Am I Rich?

How we spend our time and how we spend our money should make us feel rich. The hard part is discovering what “rich” really means to each of us. 

I learned a lot about being rich in early November when we got the call that my father-in-law had suffered a stroke. After what was both a very long and very short 15 days in ICU and 3 days in Hospice, we found ourselves making funeral plans for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. 

(Jon Zachary, his grandson Everett, and son-in-law Justin – 8 years ago)

Jon Zachary was not a rich man by the world’s standards. He lived independently for the last few decades, and since Millie is an only child, we returned home from the funeral in our van with a good portion of her inheritance: 3 vintage Martin acoustic guitars and a well-loved Mike Ramsey banjo. And even though the instruments are worth more than either of our cars, we promptly tuned and hung them in our dining room, alongside Millie’s Taylor and our oldest daughter Grayson’s Seagull guitars. Millie was adamant about putting them where they would be easily played and enjoyed, even if that meant the occasional bump from our kids chasing each other around the table. 

(Jon’s set list and his guitars on display at Justin’s house; ready to be played)

Collector’s Items

Millie’s dad was a commercial photographer by trade, but also wrote and played music for the last 50+ years. One of our first dates was to a Border’s Book Store cafe to hear him play a set to semi-interested ears. Every time Jon would drive the 4 hours “down the mountain” to come see us and his grandkids, he would walk through the door with his bag and a stringed instrument, and our house would be filled with the sound of tuning within minutes.

He carted these guitars to open mic nights and jam sessions with friends. He scratched them up at late-night songwriting sessions at the Swannanoa Gathering. While he eventually made an album (it was a lifelong dream of his, you can find it on Spotify here), these instruments were tools of enjoyment and community, not tools of the trade and certainly not collector’s items. 

In fact, a couple of weeks before his stroke, he and a musician friend were talking about their favorite guitars. Jon’s was his 1978 Martin 000-28, and he remarked, “In fact, I love that guitar so much, I’d ask to be buried with it if it weren’t for Grayson (his oldest granddaughter, who had learned to play in the last year.)” 

(Jon with oldest granddaughter Grayson at Justin’s home – 13 years ago)

I bet these instruments made Jon feel rich, but not because of what they were worth. I doubt he ever looked up the going rates on eBay. Their value came from their bright tones and storied history. But more so, these instruments made him “rich” because they also provided a tight-knit community of singer-songwriter friends and they produced big smiles on our kids’ faces when he would launch into “Tastes Like Chicken (Once You Get it Breaded and Fried)” an ode to alligators, roadkill, tofu, and cats. You can click on the image below to hear two short clips.

Ease, Comfort, and Time

In nearly every meeting, we tell clients, “How you spend your time and how you spend your money only needs to make sense to you. No one else. And it only needs to make sense to us (as your advisors) in the context of what we know is important to you.” In other words, whatever makes your life “rich” needs to be a high priority.

Defining “rich” is hard and it varies from person to person based on everything from culture and upbringing to friend groups and happenstance. A fellow advisor, Rubin Miller, pointed out an excerpt from The Dawn of Everything that highlights this dynamic from 400 years ago:

“Father Pierre Biard, for example, was a former theology professor assigned in 1608 to evangelize the Algonkian speaking Mi’kmaq in Nova Scotia, who had lived for some time next to a French fort. Biard did not think much of the Mi’kmaq, but reported that the feeling was mutual: ‘They consider themselves better than the French: “For,” they say, “you are always fighting and quarreling among yourselves; we live peaceably. You are envious and are all the time slandering each other; you are thieves and deceivers; you are covetous, and are neither generous nor kind; as for us, if we have a morsel of bread we share it with our neighbour.” They are saying these and like things continually.’ What seemed to irritate Biard the most was that the Mi’kmaq would constantly assert that they were, as a result, ‘richer’ than the French. The French had more material possessions, the Mi’kmaq conceded; but they had other, greater assets: ease, comfort and time.

The Dawn of Everything by David Graber and David Winslow

If you could ask a 1600s Frenchman what made someone “rich,” I would imagine they would say something like, “land, wealth, and firearms.” If you could peel back a layer, you might hear more about how those things could increase someone’s “independence, happiness, and flexibility,” or in other words…they could have ”ease, comfort, and time.”

You see, the Mi’kmaq and the French (just like you and me) probably valued the same end result: a life with fewer worries and more options. The difference is that the Mi’kmaq already felt “rich” because they wanted what they already had. But the 1600s French (if they were anything like most current-day Americans) only felt rich when they acquired enough resources to quench their current desires. 

I think the Mi’kmaq knew a deep truth that the 1600 French never knew…or at least they forgot. The way we pursue “ease, comfort, and time” (or whatever else is important to you) might be more important than the end result. 

The Mi’kmaq achieved what was important to them by looking out for others’ needs, by wanting what they already had, and by pursuing peace and kindness. The French sought the same end goals by way of “acquiring, deceiving, fighting, slandering, and stealing.” It is no wonder Father Biard was irritated by the Mi’kmaq – they had something he couldn’t buy. 

(Jon with his youngest granddaughter, Finley, at his home – 4 years ago)

Someone in Your Zip Code

Money plays a large factor in feeling “rich” – and that’s not surprising. Money can open many doors and provide abundant comfort and meaning. But I think it is healthy to recognize the following two truths:

  • There is someone in your zip code, at your same life stage, who has twice your income and net worth, and they are utterly miserable. They still have nice things, but they would trade their life for yours in an instant. Why do you think that is? What do you know or have or believe that they don’t?
  • And there is someone in your zip code, at your same life stage, who has half your income and assets, and they are content and enjoy life. It isn’t easy and stress-free, but they wouldn’t trade places with you for anything. Why do you think that is? What do they know or have or believe that you don’t?

Some Questions

We don’t have all the answers, but we sure have some questions. We’ve seen clients spend their time and money on wildly different things. But we’ve also seen clients spend money on the same thing (a new car or vacation house for instance) and have vastly different feelings about that purchase depending on how they pay for it, how they use it, and how they think about it. 

That’s the great and hard part of using our resources – the “right” choice has a lot to do with who I am and how I’m wired. Sometimes it is easier just to do what everyone else does. But how other people spend their time and money (whether it is your parents or your neighbors or your social media connections) doesn’t dictate what is right for you. 

We have some questions to help guide you in thinking about your money. It would please us to no end if you would consider some of them. And if one or two strikes a chord in you, would you let us know?

  • What about money is important to me? Why? 
  • Do I value “ease, comfort, and time”? 
  • If not, what other words would I put in their place?
  • Who do I want to be like when I “grow up” (even if I’m already “grown up”)? 
  • What is it about them or their life do I find desirable? 
  • What am I unable to do, because of how I currently spend my time?
  • What am I unable to do, because of how I currently spend my money?
  • Why are those things important to me?
  • Am I available to people who need me?
  • Am I present in the moment?
  • Who, outside of my family, do I give my time and resources to? 
  • Does that contribution make a meaningful difference?
  • Do the things I buy provide me with instant or longer-lasting satisfaction?
  • Do I spend time in ways that provide instant or longer-lasting satisfaction? 
  • What have I not yet accomplished?
  • What have I not yet seen or experienced?
  • What have I not yet created? 
  • Why are those things important to me?
  • Do I consider myself rich? Why or why not?

“Regard Ye The Lilies of The Field”

I can’t help but hear Jon Zachary’s voice in all this. On his record, he wrote and played a song (probably on that same favorite guitar) rooted in the Sermon on the Mount (Luke 12:27.) It’s about a banker, seemingly contemplating these same questions, who realizes that the most beautiful things in life can not be bought or won. Take a listen, I wonder what you’ll hear. 

“Regard ye the Lilies of the field.

They toil not, neither do they spin.

Yet all your grandest efforts, your money and your wars, 

Such beauty cannot win…”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Justin Smith

Justin Smith

Senior Financial Planner, Chief Investment Strategist at Smith Partners Wealth Management
Knowing full well that financial planning is about far more than numbers, Justin loves to help clients walk through both the routine and the significant decisions in life. While he could have been perfectly happy with a career as a mathematician or counselor; he is delighted to get to be both...often within the same meeting or even sentence. Justin thrives on being able to transform complex financial and relational issues into practical plans and clear action steps.
Justin Smith
Justin Smith

Latest posts by Justin Smith (see all)