Hope Deferred Makes the Heart Sick
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” So reads a Solomonic proverb penned in the 10th century B.C. Consider with me, however, a contemporary application of this ancient wisdom, especially in the realm of personal finance.
“We’ve got to apologize, Tim,” said a financial planning client with whom I had a great relationship.
“Whatever for?” I asked.
“You know that new Lexus? The one that backs itself into a parallel parking spot?”
“Yes, I’ve seen the commercials.”
“We bought one,” the client said, with his head bowed in apparent shame.
I’d never communicated that these folks—or anyone, for that matter, who has sufficient means—shouldn’t use said means to purchase a vehicle of their choosing. But the general impression the public has toward financial advisors and educators seems to be that we all think the best use of money is in storing it up and avoiding its deployment. Defer, defer, defer.
It’s hard to argue that we in the money business don’t have a tendency to overstate the benefits of deferred gratification. Some (loudly) preach the outright virtue of financial asceticism early in life, pledging that present deprivation will surely result in future comfort, if not abundance.
The cowed mentee may be afraid to ask the question begged: “But how long should I defer? And what if that future never comes?”
As someone who spent several days inches from death after a serious car accident early in life, I know too well that tomorrow is not a promise. As someone who has walked beside a dear friend and client, during his career and all the way through the completion of his retirement dream home, only to watch him leave it—and this earth—shortly thereafter, I firmly believe that it’s entirely responsible to allocate a portion of one’s means at every stage of life to unabashed enjoyment. (And I’m very pleased to say that was true of my friend.)
Perhaps it is a worthy aim to practice the habits of frugality so you can accommodate the occasional extravagance.
Perhaps a 30-year mortgage is preferable to the 15-year variety if it allows a young family to take more memorable vacations while everyone is still under one roof.
Perhaps it’s advisable to turn down the promotion that would allow you to secure your financial future sooner if it would compromise your values in the present.
Perhaps there isn’t necessarily more virtue in spending tomorrow what could be spent today.
Perhaps it’s permissible to buy the Lexus that backs itself into a parking spot—guilt free.
A Longing Fulfilled
But the voice of wisdom is often multidimensional. Simple, but not simplistic. Surely this beautiful poetry isn’t meant to be used as a blunt tool to rationalize financial thoughtlessness. Yes, a “longing fulfilled is a tree of life,” but we’re still talking about a longing, I remind myself.
Perhaps the impulsive purchase is too shortsighted to qualify as a longing.
Perhaps the joy gained in fulfilling a want or desire is proportionate to the extent of the longing.
Perhaps the best use of financial planning is to help identify which longings are worthy, and to create a plan to enjoy the realization of their fulfillment. But it certainly is not to exclusively encourage deferment and hope for the best.
This commentary originally appeared July 2 on Forbes.com
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