A few days ago, I was being interviewed by a local newspaper when the interviewer, after asking a ton of questions about frugality and my ideas on personal finance, simply asked me the titular question.
Do you want to be rich?
I thought about it for a moment and realized the question - and the answer - isn’t as easy as it sounds.
I don’t want to be rich in the Bill Gates sense of the term, because many of the things I enjoy doing in life would simply become impossible. Bill Gates can’t go to the grocery store with his family, not without shutting the place down - he has employees do it instead. Bill Gates can’t simply go on a stroll through a neighborhood - it’s too much of a security risk. He’s also constantly targeted with people who want something from him and feel as though they deserve it simply because he has more wealth than they can imagine.
I do not want that kind of wealth in any way, shape, or form. I don’t want anything even close to it. If I found myself in his shoes, I’d do much the same thing that he’s doing - I’d be giving it away to worthy causes just as fast as I could while being sure the money was being spent in a worthwhile fashion.
Yet, although being able to help people in such a way would bring me some joy, I would still feel as though I was missing a lot of things in life.
I don’t even want to be what I call “locally rich” - the local businessman who is the richest person in the neighborhood with the nicest house and so on.
Recently, the home of West Des Moines developer Dave Walters had his house foreclosed with an estimated price tag of $4.2 million - meaning it was the most expensive house in the Des Moines area. The local newspaper featured a visual tour of it - and I realized that, as I looked at the pictures, I wouldn’t want to live in that house. The upkeep costs would be tremendous, requiring me to have to work at a very high level just to maintain the place. In fact, to maintain it, you would have to have hired help - it goes far beyond what a single person would ever want to do (or even could do).
What I really want in life is financial independence. I dream of simply being able to live my life as I live it now without having to worry about future income. I don’t even desire to spend much more than we spend right now - the only thing I might add is the ability to travel a bit with my family as my children get older. I’d also like to be able to devote myself more and more to volunteerism and other causes.
That, in fact, is my long term goal. I’d like to reach that point in the future, but I’m in no rush to get there (trust me, if I were in a rush to get there, The Simple Dollar would have a lot more advertisements on it).
But here’s the kicker: from the perspective of many people, financial independence is rich. For me to have what I would call full financial independence, I’d need to have a net worth above two million dollars. The average American right now will not earn that much from their employment in their lifetime. At the same time, however, for a decent slice of this decade, the average American had a negative savings rate.
On the other hand, I view being rich as a state where you have so much money that you’re either continually accumulating more money, spending it in wasteful ways, or giving it away through philanthropy, but in exchange for that you lose some of the ability to enjoy simple things in life. That’s an equation that I want no part in.
Much of this flashed through my mind before I answered the reporter quite simply: “I don’t want to be rich. I just want to be financially independent - to be able to live my life without financial worries.”
And, with the personal finance practices I’ve learned in the past few years, I’m heading down a path to do just that.
Some questions for you to think about and comment on: what does being rich mean to you? Do you strive to be rich, or do you have other goals?
The Simple Dollar chronicles a man's road to recovery from "total financial meltdown." As author Trent Hamm puts it, "The Simple Dollar is a blog for those of us who need both cents and sense: people fighting debt and bad spending habits while building a financially secure future and still affording a latte or two." We'll post a couple of entries a week, but you can check out his writing daily at www.thesimpledollar.com