The American idea of financial success: How much is enough?

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By Robert DeHollander, managing principal, DeHollander & Janse Financial Group

I recently came across a study that caught my attention. A national bank surveyed Americans about their finances. It posed the question: “What do you feel you need in order to consider yourself successful?”

This is a qualitative question and doesn’t lend itself to precise evaluation. However, we all fall somewhere on the bell curve of net worth, income, and standard of living. We can see how our neighbors and friends are doing (or how we think they’re doing), and it’s natural to compare ourselves.

That’s where the study really captured my imagination. At every point along the income and net-worth spectrum, respondents said they felt they needed more than they currently had to feel successful. Why is this so?

The report examined several areas, and here is a short list included in the report:

  1. HOUSING: Our home is the place where we grow up, raise families, and make memories. It makes sense that this would be a key component of how successful we feel. However, respondents wanted, on average, a house worth more than two times the amount of their current home, and in some parts of the country, the multiple was higher. Interestingly, it didn’t depend on the size of the current home; on average, each respondent wanted a home twice as large to feel successful.
  2. TRANSPORTATION: We Americans have a love affair with our cars, and the automobile is one of the most popular status symbols in America. I have a 17-year-old son, and I see his eyes get dreamy whenever an expensive sports car drives by. He’d rather walk to school than be seen driving our family minivan into the school parking lot (it’s a great car, by the way). In the success survey, Americans, on average, felt they needed to own a car worth twice their current car’s value to feel successful. The ideal car averaged $53,000. Again, it didn’t matter where they fell on the spectrum — a more expensive car was the key to feeling successful.
  3. TRAVEL: We’ve entered a golden age of travel. There are educational trips, charitable vacations, foodie tours, wildlife excursions, grandparent-grandchild-themed trips, and more. The world has never been so accessible. Not surprisingly, travel was the No. 1 item respondents said would make them feel more financially successful. Eighty-seven percent said the ability to take vacations was the best luxury that made them feel financially successful.
  4. TIME: Time is a funny thing and a great equalizer of the human condition. It is the essential commodity of our lives and the one that can’t be increased. I often tell clients nearing retirement to slow down: “You can always make more money, but you can’t make more time.” We live in a fast-paced, stressful society that demands our time. Therefore, it’s not surprising that a majority of respondents felt that saving time by hiring a service worker was a way for them to feel financially successful. At the top of the list was a housekeeper by 53 percent of the people surveyed (remember Alice from “The Brady Bunch”?). Also included in the list were a gardener, personal trainer, personal chef, and personal assistant.

How much is enough?

The study was interesting and, for me, there are two important lessons. The first is to recognize the innate desire to attain more than we have. Harnessed constructively, this can be a powerful tool that can genuinely make us more successful. But it can also be a trap into which we unwittingly fall. If feeling successful is always obtaining larger and more expensive things, it can never be attained. I’ve read separate studies that point out that just being alive at this point in time and living in the United States places each of us in the top 2 percent for standard-of-living in human history. That’s something to ponder and for which to be thankful.

The second lesson is the classic Stephen Covey principle: Begin with the end in mind. Achieving financial security is obviously closely tied to the American idea of success. However, at some point, pursuing more wealth will not make us happier. Don’t let your feelings get in the way of enjoying the success you already have in your life. Ask yourself, “How much is enough?” You may find you’re already there.

Robert DeHollander is a managing partner and co-founder of the DeHollander & Janse Financial Group in Greenville.

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