The Wheel of Life

Set Money Goals While Avoiding the Envy Trap

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NY Times columnist Ron Lieber wrote a book a few years ago called The Opposite of Spoiled, in which he recommended using three jars labeled “give”, “save”, “spend”, to teach kids how to be grounded and smart with money. As adults, if we were to do the jar exercise we’d have two choices:

Choice 1: Increase the number of jars (a lot) to include grown-up labels like “housing”, “health insurance”,”feed my kids”, “therapist”, “trainer”, “omg filling up the gas tank now costs $100 instead of $60”, “I deserve a 5 star hotel for all the sh*t I put up with at work”, etc.

Choice 2: label the jars according to what we want our lives to feel like. You might be surprised at how few jars you need. Maybe the labels would be things like “prioritize friends and family”, “be creative”, “see the world”, “stay healthy”, “give to my community”.

Some jars may go the way of New Year’s resolutions. “Buy a Porsche” might become “Buy a mini-van”. “Redecorate the living room” might become “take a year off” or “pay for private school” or even “start a business”. If you’re living, you’re evolving, so it’s only natural that things will change over time.

Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure that whichever way you chose to categorize your jars, it’s unlikely you would have labeled one of them “keep up with the Jones’s”, right? But maybe you have that jar anyway, unintentionally placed front and center on the shelf. It’s hard to avoid comparisons to your friends and acquaintances and even celebrities. Remember all that stuff we’ve read about social media making us depressed because everyone’s life looks so much better than ours? On Instagram it’s always sunny, everyone is running a marathon or going on vacation or redecorating their beach house. Almost nobody is talking about their mortgage, their bad hip, their tech portfolio that’s down 35%, or having to borrow money from their parents.

In places like New York, L.A., and Silicon Valley, ostentatious spending and money-related humble-bragging are competitive sports. You might have made a $2 million bonus last year or raised $5 million for your startup, but that feels like nothing if the person in the next room made 10 times more. Not to belabor a somewhat obvious point, but will there ever be a time when you have the most money or biggest house in the world? Probably not. If you spend your working life thinking “what’s my number?”, or allowing your lifestyle goals to be driven by envy of the person with the biggest bonus, you are probably setting yourself up for a future filled with chronic dissatisfaction.

The Wheel of Life is a tool often used by life coaches to communicate the idea of living in balance and setting goals that help you achieve what’s actually important to you. It’s also useful for financial planning. Visualize a wheel with different spokes coming out from the center. In order for the wheel to go straight and even gather speed without wobbling, each spoke should be strong. You might be asked to assess your feelings around categories like Family, Career, Health, Education, Charity, Relationships, Adventure. By identifying where the gaps are, you are able to map out categories that need your attention. Let’s say you rate Adventure an importance of 10 but your time spent on adventure the last few years has been a somewhat weak 2. This may reveal that a good medium term goal is to set aside some money for a cool bucket list experience.

You can use similar exercises to suss out the real “why” when you are contemplating an expenditure. I once spent several months gathering quotes for rebuilding some storage space in my apartment, because I wanted nicer closets and was sick of having too much clutter. When I took the time to reflect on the project, I realized that in reality a)I was overwhelmed by the idea of taking on a renovation project b)I was generally stressed out and instinctively seeking more calm/less clutter in my life c)I could actually just, um, get rid of some clutter for free and d)perhaps I needed to change something in my daily routine to get the feeling of peace I was looking for.

At some point, if you’re lucky, it might be time to admit you have enough money, and hopefully by that point you will have your jars organized in a way that brings you joy.

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