CFI Blog

A Million Dollars Ain’t Worth a Nickel Anymore, or is It?

“The company accountant is shy and retiring. He’s shy a quarter of a million dollars. That’s why he’s retiring.”
― Milton Berle

While Monkey Brain doesn’t like to contemplate his mortality or shortcomings, I occasionally marvel at the wonders of medicine. Three times, I’ve required operations to put pieces of my body back together that I’d managed to somehow tear apart: one shoulder reconstruction and two knee surgeries. I could have lived a manageable, albeit uncomfortable life without those surgeries, but, had I lived in the day and age when we were hunter/gatherers, I’d have long since peeled the garlic, since my ability to run, jump, and throw rocks at woolly mammoths would have long since been compromised.

Even 100, or possibly 50 years ago, I could not have received the surgeries which pieced me back together. Yet, in my most recent surgery, I was in anesthesia for under 30 minutes and sent home less than three hours after I arrived at the hospital. My doctor had performed thousands of surgeries in his lifetime, putting a veritable array of Humpty Dumpties back together again.

On the way home, I e-mailed my parents a picture of my leg and sent them a quick note saying that I had survived the ordeal. Fifteen years prior, when deployed to Bosnia, it took the approximation of an act of Congress for me to call home, and when I did, the line had clicks and about a 15 second echo. A hundred years ago, the only way I could have communicated with parents a continent away would be to send a very expensive telegram, and prior to that, I’d probably simply be incommunicado.

But, despite the enormous strides and advances we’ve seen in science, technology, and medicine, we gripe and complain when our iPhones cost a couple hundred dollars or our 183” flat screen TVs cost nearly $1,000. Once upon a time, pundits told you that if you had a million dollars in the bank, you could retire. Nowadays, the general consensus is that a million dollars isn’t enough, that inflation has left that number behind, and the magic number is something much higher (want to know your number? Contact me, and let’s talk!). A million dollars ain’t what it used to be, huh?

Before we start feeling all sorry for ourselves and whining that we’ll never be able to retire and woe is Monkey Brain, for he’ll never get any bananas, we’d be well served to remind ourselves of one small matter.

I recently listened to an NPR Planet Money podcast where they interviewed economist Tim Taylor. He pointed out an excellent observation – you could have all of the money in the world in 1900 and not be able to watch television, avoid polio, or dodge the risk of dying from infection if you cut yourself. You couldn’t jump on a plane and fly anywhere in the world. You couldn’t pick up the phone and call the grandkids, or, for that matter, hop onto Facetime and see them live.

Why don’t we ever stop to think about the absolute riches we have in our lives?

Monkey Brain is Jealous of the Neighbors!

Monkey Brain has this big hangup about keeping up with the Joneses. He really doesn’t care how many bananas he has. Instead, he cares about how many bananas he has compared to how many bananas neighboring Monkey Brains have. It’s this relative consumption and conspicuousness which drives him. If he has an iPhone 4, it makes him howl with rage when all of the neighbors have iPhone 5s.

Thus, it’s quite possible to live in a world full of conveniences and pleasures that are relatively inexpensive, but, because we’ve hopped on the hedonic treadmill, we quickly lose the comparison to what we might have had if we were living a mere century ago.

When we become jealous of the Joneses, it’s because we’re using them as, what is termed in psychology as a comparison other. When we evaluate ourselves, we rarely evaluate ourselves against a set of fixed standards or against our own values. Instead, we pick someone else to compare ourselves to: “I’m not nearly as handsome as Brad Pitt!” or “I just can’t play soccer like Lionel Messi!”

If we would use a fixed set of goals to compare ourselves against, then we would be a lot happier, because, unless we ARE Lionel Messi, we’re never going to play soccer like Lionel Messi, no matter how hard we try. Even if we improve ourselves and play three times better next year than we did this year, it won’t matter, because we’re STILL not Lionel Messi. That’s why it’s important to measure yourself against two criteria:

  1. How do you rank against an absolute goal? For example, if you want to retire, you know that you need for your assets to be able to generate $X per month in income so that you can meet your retirement expenses. How do you measure up against $X?
  2. How much progress are you making towards that absolute goal? In the income example, look at how much passive income you could have generated last year or five years ago and measure that number against where you are today. Are you making progress? If not, what actions did you take to prevent the progress? What actions do you need to take to make progress? If so, what actions did you take that enabled the progress, and what actions are you taking to continue that progress?

Unless you’re the guy who built Tumblr in his basement and sold it a couple of years later for a billion dollars, the path towards financial independence is going to be a long one. There will be days when you get frustrated, particularly when it seems like the target is moving – is a million enough? Who knows? When you get frustrated, it will help to ground yourself in the present and enjoy what you have. As a study from Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania shows, being aware of time and appreciating what you have in the present will make you happier. How can you do that? Look around and think of all of the things you have which your great grandparents could have never had, even if they had all of the riches in the world. If you’re happy, you’re more likely to meet your goals.

So, next time you get frustrated because you don’t have Google Glasses, remember that Cornelius Vanderbilt could have NEVER had Google Glasses OR been able to read this website. What a miserable life!

Which would you rather have? A million dollars now or a million dollars in the time of Jay Gatsby? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Around a year ago, I wrote about how credit cards stopped me from working for the WWE. If you haven’t read it, go check out the tale of my Stone Cold Stunner.

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John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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