Having done my obligatory time in the corporate labyrinth, it’s easy to look back on the pile of fallen ladders and chipped glass ceilings with a heart of thanks for having escaped the madness otherwise known as the rat race. As some wise soul once said, even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. And what a filthy animal a rat can be. There can be nothing more soul destroying than being trapped in a job that makes you desperately unhappy. Having been there myself, I know first hand the agony of going to work in order to ‘make a living’ rather than ‘make a life’. I believe so strongly that God put us on this earth that we may have enjoy an abundant life, and a job that strips us of our happiness is essentially robbing us of our right to a fulfilling work life.
One of the most thought-provoking statements ever uttered was made by the Dalai Lama when he was asked what surprised him most about humanity. His answer was this: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.” And herewith lies the question that I believe every working person should ask themselves: What, exactly, are you prepared to trade for money?
To elaborate on this point, let’s consider a scenario. You’re coming home after a day in the office and pull up in your driveway. As you’re getting out of your car, a hijacker points a gun at you and asks you for your wallet and your car keys with a threat that he’ll kill you if you don’t hand them over. What would you do? Every person I know would avoid eye contact, hand over his wallet and car keys, and allow the hijacker to drive off with their money and their car. Why? Because you value your life more than your money and your car, not so? In a crisis situation, our human instinct (fight or flight) takes over and our most basic need for human survival becomes insurmountable. The value of our material possessions becomes completely insignificant and mere survival, albeit sans any material possessions at all, would be better than not living.
The sad reality, however, is that this natural human instinct to value life above all else becomes hopelessly lost in the world of consumerism. We’ve been turned into overly-discerning, demanding and difficult-to-please consumers by our economic system (powered by the mass marketing media), and we are now products of greed itself. We’ve allowed ourselves to become the ‘created consumer’, and we believe it is both our right and our duty to consume, spend and desire more. The real problem, however, is not the consumerism nor the greed. The real problem lies in what we’ve grown accustomed to trading in exchange for our life.
Much has been written and published about the concept of financial independence and what it means to be financially free. As lifestyle financial planners, one of our fundamental principles is to help our clients create a great life and not a good living. We firmly believe that to be financially free one needs to accept that money is just a means to an end, and is not the end itself. If one of your goals is to make as much money as possible, then it’s most probable that lifestyle financial planning is not the appropriate style of advice for you. You’re likely to be more thrilled by picking stocks and timing markets. The calibre of financial independence we ascribe to is under-pinned by a number of key principles:
- Decide how much is enough: In my previous blog entitled ‘How much is enough?‘ I elaborated on this question in detail. Being able to answer this question depends largely on whether you’ve accepted the truth that money cannot and will not make you happy. Not ever. Once you’ve decided what’s really important, the process of calculating how much money you need to live on becomes so much simpler. If your greatest desire is merely to make as much money as possible, the question ‘How much is enough?‘ becomes both redundant and irrelevant, because no amount of money will ever be sufficient to satisfy your insatiable appetite for material wealth.
- Be responsible with your money: Once you know how much is enough for you and loved ones, consider how you can employ your money for to uplift the world around you. I’ve always loved the words that Bill Gates’s mother spoke to Melinda Gates before she died, giving birth to the Gates Foundation legacy “From those to whom much has been given, much is expected“. Whilst many ascribe these words to Mrs Gates, the words were in fact recorded in the Parable of the Faithful Servant in Luke Chapter 12, Verse 48: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” Regardless of your religious persuasion, we are citizens of a world wherein there is much suffering, illness and poverty. If we (a) know how much is enough, (b) believe that all human life is equally valuable, and (c) accept that money can be used for enormous good, then the truth is we’ve all got important work to do.
- Practice fair trade: This is one of the oldest principles in the world of economics, and yet so many of us fail to apply to it to the most valuable asset of all – our life! This principle brings me full-circle to the critical opening question posed above – what, exactly, are you prepared to trade for money? And is it a fair trade? Let’s rephrase this question slightly. How much of the abundant life God has planned for you are you sacrificing in exchange for your salary and the material wealth it can buy you? And is it worth it? Many people are trapped in jobs that they, quite literally, detest while working excessive hours, sacrificing time with their children, missing out on their kids’ sports and extra-murals, travelling for business, spending a fortune on baby-sitters, tutors and au pairs, in exchange for what they perceive to be fantastic salaries. And yet they know that no amount of money can buy the delight on their son’s face when he scores his first goal or wins his first match because, quite simply, it’s priceless.
Knowing and accepting what you’re trading in exchange for your material wealth is a significant step towards attaining financial freedom. Financial freedom is not about having enough money that you never have to work again. True financial freedom is about working so that you can create a great and abundant life for you and your loved ones. This step can involve deep personal questioning and the ability to face the truth about what’s really valuable to you. Make sure that what you’re prepared to trade is a fair exchange. And don’t ever, ever trade the priceless stuff.