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OPINION | SAVE YOURSELF: How much is enough? Try thinking beyond a number

by Sarah Catherine Gutierrez | March 2, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

Last week I was asked to present to the Women in Business club at The Shipley School, a private high school in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and I posed a question: "How will you know when you have enough money?" It's one of 75 questions that my publisher compiled with submissions from women financial gurus around the country. The question was posed by Diania Merriam, the founder of the EconoME Conference.

One high school junior began by noting that she had three jobs she loves. Work is important to her as it is to her family. She imagines that in her adult life, working will be a cornerstone, but that reaching the point of having "enough" would mean she could be generous and give with her excess earnings.

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Another said that she will know she has enough money when she has the freedom to think less about work and more about existential questions. Why are we here on the Earth?

A third student said she wanted her work to contribute to humanity, to better society. Enough money meant an uncompromising commitment to her future contribution.

When I am in financial planning meetings and ask some version of how clients will know when they have enough, I get the expected, entirely appropriate answer. In 30 years after we have 2 kids, 3 dogs, 2 houses and several cars, we would like to be able to stop working and live on savings.

Sure, that's enough money through the lens of retirement, but how about we look at that question through the lens of these high school girls who don't seem to think "enough" is reserved only for retirement?

To them the concept of enough money remarkably had no dollar sign or figure in it. Enough money was simply a funding mechanism to live an uncompromised life.

I have visited with people living that compromised life -- built on a job they don't love or one they once loved but now comes with the golden handcuffs of a lifestyle that matches an income. From my seat it is easy to see the happiness that could be achieved with more freedom from a reduced lifestyle. And it's nothing short of exhilarating to see people break through.

Take a woman we will call Nadia, who 7 years ago at age 35 spent a couple hours with me to look at her finances and vet her retirement. She was working in a job making $35,000. She saved for retirement but otherwise lived at or just below her means. Her mortgage was her only substantial debt. A new job modestly improved her pay, but the hours were stressful. And there was not a lot of money left over to replace aging floors in her house, add blinds to her windows, or tick off several other things on a list of comfort upgrades she longed for.

Most importantly, Nadia knew she was living precariously without an emergency fund, and she embarked on a several year plan to save a little each month. A couple years later, she had an unexpected monthly income windfall from her time in the military. Nadia conjured up that list of needs that she could now easily afford.

But instead of improving her lifestyle to meet that new income, she shifted her thinking. She started imagining a different life with a different sort of comfort -- maybe the comfort of working a job with less stress or even one that she loved. She dreamed of living in a city closer to her family. She also thought about taking a sabbatical from work altogether, to catch her breath. As those dreams for a different life that she had never dared to think about started coming together, she revisited that list and narrowed it down. When those payments came in, she redirected most of them to savings.

It was no coincidence in my mind that the day before I heard high schoolers share wisdom on enough money, I got a text message out of the blue from Nadia.

Her financial worth in that moment had just hit $100,000: $80,000 in retirement and $20,000 in her emergency fund. I asked her how she felt when she first saw those numbers cross that threshold. She admitted that she had cried. It was validation that she could do anything and that she was going to be OK. Nadia is the first person in her family to ever build assets close to that amount.

Incredibly, that's not the best part. Nadia is taking a job in a city that she has dreamed of moving to. The same Nadia who felt sentenced to the jobs she had before dreamed bigger, reached bigger.

What made her do it? Maybe "enough" money -- the act of living on less. She considered replacing that old flooring and decided that, for the time, it was actually enough.

A lot of people talk about savings in very formal ways, using the words "savings" or "emergency funds." But others take more expansive views of savings, attaching intention to the very money going into an account. They might be called "freedom funds" or "walk away funds." I think the language improves the intentionality, but I still think we underappreciate what happens when we save.

In my experience, saving is one part the physical act of depositing dollars into a bank account and two parts the intentional act of living below one's means: the conscious act of defining "enough."

My husband and I are dedicated to an uncompromised life but know that spending could threaten that at any turn. There will be always something tempting us. My current temptation? A Tesla. I might settle for a Roomba.

We know our brains will always want more than we have. Our job is to mitigate those desires, lest we live at or above our means. What better way to take control of our brains than by defining our life goals and dreams so well that they outweigh the constant bombardment of available consumer purchases, home remodels, or lifestyle upgrades.

But to get to that place of real consideration or change takes fairly radical mindset shifts. Our brains are hard wired for inertia.

Breaking that inertia is not easy, but here's where you can start. Take a minute and gaze out the window toward the horizon to gain perspective. Then ask yourself if you are living the life you desire to live. If not, what would an uncompromised life look like? How can you get there? If what is standing between you and that life is a mortgage that's a little too big, a car just a little too fancy or a spending habit that eats too much of your monthly pay, then maybe allowing yourself to dream again could be just what you need to redefine "enough" and start the process of right-sizing your lifestyle.

If you lack inspiration or a vivid memory of what that your life dream might be at this moment, don't fret. A life defined by "enough" could mean cash that used to buy stuff could instead buy the realization of your dreams.

So, I put the question to you and hope to hear from you. How will you know when you have enough money? Have you reached "enough?"

Sarah Catherine Gutierrez is founder, partner and CEO of Aptus Financial in Little Rock. She is also author of the book "But First, Save 10: The One Simple Money Move That Will Change Your Life," published by Et Alia Press. Contact her at sc@aptusfinancial.com.

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