Personal Finance

Getting 'ahead' in life financially is subjective

April is National Financial Literacy Month, and that leads to lots of events aimed at helping people become better money managers.

But during a recent live discussion, I received a question that we should all be asking as we strive to reach higher financial ground.

“Throughout my 18 years of marriage, I have told my husband he works too hard for us not to get ahead,” a reader wrote. “Recently, I was discussing this with a friend and she asked me ‘What is your definition of getting ahead? Is it a big house, luxury car and pricey vacations?'

“I looked at her like she had two heads. It had never occurred to me there could be multiple definitions to getting ahead in life. I have always assumed living within your means, staying out of debt and saving for the future is getting ahead in life. I have nothing against people that have material items that make them stand out in life, as long as they can afford them.

“Michelle, what is your definition of getting ahead in life?”

Before I answer the question, I have to point out that there are many people who are living on the margins. I suspect their definition of getting ahead – at least in the short term – is far different than the one offered by this reader.

The Census Bureau estimated that 46.7 million Americans lived in poverty in 2014 – including 21 percent of all children under 18. For these people, getting ahead is more about just trying to keep from being destitute. They struggle to find affordable housing, to feed their families and to have reliable transportation.

I wanted to point this out because millions of others are already “ahead” but don’t realize it. They have a nice home, more than enough food and no problem getting to and from work. They can open up their closet and decide what to wear. They can get a clean glass of water.

I’d like more of the discussion during National Financial Literacy Month to center around not working so hard to get more stuff.

There are more than 48,000 self-storage facilities nationwide, according to the Self Storage Association. About 10 percent of American households currently rent a self-storage unit. If that’s you, your stuff has its own place and it’s air-conditioned.

You can now buy a special space-saving bag in which you can place your clothes and then have the air sucked out so that you can create more storage to pack away more stuff.

How many times has the rod in your closet collapsed from too many clothes hanging on it? Are you storing clothes and items in a guest room? If you do host a guest, do you have to make room for their own things?

I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating. My pastor, during a Sunday service, once asked for people to raise their hands if they were rich. Out of the hundreds of people in attendance, only about a half-dozen did. Some kept their hands down because they were wondering what his definition of rich was. Others, like me, were doing a mental tabulation of the financial things they hadn’t accomplished yet.

I want to pay off my home before I retire. You too might put off considering yourself rich until you’re mortgage-free, right?

I used to measure my financial success in ways that would never let me call myself rich.

But when I think about where I came from, I have to acknowledge that I’ve gotten ahead. Gone are the times when I worried about not having enough food. I don’t have to reuse tea bags, although I still do because it’s hard to break my penny-pinching ways.

My definition of getting ahead is realizing that if you make more than a living wage, have affordable housing and enough to eat, you’re doing well. If you have so many clothes that you could go weeks without repeating an outfit, you’ve gotten ahead.

If you come home and don’t have to worry if the lights will be on, you are living better than a lot of folks.

Now, don’t get so satisfied that you stop building a cushion for financial emergencies. Keep investing for retirement, or start saving for your senior years. Get rid of your debt as soon as you can because that will put you ahead.

But at the same time, we’ve got to stop raising the financial bar so high that we never have a feeling that we’ve gotten ahead.

Appreciate the good life you have and you'll be happier for it.

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