Money problems are almost never about the money
Ramit Sethi has a great podcast called I Will Teach You to Be Rich (based on his website and business name).
On the podcast, he interviews couples who have a specific money problem. One episode features a wife who is on the verge of divorcing her husband because he is so cheap despite having millions of dollars. On another episode the wife feels her husband is not contributing enough to the household when the truth is they can’t afford to live where they want to live in New York City.
The episodes usually start off with one member of the couple saying something like “I want to buy X but every time I mention it to my spouse we get into a fight about it.”
Then Ramit does his financial therapy thing and dives deeper into the issue, ultimately uncovering the root cause of the problem which is often a combination of childhood experiences with money, poor communication skills, etc.
Near the end of each episode Ramit asks the couple to describe what a rich life looks to them. Ramit doesn’t care what exactly it is they want, but he does want the couple to get specific about their desires and plan for it together.
It’s a gateway exercise that will allow the couple to address their “not about the money” issues and proactively build a positive vision of their lives together.
The answers can be fun too. There are lots of travel aspirations and extended vacations, beach homes, and even Super Bowl tickets.
But I do have a criticism with this approach.
A rich life is not created through luxury purchases
The show gives the impression that the rich life can be generated from purchasing some kind of luxury item or experience.
I suspect this is due to the format of the show. Ramit can’t follow these couples around for the rest of their lives seeing how they attempt to build their rich lives (Note to self: e-mail Ramit to turn this concept into a Bravo TV show).
But nevertheless, viewers may come away thinking that if they just plan for a luxury purchase or experience with their partners, their lives are are going to be dramatically “richer.”
But if that’s your expectation, you’ll be disappointed.
A rich life stems from living in alignment with your values.
If you work a demanding, high paying and high prestige job but you value spending time with your family more than the job, you will feel a deep anxiety and sadness that can’t be addressed with a luxury purchase (queue up Cats in the Cradle…).
If you feel strongly about a particular social cause (poverty, mental health issues, etc.) but never do anything to help address it, you’ll feel like a fraud.
A luxury vacation with your spouse won’t solve those problems. The rich life should go deeper and be more holistic than what Ramit can get to on his podcast.
Rich lives are cultivated through action and reflection
What I like about Ramit’s approach is that it forces you to think about the specifics of your rich life (even if it is luxury purchase or experience) and then to take action against them.
For example, Ramit had a guest that wanted to buy a beach house. Purchasing a beach house was potentially out of reach financially, which was disappointing to the guest, but after the “rich life” question, she thought maybe just renting a beach house for a week or two every year could work.
This is because she cared less about the beach house and more about the wonderful memories she could create with her friends and families. The beach house was just the context in which she would do that.
If she actually does end up renting a beach house she can evaluate how it felt and whether it accomplished what she thought it would. If so, great! If not, she can make adjustments.
This cycling between action and reflection is critical. We cannot simply think our way to a rich life.
For example, Buddhists teach the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. The Four Noble Truths are fundamental insights about suffering. The Eightfold paths are guidelines on how to live (right livelihood, right concentration, right effort, etc.).
These two tenets of Buddhist doctrine help align the way you live with your [Buddhist] values. It demands a consistent assessment of your actions in the context of Buddhist teachings. This action and reflection cycle (Buddhists lovvveee cycles) when practiced will help you cultivate a rich life.
But let’s assume you’re not Buddhist. How do you figure out your values and how do you figure out how to live in alignment with them?
Don’t re-invent the values wheel
We inherit values from our parents, our peers, and our broader culture. Ramit frequently makes the point that our attitudes towards money can often be traced back to our childhood. Some view money as a source of frustration, others view it as security, and others view it as a source of pleasure.
The problem with inherited values is that we can inherit values that don’t serve us and that directly contradict what we know about living good and meaningful lives.
In American culture for example, we idolize achievement and worldly success over all else.
David Brooks described this masterfully in terms of resume virtues and eulogy virtues:
“The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”
If you grew up in this culture, it is highly unlikely you spend any amount of time thinking about eulogy virtues. You may believe you’re a good person, or at least, not a bad one, but you’ve never really thought about what moral traits or virtues you should live by.
The good news is that you don’t have to create these values for yourself from scratch. If Ramit asks you ,“what do you value in a rich life” you don’t have to grasp at straws. We know through ancient wisdom that there are moral values that we should aspire to.
Christianity teaches us to love each other. Buddhism asks its practitioners to help others reduce their suffering. Stoicism advocates the use of reason to act virtuously. Taoism tells us live in harmony with nature and the natural flow of things. Epicureanism shows us how to distinguish between true pleasures that contribute to human flourishing and false pleasures which do the opposite.
However, while these values are time-tested and universal, how you live by them needs to be calibrated to the specific circumstances of your life.
Not everyone can become a monk or work for an NGO in a developing country. But maybe you can be a little kinder at work or be more attentive to your family. Perhaps instead of ignoring the homeless guy outside of the grocery store you take a second to acknowledge him and give him a few bucks.
Ramit just scratches the surface of the rich life on his podcast, but you can go deeper. The rich life demands it.