When I first started reading personal finance articles, a website called “Get Rich Slowly” that was founded by J.D. Roth became one of the personal finance sites that I would read on a daily basis. J.D. had a great way of explaining his plans to get out of debt and documenting each step he took on his journey, often taking the time to explain how your relationship with money seeps into your relationship with others, attitude toward work, general self-esteem and contentment with life, and so on. Because he was brutally honest in acknowledging his mistakes along the way, he developed a huge following. His personal touch definitely gave his website that “it” factor that separated his blog from the generic financial content that is commonplace on the internet.
Anyway, after J.D.’s website took off and his passion for writing personal finance articles began to decline (he has multiple posts explaining how finance writing transitioned from being one of his passions into “work” that had to be completed), he decided to sell his site to Quinstreet while bringing aboard a small phalanx of columnists to be responsible for producing the site’s content.
This caused the site to become much more hit-or-miss. Some of the new writers provide expertise, fresh content, and logical thinking (Robert Brokamp comes to mind), while others provide simplistic advice that doesn’t really help you move forward. Eventually, the latter outnumbered the former, and I stopped reading the site on a regular basis.
Perhaps out of nostalgia or a reversion to my earlier habits, I started reading Get Rich Slowly again these past few weeks for the first time since 2011. I probably won’t continue to do so, because almost every article contains a couple paragraphs that is completely at odds with getting ahead or reaching your potential.
I’ll provide an example to show you what I mean. Someone named Kelsie wrote a guest post on August 4th, and she regularly runs the website pinkandrick.com. Her guest post was titled “Why I’m Glad I Took Out Student Loans.” She seems like a very nice person, and I respect her for writing her candid opinions and being honest about her own financial journey.
But there is one paragraph in particular she wrote that I want to discuss:
“I realized what I really want. When new grads score their first big job, they think they deserve nice things. The truth is they do. They deserve a nice car. They deserve nice clothes. They deserve nice trips.”
The word “deserve” is probably the most cancerous word in personal finance and other areas of life as well. We don’t “deserve” anything—rather, every day of our lives, we get to make choices between consumption now and delayed gratification. I had a bread bowl at Panera last week. I didn’t “deserve” that bread bowl. Rather, I had twenty or so dollars in my pocket, and I chose to spend that money on a nice soup.
But it was a choice—I could have taken that $5.37 and done something else with it—maybe ate somewhere, maybe save it, maybe invest it—and so on.
There’s no “deserve” aspect to anything in our lives. Rather, we try to maximize the utility of each dollar that we earn with our labor. Each decisions comes with its own set of pros and cons.
Maybe you were thirty years old in 1989, and had to decide what to do with $2,500. You could have gone on a nice vacation. If you chose that, the pro is that you got to create a wonderful set of memories doing something fun in the physical prime of your life. The con is that the money is spent, and you can’t do anything good with it later.
Or you could have bought $2,500 worth of Colgate-Palmolive stock. The pro is that you would have a few hundred bucks shy of $90,000 today, assuming you held the stock in some kind of tax-deferred shelter. The con is that you did not get to have that great vacation memory.
The problem with thinking in terms of “I deserve nice things” is that it creates a pattern when you will always be living at or above your means. Delayed gratification is the regular ingredient that shows up in people who come close to reaching their maximum potential. This is definitely true financially—creating a huge gap between what you make and what you spend is what allows you to reach your financial potential. If you have an “I deserve” attitude as you go through your financial life, it is going to be hard to reach that stage of life where you have thousands of dollars in dividends coming in each month, because lifestyle inflation can be a huge threat to planting the seed capital for tomorrow’s dividend trees.
There are two versions of our ourselves that we try to satisfy—our current self and our future self. The reason I stopped reading Get Rich Slowly is because many of the staff writers began focusing too much on appeasing the “current self” version. The reason why the streets aren’t filled with millionaires dripping cash from their pockets is because it’s very easy to satisfy the desires of your current self at the expense of your future self. But delayed gratification is the core of building wealth. If you make the phrase “I deserve [x]” a regular part of your vocabulary, you’re dooming your chances of building meaningful wealth because your mind and heart aren’t truly committed to it.
*Update: J.D. Roth is apparently returning to make some occasional appearances at Get Rich Slowly again.