Andrea, 29, was an early employee at a San Francisco–based startup that was just purchased by a large company. She had equity, and made a good chunk of money in the deal — plus, she got a promotion and a big raise. For the first time in her life, she feels like she’s rolling in cash. Relative to her bosses, she knows it’s not that much, but she was raised in a working-class family and this is more money than anyone she grew up with has ever seen. She’s tried to keep quiet about it, but they know she’s been successful, and her cousins and high-school friends are starting to make jokes about how she’s so fancy now. (And maybe she’s overly sensitive, but it does seem like they’re a little too quick to let her pick up the tab when they go out to drinks sometimes.)
Andrea never wants to feel like she’s losing touch with “who she is” — her family and friends are deeply important to her — but sometimes she does feel like she’s living a double life. She’ll go to work events or conferences at swanky hotels and clubs, and then come back to her old neighborhood on weekends and feel like she’s in a different country. And she hates to admit it, but this new, expensive world is an alluring one — her co-workers are going to fun parties, flying around on expensive trips, and living in nice apartments. She’s started buying herself nice things, but she feels like she has to hide them when she’s not with co-workers. How can she enjoy what she’s earned without feeling weird about it? She’s also aware that becoming too attached to material things could get her into trouble, too — it’s distracting. She knows that relationships and hard work are what matters most, but all this tempting stuff is hard to ignore. How can she reconcile these two parts of her life?
“In my house, I have what I call my ‘Wall of Shame,’” says Manisha Thakor, the founder and CEO of MoneyZen Wealth Management. “It’s where I’ve hung all the four-digit handbags that I bought in my 20s and 30s, when I was making a lot of money and wanted to keep up that image. I never use them now, and I keep them to remind myself how much that money would be worth today if I’d invested it wisely.”
That isn’t to say you can’t buy a well-deserved handbag or five and love them with every bone in your hard-working body. But to do so and truly feel great about it, without wondering if they’ll wind up on a wall of your own someday (or hiding them from your less-well-off family and friends), all signs point to backing up for a minute.
You’re having a money sugar rush. It’s actually quite common. Some psychologists even have a name for it: “sudden wealth syndrome,” a nonmedical term coined (sorry) by psychologist Stephen Goldbart to describe the feelings of stress, confusion, and/or loneliness that can follow a major windfall. And you know what’s an excellent distraction from those feelings? Buying stuff. “I’ve had many clients who have come into wealth suddenly and experience a tendency to ramp up their lifestyle drastically,” says Dr. Sarah Asebedo, a financial therapist and professor at Texas Tech University. “That can have ramifications in one’s relationships, as well as one’s long-term wealth. People don’t necessarily make great spending choices during that initial phase.”
It’s not exactly thrilling advice, but both Asebedo and Thakor strongly suggest that you do what you probably already know you should: Sock away as much of this money as possible. “The most common mistake I see with people who suddenly have a high cash flow is that they confuse it with a high net worth — and it’s not the same thing,” says Thakor. “To have a high net worth, you need a solid financial foundation. But if you start spending equal to or more than your income, then you’ll stay in the exact same place — or be worse off than you were before. I see people do it all the time.”
On a positive note, the financial gap between you and your family and friends will seem much smaller as soon as you take this step. “By definition, aggressive saving will put you in a position that’s not so different from where you were a year or two ago, in terms of what you can spend,” says Thakor. “Your first responsibilities are to pay off your student debts, build your six-month emergency fund, max out your retirement accounts, and try to save even more. If you’re really swimming in money, try to save at least 20 percent of your income; if possible, save 30 percent. At that point, you’ll probably find that you won’t even have that much left over.”
Pretending that your raise and equity don’t exist isn’t just a good exercise for your bank account, general sanity, and overall social adjustment from middle to upper class (more on that in a minute) — consider it a financial survival tactic, a fallback that you may be extremely grateful for one day. Jobs come and go, companies go bust, family members get sick, and what if you feel like doing your own thing at some point? “The way you escape all this craziness is by building enough wealth that you don’t care,” says Thakor. “Then you have complete freedom. You can keep a job or leave a job because you want to.” At its worst, money can trap you in a cyclical cage of bills to pay, people to support, and appearances to keep up; at its best, it gives you choices.
To that end, Thakor admits that finding the balance between wealth, work, and spending is more of a self-identity question. “Having gone through that whole cycle myself, I know that it’s very easy to get wrapped up in all the stuff that you suddenly have access to once you start making money,” says Thakor. “Ironically, when I reached a certain level of wealth, I realized that I didn’t want the handbags anymore. The wealthier I got, the less wealthy I looked. Right now, I’m actually calling you from the Mini Cooper dealership because I’m waiting for my five-year-old Mini to get fixed, even though I could drive anything I want.”
To arrive at a similarly peaceful mind-set without riding the whole shopping roller coaster, Thakor recommends a different approach entirely, one that’s known within life-coaching circles as the “be, do, have” paradigm shift. “What I’ve noticed is this: The people who aren’t ruled by their stuff start the day thinking, ‘This is the kind of person I want to be,’” she says. “They are rooted in the question of who and how they want to be in this world. That enables them to do certain things, which enables them to have certain stuff, but they aren’t attached to those things, because their primary identity is already fulfilled.”
Of course, those people can enjoy the stuff that follows, like summer houses and handbags — anyone with skin on their bodies and eyes in their heads enjoys soft sheets, beautiful objects, and big windows with nice views. But when those things supersede the “be” aspect of this triumvirate is when you get in trouble. The addictive quality of money sinks in, and you start “doing” in order to have, and the “being” quality flies out the window. That’s where relationships perish, says Thakor.
“Keep an eye on your motivation,” she says. “The first sign that you’re headed off the rails is when it ceases to be about the work that you’re doing.” And if that happens, won’t you be glad you had that all that money saved up, just in case you need to quit your job for a three-month camping trip, or start that dream business you’ve had in the back of your head? As long as you remember who you want to be when you wake up every morning, your family and friends won’t forget it, either.