When I was 8- and 9-years-old, I slept on a sleeping bag on the floor in a low-income-housing apartment. My family ate dinner together every night around a wobbly card table, and all too frequently that dinner was bean soup. (Dried beans are cheap, and my mom refused to accept WIC or food stamps.)
It wasn’t that bad being poor; in fact, I didn’t think about it very often. Kind of like how a monologuing Hamlet doesn’t appear to notice the stage scenery behind him. But with that scenery, he can only ever play…Hamlet. You can’t be Cleopatra or Wise Man Number Two when you live in a haunted Danish castle.
Things got better for my parents. By the time I was in high school, there was enough to pay the bills, but no extras. And by extras, I mean roast beef or new clothes. Some people would consider those to be necessities. My parents didn’t. They still don’t. That’s part of their set point. You get used to a certain baseline, and you assume that’s what is possible or what you deserve. When you want to increase your standard of living, you’ll eventually hit an invisible barrier, a level you find it difficult to pass. That’s your set point.
Want to see an interesting contrast of wealth set points? Take a look at these blog posts written by two different poor people. One of them had a very low wealth set point. She assumed she’d always live in poverty. The other had a higher wealth set point. Whether you agree with her conclusions or not, it’s pretty apparent that she’s not okay with her current standard of living.
After I got married and had kids, I determined that I wanted more opportunities for them than I had had, but in the back of my mind I was always trying to justify the idea of summer camps, new clothes, and eating out more than twice a year. I was trying to move the stage scenery, but damn, was it heavy.
My husband’s and my economic reality began to improve after we read some financial advice books, because we finally had goals to work toward. For the first time in my life, I felt positive about my financial future.
Better job, better house, more savings…then…a plateau. For several years, the bank account wouldn’t budge. We had finally carved out a solid spot in the middle class, and then we’d unconsciously stopped moving. We had reached the tricky part. You know, the part where you lean over the balcony and shout, “Romeo, oh Romeo,” and then realize you’re still holding a skull and dagger.
We hit the books again. This time, we coached ourselves on investing and side income streams since we had already gotten out of debt. When poverty isn’t only a paycheck away, you can start establishing a mental distance from it, moving those mental boundary markers. I realized I didn’t have to play Hamlet anymore. The hardest part was putting down the script my parents had handed me. I had to take the time to explore and accept the idea that walking away from the life I had been raised to live would not insult or dishonor my parents. I slowly moved my financial “you are here” pin, one mm at a time. Your brain can’t move from “I have/deserve poverty” to “I have/deserve comfort” to “I have/deserve wealth” overnight.
Here’s how I convinced myself.
When I began looking at the value I bring to other people’ lives, I recognized my own value.
I had the opportunity to do a short gig playing piano: a few songs for a pretty decent sum. Such a decent sum, in fact, that I felt guilty. I knew someone else who was doing something equivalent for free. Why should I charge that much for something that’s easy for me? How about: because it took me fifteen years to learn to play piano that well. I decided to own it. I’m a piano expert, and I’ll charge the fee to prove it. I have value, and my life adds value to others.
Wealth and lifestyle coaches usually advise people to be grateful for what they have, because gratefulness fuels abundance. While that’s true, the opposite tactic can also be useful for changing set point.
You have to take your current lifestyle for granted. If you want to move up, don’t sit there and say, “Yeah, this is awesome.” Instead, you need to own it. Look around and say, “This is fine, standard, normal, okay… but I want to be over there.” I don’t necessarily mean looking at your Mercedes and deciding you need an Aston Martin. Conspicuous consumption isn’t my thing. But if you have five figures in the bank, don’t go, “Woo hoo! I’m rich!” because then you’ll be content and won’t do what it takes to grow that wealth. Instead, decide that six figures is the new five figures and that’s where you’re headed.
We have a couple kids, so vacations involving air travel can be expensive. The little barbarians are finally old enough to appreciate more than chicken fingers and a hotel with cable, so our current stretch goal is to do an international trip every other year. We’re on track for this year, and we’re working hard to make it happen. As we grow our side income streams, saving for vacations will become automated. At some point, a few years from now, this biennial trip will become expected, and hopefully, taken a little for granted. Then I’ll smile and say, “You know what would be great? Doing this every year.” And I won’t say it like it’s a pipe dream. I’ll say it like it’s real, because sords have power. Say it like it’s real and you will make it real. This is Hamlet pushing down the castle turret.
Don’t talk yourself down. Don’t fear that you’re being greedy. Your wealth can transform those around you for the better as well. In our Kardashian-obsessed culture, it’s easy to forget that there are uses for wealth that don’t involve vanity, excess, and self-promotion. Consider this fabulous effect of moving your set point: higher charitable contributions. I literally fantasize about cutting ribbons in front of schools and libraries with one of those giant pairs of scissors. Not just because it’ll mean I’m rich, but because it’ll mean I’m helping people. I secretly smile when I picture my mystified brother opening a letter from Sallie Mae informing him that his student loan balance is zero. The Salvation Army bell ringer used to get nickels and quarters from me. Now he gets dollars. In a couple years I’ll be slipping him twenties. You’re not the only one who benefits when your wealth set point moves.
Now get out there and move the scenery. And don’t scratch the Mercedes parked behind those pine trees.