The toy trap: we all have friends who’ve fallen in. I received a wave of emails after publishing Debt: The Last Social Taboo?, all sharing similar sad stories. Author Dave Ramsey summed up the problem best: “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.”
Malcolm Forbes, lover of all-things extravagant, likely originated the phrase “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Few of us could ever afford Forbes’ Fabergé egg collection or the ostentatious parties he threw, but many a retiree or near-retiree has overspent on cars, boats, homes, and a surgically enhanced trophy wife or two.
My wife Jo tells me this isn’t just a “guy thing” either. She has friends with two or three closets filled with designer clothes. We have one friend who’s been retired for over a decade, who still makes monthly trips down Michigan Avenue in Chicago to shop, shop, shop. Her closet is full of enough fur coats to spark a PETA riot.
So is there room in 2014 for a return to financial modesty—room to reject the toy trap? I say yes! Here’s our five-step guide to doing just that.
#1—Someone always has a bigger, faster boat. Playing the game is futile, because no matter how much wealth you have, you can’t win. Someone will always have more.
Rush Limbaugh once boasted about buying the newest, biggest, fastest Gulfstream jet, a G650. He mentioned something about flying nonstop from Raleigh to Honolulu with 20 of his best friends.
I won’t begrudge a man any toy he can truly afford, but Limbaugh is in for a rude awakening. As far back as 2009, the CEO of Gulfstream’s parent company had already announced it was working on developing a plane “beyond” the G650. What will Limbaugh do then? In the meantime, some oil baron from the Middle East is looking down from his 747 with a smirk on his face.
I was on a 13-hour flight from London to Miami years ago and totally bored, so I made a list of all the material things I would love to own. Yeah, I included a private jet and a yacht. Then I calculated the cost of buying and maintaining those toys and realized I’d have to win the lottery every year to afford such luxury. Time to get real!
The sooner you get a handle on needs versus wants, the better off you and your family will be. Owning cool stuff is fun. Most real people, however, have to choose between the neat toys they’d like and saving enough to retire comfortably.
So until those lottery wins come in, I’ll continue flying commercial with the other mere mortals. If you want to treat yourself, pay a little extra to upgrade your seat.
#2—Don’t misunderstand status. In dictionary terms, status means:
- rank: the relative position or standing of somebody or something in a society or other group
- prestige: high rank or standing, especially in a community, work force, or organization
- condition: a condition that is subject to change
In Miller terms, there are least two different types of status. The first I call “pseudo-status.” In the article mentioned above, I wrote about my friend Tom, the poster child for spendaholics anonymous. Tom spent a good portion of his adult life trying to impress others and move up in the pecking order. Could Tom have really bought his way to the top? No.
The second type of status I call “earned status.” Each major professional sport has a hall of fame. The players enshrined in them stood out among their peers and earned their status in those communities.
Earned status is a laudable aspiration. A mentor of mine once said:
“Real status does not come from telling people how important you are, but rather from others recognizing your achievements above the rest. Accomplish something, and they will know you are good. You won’t have to say a word.”
#3—You don’t have to be a scrooge. Owning nice things can make life more enjoyable. There is nothing wrong with buying cool stuff that makes you happy. Enjoying an expensive glass of wine at dinner does not make you an alcoholic or a spendaholic.
However, buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have will eventually affect your family, your retirement, and your health. Tom had closets crammed full of clothes, but he still made regular trips to the big city men’s store where he’d drop $10,000 or more each visit. He would leave the store carrying nothing—everything had to be monogrammed and shipped.
I can’t remember the last time I saw Tom in a non-monogrammed shirt. After he died, one of his children confided that his designer jeans and socks were monogrammed too. No wonder they said he had an addiction.
#4—Short-term gratification is just that: short term. Tom’s life saddens me. He had a great business, employed many people, earned a good income, and was an asset to the community. Had he focused on long-term goals rather than indulging short-term emotional needs, he would have achieved the status he so desperately wanted.
Tom fell prey to his desire to constantly feel important. He seemed to think the only way he could satisfy that hunger was to constantly buy clothes and toys. Unfortunately, that addiction is what kept him from his goal. He died bankrupt, and everyone in town knew it.
#5—Remember the lessons your grandparents taught you. You can’t buy real friends, nor can you maintain a friendship by constantly flaunting your wealth. True friendship has nothing to do with money. It comes from who you are and how you behave.
I have a friend whom I’ve known since high school. He grew up on a farm in a single-parent home. He has built quite a business empire and has more than his share of cool and very expensive toys. Unlike Tom, however, he can actually afford to write a check for them. The friends he is most comfortable with are the ones who knew him when he was poor and are happy for his success.
This friend was too busy on the farm growing up to participate in many high school activities. When the school bell rang, he rushed home to work late into the night.
Tom, on the other hand, had a different childhood. His parents looked after him financially. They even started the family business that Tom eventually took over. He never learned to save. Money magically appeared when he wanted it for many decades—until it didn’t.
Maybe things just came too easy for Tom. He never valued having money, only what it could buy him. I’ll leave that for the professionals to ponder.
Forbes and countless T-shirts in the 1980s said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” There was another popular T-shirt, though—one I’d be proud to wear—that said, “He who dies with the most toys still dies.”
Toys are not the measure of a man. The true captain of his own ship looks after his crew and their welfare until his dying day. The folks I know who are truly happy have done just that. A man who doesn’t fixate on toys he neither needs nor can afford has a much better chance at finding lasting happiness.
I am a big believer that being “rich” is a state of mind. As you cross the threshold toward retirement, the ability to maintain your lifestyle without worry can help keep you in that mindset. Retirement shouldn’t involve a lot of money worries… and it doesn’t have to.
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