By Eric Dean JD MBA MA MA LPC CADC

I work with clients on the emotions they experience that stem from personal financial matters. Issues include debt, bills, savings, investments, spending, budgeting, and financial responsibilities within a marriage, among many others. Just as we have relationships with our friends, co-workers, acquaintances, romantic partners, and ourselves, we also have a relationship with money.

This relationship partly depends on how much money we have and how we choose to spend (or do not spend) it, which is driven by our personal values and goals. Research indicates that millionaires feel greater satisfaction in helping to financially support others whom they care about or causes and organizations that they believe in, than in purchasing material possessions for themselves. I often hear that people feel more fulfilled spending money on experiences (such as a vacation) rather than goods (such as a car) and there is some research to back this up. Potential reasons are that experiences create better memories, provide more opportunities to connect with others, and result in fewer comparisons to others.  

There are many ways that we can look at our financial situation. For example, many people do not only view their financial situation in absolute terms, but also relative to that of similarly situated individuals such as friends and colleagues. For example, in strictly monetary terms, would you rather make $50,000 per year when the average salary in your demographic (or comparison group) is $40,000, or would you rather make $70,000 per year when the average salary is $85,000? For many people this is not an easy choice! Essentially do you want to be well above average with less money or make less than your peers, but more in absolute terms? Exploring these concepts can help us create a gauge of our success. In other words, how will you know if you have achieved your financial goals or are at least on the right track?

While there tends to be a strong focus on income, much less attention is paid to net worth. Income is how much money you receive from work and investments (among many other sources) whereas net worth, put simply, is the difference between what you own (assets) and what you owe (liabilities).  Certainly, higher incomes are positively correlated with increased wealth more often, but not always. There are people who have high incomes that put them in the 95th percentile or above, but a relatively low net worth. Circumstances vary, but many in this group are in their 20’s and 30’s, have graduate degrees and high paying jobs, but also carry a substantial amount of student loan debt and other expenses. I have also seen the opposite in those who are living on a modest fixed income but have a net worth in the millions of dollars from a lifetime of diligent saving, fruitful investments, and/or a substantial inheritance. The important message here is to figure out how you want to measure your financial success. Also consider that the source of your income/wealth may impact your contentment with it. For example, would you feel differently about building up savings from your work income versus receiving an inheritance in the same amount? Would the source of the funds effect how you spent them? These may be helpful questions to ponder. 

With COVID-19, we are witnessing an unprecedented level of financial insecurity. Prior to the pandemic, Americans reported financial stress due to a lack of savings and meeting monthly expenses. These worries have only been exacerbated by record levels of unemployment, wide-spread economic stagnation, and uncertainty about the future. While we may have limited control over our income and investments, we can control our budgeting and how we spend the money we do have. We can also manage and regulate our emotions that are triggered by financial issues beyond our control.  

In the second blog post in this series about money, I will be discussing the emotional drivers of spending and how we can reframe our attitudes and beliefs towards money. Symmetry Counseling is one of the few practices that offers financial therapy in Chicago – please call 312-578-9990 to schedule an appointment.

Sources:

Becker, Joshua. “Why Experiences Are Better Than Things.” Becoming Minimalist, 16 Oct. 2017, www.becomingminimalist.com/experiences/.

“How Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness.” PositivePsychology.com, 14 Feb. 2020, positivepsychology.com/spending-money-promotes-happiness/.

Rampton, John. “7 Reasons Why Spending Money on Experiences Makes Us Happier Than Buying Stuff.” Entrepreneur, 15 May 2017, www.entrepreneur.com/article/294163.