere left to go but up. We turned our finances around with a fierce intensity. Soon the $40,000 in debt was paid off, and then we had our second financial wake-up call. It wasn’t long before money was being saved…at a very fast rate. The chronic stress I didn’t realize I had, was falling away. With every deposit into our investment account, I had a feeling of exhilaration. And the “high” wasn’t temporary. At any time, I could check our account, and see the progress we were making. I was no longer chasing the high that comes with the consumption of “stuff”. I moved from the “law of diminishing returns” to a place of increasing returns. Returns on investments that were growing on a daily basis.
For me, feeling financially at peace didn’t lie in what we spent, but in what we kept. For so long, we spent all of our money and energy chasing the ILLUSION of prosperity, instead of prosperity itself.
And while we spend less and save more than we ever have before, we’ve managed to simultaneously increase our satisfaction with life. I find happiness in things where money isn’t necessary; playing board games with my children, making s’mores in the backyard, a bike ride and picnic with my husband.
I’ll never forget the excitement when we reached that first $100,000 milestone. In 2 years, we had gone from $40,000 in debt to $100,000 saved and invested. I stared at the number, took a screen shot on my laptop to capture the moment, and smiled.
Sitting there on the sofa in my living room, the smile soon turned to a release of tears. Not a flood, but just a few. I could barely grasp what we’d accomplished, yet I could see our future in my mind; imagining where we’d be in a month, a year, 5 years.
The excitement was familiar to me; but this time it wasn’t connected to the thrill of newly-acquired material possessions. This time it wasn’t an illusion of financial security as seen by a 9-year-old girl. I was excited and at peace, and this time…it was real.