The key to wealth is being satisfied with what you already have

by J.D. Roth

For the past few weeks, I’ve been making sales calls with David, my replacement at the box factory. We’re visiting existing customers to explain the transition. Most of my clients know that I’m part-owner in the family business. “Why are you leaving?” they want to know. “What are you going to do now?”

“I’m going to write,” I say.

“About what?” some of them ask.

“Personal finance,” I say, and that’s usually the end of the conversation. But this morning my answer launched a great discussion with a long-time customer named Ray.

“I was going to get into personal finance at one time,” said Ray. “Too many money guys are jerks. They’re slimeballs. They take advantage of little old ladies. I wanted to help the little old ladies. I was going to become a Certified Financial Planner. ”

Our conversation turned to the economic doom and gloom so prominent in the news media over the past few weeks. With storm clouds on the horizon, he’s been trying to get his co-workers to pay attention. “Get out of debt!” he tells them. “Spend less! Save your money!”

“I talk about money a lot,” Ray confessed. “My son is afraid to bring his friends over to the house. ‘Your dad is going to talk finances again,’ they tell him. And I do.”

“‘Do you invest in your 401(k)?’ I ask them. ‘No,’ they say. ‘Then you’re an idiot,’ I tell them. They can’t believe it. ‘Your dad just called me an idiot,’ they say to my son. ‘You are an idiot,’ he tells them.”

Ray laughed. “Some of my own friends wonder what I could possibly know about money. I live in a small house. I drive a beat-up old car. They drive new cars and live in McMansions. They don’t think I know what I’m talking about. They don’t understand that the key to wealth is being satisfied with what you already have.”

I murmured agreement as Ray continued: “‘I’ve lived in the same house for 28 years,’ I say to my friends. ‘My house is paid for. Is yours? My car is paid for. Is yours? I could retire today. Could you?’ I don’t have a boat, I don’t have an RV, and I don’t have fancy clothes,” Ray said, indicating his modest attire. “I save my money. I invest it. That’s the way to wealth.”

Normally when I visit customers, we only talk about boxes. It was exciting for me to find somebody so passionate about saving, somebody who grasped the fundamentals of personal finance. But one point stuck out especially: “The key to wealth is being satisfied with what you already have,” said Ray. He’s right.

I used to believe that “wealth” meant being able to buy whatever I wanted. I felt rich if I could buy something new, even if I were purchasing it on credit. Over the past couple years, however, I’ve learned to take pleasure in the things I already own. Why do I need more comic books when I already have a large library of them? Why do I need to own another bike? What will a new chair do for me that my existing chair does not? If anything, I want less stuff.

Like Ray, I’ve discovered that wealth doesn’t come from buying new things, but from being satisfied with what I already have.

Updated: 28 February 2008

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