Living Your True Wealth

How much money do you make?

If this question immediately makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Recently, I tried an experiment. I just started asking people how much they make or how much they’re worth. The results were pretty consistent. They’d look at me in shock and stammer a bit.

At that point, I’d jump in and say, “I don’t really want to know the number, but tell me how it made you feel to get asked that question. Why do you think it made you feel that way?”

Not surprisingly, the responses were similar. We’re not comfortable talking about money. We’ve been taught that it’s rude. Even more important, we may be afraid of what the numbers say about us.

This issue came to mind about the same time my teenage son started to notice cars. He’s become familiar with many of the high-end makes and models. So when we’re running around town, it’s not unusual for him to point them out. It also didn’t surprise me when I started to hear him say things like, “That guy must have a lot of money if he’s driving that car.”

We may be very uncomfortable sharing with others our wealth in numbers. We’ve gotten really good, however, at building a material world around us that implies something about our wealth, even if the reality is something else entirely. We’ve gotten so good at it that we often treat these material things as a sign of our success. In reality, they aren’t a measure, or substitute, for any sort of real success.

I discussed this disconnect with a friend. What would happen, I asked, if we had to walk around with our true wealth flashing as a number above our heads? It would be the end of consumerism, he replied. Why would you need to buy something to represent wealth if everyone knew exactly what you were worth already?

We do know what some people make. From public employees to certain celebrities, the numbers are there to be sought out. But for the rest of us, it’s a taboo subject, and on a certain level, I believe many of us want to keep it that way. In an interview with the artist Austin Kleon, Manjula Martin posed the question, “Why don’t you feel comfortable talking specifics about money figures?”

Mr. Kleon’s answer probably sounds familiar. He said, “It’s simply about privacy. Everybody knows so much about everybody — I think actual income in dollars is one of the last things that we don’t know about each other, and I like it that way, honestly.” He went on: “I can’t think of any way that my family or I would benefit from letting other people know the exact amount of money I make — whether it’s more or less than what people think.”

The hesitation to share makes plenty of sense. I don’t blame anyone for valuing their privacy or seeing their income as something to keep private. But that silence comes at a cost, and I believe it’s one worth exploring.

We’ve gone from a time when our value was readily apparent (providing food for the tribe) to one when our value is much more abstract (say, building an app). As a result, we try to communicate our value, success or social standing in other ways.

Remember my son’s comment about the drivers of expensive cars? You probably know at least a couple of people who put on a fantastic display of wealth even though they don’t have much. They are so concerned about appearing successful that they make buying decisions that get in the way of long-term financial success.

It may never happen, but our relationship with money would change considerably if our financial decisions were transparent to the world. For instance, what would change if the car we drive or the home in which we live could no longer hide that we’ve saved nothing for retirement? Would it be easier to focus on the financial choices that help us instead of hurt us?

Maybe this idea is too radical, but for the next week, I’d love for you to test this theory. Try living as if everything you did financially was public information. How does it affect your decisions? Do you find yourself still doing things that just look good, or are you doing things that actually are good for you? Do you find it easier to be your authentic self? And, perhaps most important of all, do you now understand the difference between buying the trappings of success and actual success?

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The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of the BAM ALLIANCE. This article is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice.

© 2014, The BAM ALLIANCE

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Carl Richards, CFP®

Carl Richards is the creator of the weekly Sketch Guy column in The New York Times and is a columnist for Morningstar Advisor. Carl has also been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Financial Planning, Marketplace Money, The Leonard Lopate Show, Oprah.com and Forbes.com. His simple but meaningful sketches served as the foundation for his first book, "The Behavior Gap: Simple Ways to Stop Doing Dumb Things with Money."

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