During my junior year of college, my two cats and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment a few miles away from campus (I was apparently trying to get the crazy cat lady thing knocked out early). The place wasn’t much, but it was all I could afford working full-time as a receptionist during the day and going to school at night; plus, it was conveniently located right across the street from the grocery store. Shopping trips in those days were restricted to the necessities on my list and to be sure I didn’t go over budget, I kept a running tally on my calculator for any items I added to the cart.
As I walked the aisles, I remember longingly looking at items I wished I had money to buy. In a store full of food, my delicately-honed palette always craved one thing: Gushers fruit snacks. Compared to the real food I needed, something as totally devoid of nutritional value as these anything-but-fruit snacks seemed like such an indulgence. On one occasion when I passed by the Gushers yet again, I remember telling my husband, then-boyfriend “I can’t wait until I have enough money to come to the grocery store and buy whatever I want.”
I started to have that thought each time I went shopping and despite the longing for snacks, my urge had very little to do with an appreciation for junk food. Though I was focused on the idea of cavalierly tossing items into my cart, what I really wanted was to be secure enough that I no longer needed a list and calculator to grocery shop. I wanted to stop worrying about having enough money. I wanted to have some flexibility that my circumstances just didn’t allow.
As time went on, things became easier. I started earning more, my husband and I started sharing expenses and before long I could buy all the fruit snacks my heart desired. I even reached my goal of grocery shopping sans calculator and list. By my own measure, I had achieved financial success; the point at which I could stop worrying. My circumstances and my behavior had changed, and I expected my feelings to follow suit, but no matter how different things were, my feelings remained the same.
To this day, 15 years after leaving that apartment, I still can’t completely leave behind the feeling of walking a financial tightrope. I can rationally tell myself things are different. I can hold up the results of my number crunching and acknowledge that I’m good. In my mind’s eye, I can see the safety net that I have woven over time, yet the underlying fear of falling persists.
I think many of us struggle with this voice in the back of our minds that never quite trusts our financial security, particularly if we have a financial past that we’d rather not revisit. It’s tempting to believe that we can earn, save or scrimp our way to the point where our worries become a thing of the past. Somewhere along the way, we’ve all said to ourselves “When ________, I won’t have to worry about money anymore.” When I make a six-figure income, when I reach a million-dollar net worth, when I pay off my debt, when this bear market ends, when I have enough to retire, then I can finally put the weight of my financial concerns down.
The hope is that we’ll cross some threshold beyond which money is no longer relevant. We’ll be able to do what we want without having to balance the checkbook, bargain hunt or fret over the fate of our company, portfolio or economy. As we earn and save, we’ll become more insulated from negative financial consequences until one day, we reach the proverbial home base where nothing bad can touch us.
Though we can certainly improve our financial conditions and increase our resilience to potential problems, and in doing so we may worry less, that isn’t the same as being worriless. It’s important that we bifurcate these two ideas; financial security and a sense of security are two very different things. The former is something we can achieve with income, assets and insurance. The latter is something we can never resolve purely by growing and protecting our nest egg. The former is a rational idea; the latter is an emotional one.
Expecting that any financial milestone will create a sense of security is an example of how we use a rational idea to try to fill an emotional need. We do this in all areas of life, despite the fact that rational ideas are as about as effective as water on a grease fire for soothing our emotions. Building a sense of security requires us to learn when and why we feel vulnerable and how to manage that, but instead we use artificial financial milestones to try to prove to ourselves we are safe. Because such logic doesn’t really address the root of why we feel vulnerable, even when we reach our milestones lasting serenity remains just out of reach. When that happens, we don’t switch over to emotional tools, we simply move the goalpost out a bit. A little more, a little longer and then I’ll feel safe.
This pattern can create a tremendous amount of wealth. It’s no coincidence that those who worry more about money tend to save more and have lower debt and higher net worths. The risk is that by continually moving the goalpost for how much money we need to higher and higher levels, we never reach a point where we feel safe to spend on meaningful and rewarding experiences, even if we can objectively afford them.
If we get offered a dream job, but we can’t get comfortable with the lower salary, we could pass up a rewarding career. If we imagine ourselves feeling totally at ease to retire when we hit a certain dollar amount of savings, but when we get there, we’re still afraid to give up our paycheck, we might just put in a few more years at the company. If the market has recovered but we’re still feeling the hangover from the recession, we might delay the trip we had planned. These choices have nothing to do with whether we can afford them. They aren’t driven by financial security; they’re driven by our sense of security.
Being stress-free can’t be our primary indicator that we are safe to move forward. We could spend a lifetime setting higher and higher financial thresholds, waiting for the accompanying sense of security that may never come. In the process, we may give up valuable time and experiences that we can’t get back.
Instead of imagining a financial scenario in which it will no longer be necessary to worry, maybe it’s time to imagine how we will overcome our worry about money. If we can nurture our sense of security, we might be able to do more than just build wealth. We might actually be able to enjoy it.