The Dog That Caught The Car
Joanna’s family comes from a relatively poor background. “My parents left their home country in the 1980s to escape civil war, and came here, so it wasn’t easy for them. Growing up I didn’t have much money. I always wanted more. I was taught from a very young age that money was important and more of it was a good thing.”
Her parents would stash away everything they could, which was never much, and that instilled her with the importance of having money on hand. “I wouldn’t exactly call it a saving or spending mindset though.” And that’s where her familial influence with regards to personal finance ends.
Today, Joanna has other, potentially less positive influences. “My friends are all young professionals. You know the lifestyle – ‘let’s go get drinks!’ and everything. I think I’m definitely influenced by the people closest to me.”
Aren’t we all? Researchers at the University of Virginia argue that Americans are purposefully self-segregating themselves based on ideology, so the people we live closest to tend to vote the same way we do, make similar life choices, and handle their lives in similar fashions. While the research doesn’t specifically address the topic of money, Joanna’s story shows proximity can be a powerful motivating factor for financial choices too.
“I used to think $100,000 was everything. If I can just get a job that makes that much I’ll be set. Well now I’m on a clear path to meet that goal. Like if I stay at my company for a few more years, I’ll easily make that much.” Joanna’s been thrust into a world of high earners. She works for a very large multinational firm who does everything from cybersecurity to tax and financial audits. Needless to say, money is everywhere.
Joanna’s has wanted to make a six figure salary since she can remember. Once upon a time it seemed so far off that she figured it would happen at the end of her career. Realistically, it’ll happen before she turns 30. Many of her colleagues already make $100K or more. Joanna is inundated with everyday people who make more money than anyone she knew growing up. This tension between who she was and who she is has caused a few financial hiccups.
“I mean I know I should save, but I’ve made some pretty dumb decisions with money. I bought a really nice car right out of college. I got a loan, it had horrible gas mileage which is bad because I drive a lot for work, then it got recalled and I didn’t feel safe. It was just a bad decision.
“And I go out to eat pretty often with work friends. It’s not that big of a deal…” but nor is it something she would have done as a kid. Joanna’s surrounding herself with a new kind of person, someone unlike the frugal models she had in her community as a child. It’s a problem a lot of us face. Whether we grow up like Joanna and make positive choices that lead to higher incomes, or we grow up wealthy and become starving artists, readjusting our financial expectations and norms can be extremely jarring.
Especially when they happen much quicker than we anticipated. “I guess that growing up I thought money was scarce. Now I’m thinking money isn’t that scarce, but I still don’t feel like I have enough.” She tells me her goal is still to reach that $100K salary she dreamed about as a kid, but since that’s only a few years away, she has to create new goals.
I keep thinking she’s the dog that caught the car. Once we meet our goals, especially big goals like making $100K, reaching financial independence, getting that promotion, or seeing our kids leave for college, what’s next? The human condition forces us to strive for something, and when we meet a goal that’s so ingrained in our sense of self, sometimes it can be difficult to readjust to a new, more distant goal.
I ask Joanna what her new goals will be. Power. Influence. Status. Prestige. “Those might change, but they’re good goals to work toward now. If I stayed with my company I could have my life planned out until I’m 34.”
That’s 10 years away for Joanna, and a longer period of time than most people ever plan for. That’s real dedication. And given that she’s so close to her biggest goal, I have to ask “Does it make you happy?”
“My first year out of college, I wasn’t happy. I was working for a horrible manager and a very challenging client. I finally realized something that makes you miserable isn’t worth doing.” Now she does the same work for more money at a different company. “I love my manager. Finding happiness at work was my first challenge.” I take that to mean that Joanna accepts that her life is a work in progress. This is confirmed when I ask her to give my readers some advice.
“Focus on the little stuff. Always do research. Never be in a place where you need something fast and you don’t have time to do research.” She’s found that by focusing on the smaller things first – making sure that the dishes aren’t piling up or worrying about whether the dog peed while you were gone – it frees up more mental space to achieve those big $100K goals. She’s now focusing on the big stuff like changing her job to be happier (check), moving closer to home (check), and someday soon, maybe even taking the time to figure out her finances.
Listening to Joanna’s story brings me joy because she seems to be at that rare intersection of happy and successful. But it’s never enough. Achieving a high salary in no way guarantees happiness, a path toward financial independence, or meaning in your work. It always seems like there’s more work to do and more goals to set. Yet it can be difficult when those goals aren’t an ingrained part of who you are.
“Life for me has been trial and error. Now I realize there are better resources for me out there.” Luckily, she hasn’t made any irreversible financial decisions, but she’s still trying to balance who she is now which has been largely influenced by a singular drive toward a specific salary, with who she will be which is still totally ambiguous.
“Now I like myself. When I like myself I can take a course to correct things I don’t like. I just want more experiences. For me it takes experience to find out what happiness really is.” I leave our conversation wondering how Joanna’s goals will evolve, and if she knows who she’ll be after she reaches them. Naturally it makes me wonder about myself. We all have goals like Joanna – goals that fundamentally define us – things we’ve been striving for since we were little. I’ve already achieved some of my goals, but not the one I’ve wanted since I was a kid, and not the new one I’ve created in adulthood (FI). I don’t know if meeting them would change me or not.
Joanna’s story shows that it’s entirely possible for you to meet your goals if they’re specific and reasonable, often before you even anticipated it happening. Who will you become then?
Nathan is the Chief Financial Advisor at Monte Largo Financial
*Joanna’s real name has been omitted for privacy