I was recently in Las Vegas telling more than 50 NFL athletes how to turn sudden wealth into lasting wealth. In my keynote address, I identified some common threats –- such as divorce, lawsuits and injuries -- but I focused on this hidden threat.
It's been said that we are the average of the five people we're closest to. If you're making $40,000 a year, and all of your friends are making $100,000, you tend to to spend more than you can afford to match their lifestyle. You may start to buy the same types of clothes or the same kind of car. You might take up the same expensive hobbies or move into the same neighborhood. Contrary to what most financial advisers suggest, the biggest threat to creating lasting wealth is not your poor friends. It's your rich friends.
Such financial creep is hardwired within us. We are social creatures. We are constantly looking at others and learning and modeling from them. It's in our DNA through evolution and natural selection. Our ancestors who saw and learned from others about what worked and what didn't were the ones who survived. Animals do it, too.
Going Bananas Over a Grape
If you're unable to watch the video, imagine two monkeys in separate cages. A researcher gives the first monkey a slice of cucumber. The monkey grabs this and starts to eat it because monkeys like cucumbers. The researcher then gives a grape to the second monkey. The second monkey devours it because while monkeys enjoy cucumbers, they love grapes. The first monkey is looking but doesn't really think much of it. The researcher then gives another cucumber slice to the first monkey. The first monkey takes it a little more slowly and starts to eat it, but now he's watching the researcher and the other monkey more closely. The researcher then gives another grape to the second monkey. Again the second monkey gobbles it up.
If you watch the first monkey, you can tell something is not right. He's trying to figure out why he's getting cucumber slices and his buddy is getting grapes. Finally the researcher gives another cucumber slice to the first monkey. The first monkey takes it, looks at it, looks back at the researcher and throws the cucumber slice through the cage -- and it hits the researcher right on the chest. This monkey is irate. He does not understand why he is stuck with cucumber while his friend gets grapes.
Just two minutes before, he was thrilled with his cucumber. And now he is enraged. Why? It's called relative deprivation. We're constantly comparing ourselves to those in our immediate circle and looking for areas where we're not getting what we think we deserve.
Unsatisfied by a Dream Car
Let me give you a human example. Imagine someone who has worked hard for many years to buy a Porsche 911. He has finally saved enough to throw down $100,000 at the dealership and drive off in a new Porsche 911. The windows are down, the radio is up, and he's cruising. But when he drives into a parking lot, he pulls up next to ... what? A fancier car? A faster car? A more expensive car? He gets out of the Porsche, shuts the door and feels disappointed. It's an internal tug that whatever we have isn't quite good enough -- that maybe we're not good enough.
This seriously threatens our finances. You know what's going to happen to the guy with the Porsche. In three months, he's going to sell it at a huge loss and borrow money or lease a car that's much more expensive then he can afford.
This virus is almost impossible to delete. The best defense is awareness. The next time you buy something, ask yourself why you want what you are buying. Do you truly want it or are you just buying it so you look better or to assuage an internal battle to feel good enough?
The takeaway is to be conscious of how your environment and those around you affect your motives. Use money to create a better, fuller and richer life. Don't use money to attempt to keep up with friends or to mitigate feelings of inequity. It might not be fair that your friends enjoy grapes while you get cucumber, but if you act like the monkey, you'll have neither grapes nor cucumbers to eat.
Robert Pagliarini is a best-selling author and financial adviser who focuses on sudden wealth recipients. Connect with him on Twitter at @rpagliarini.