The picture to the left is from the final scene of the TV series Mad Men. The Stoic, yet tormented main character, Don Draper, a Madison Avenue ad man, finds peace after a lifetime of “making the lie” and “inventing want.” And, it is in this moment, after rejecting his past life and finding peace, that he contemplates the “If I Could Teach The World To Sing” Coke ad, one of the most iconic TV commercials in history. It’s irony at this final moment in the series is brilliant!
How does this relate to money and happiness?
In order for us to be at peace with our financial lives, we need to go through our own Don Draper metamorphosis.
We need to understand the difference between needs (food, clothing, shelter) and wants (Beach house, latest iphone, BMW) and we need to be at peace with the wants we can’t afford.
As a financial planner, I often hear the question “will I have enough?” The answer is simple: it depends on your wants.
My own Don Draper like metamorphosis started six years ago after my former spouse and I divorced. The divorce resulted in legal debts, a cash settlement and 6 years of maintenance payments. I was determined to recover my lost savings as quickly as possible. So, I created a 6 year recovery plan.
The plan forced me to lower the standard of living I had been accustomed to the prior 10 years. During this period I learned I can be happy in life, and in retirement, no matter what my financial situation may be.
In fact, I have never had less, but I have never been happier.
The following may sound cliche, but it is a powerful message that is relevant for retirees.
I have found that true wealth is not measured by income or net worth, rather it is measured by relationships with loved ones, doing honest work that I enjoy and not wanting material things. Although, I have yet to not want German sports sedans – I consider myself to be a work in process.
For me, rejecting want is the hardest part. Like everyone, I am flooded almost every waking moment with messages telling me I should want countless products and services. I can’t possibly be happy while driving if it’s not in the “ultimate driving machine.”
It was during another “Mad Men” scene, inserted below, the idea of controlling wants clicked for me. In the scene, Don Draper and his lover’s beatnik friends are discussing the value of ad men like Don. One of the beatniks says to Don “you make the lie, you invent want.” Pow! that was it! – it is Madison Avenue’s job to make me believe I “want” every product made. Understanding this is the first step in whether I let them succeed.
I/you/we control the want!
Take a minute and watch the full 1 minute video, because what Don says in the end is powerful as well:
We are all worried about living the retirement dream and having enough money. These are important worries and it is important to properly manage money, taxes and spending. In the end, most of us will be ok, we may not have what others have or what Madison Ave. tells us we want. The key is to redefine what wealth means for each of us and live accordingly.
If we chase material things, we will never be happy, there will always be others who have more. It is a thirst that will never be quenched. The great Stoic philosopher Seneca and Oprah say it best:
“It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” – Seneca
“Be thankful for what you have, you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you do not have, you will never have enough” — Oprah Winfrey
Finally, in another brilliant moment, Don says at the end of the beatnik debate “there is no big lie, there is no system, the universe is indifferent”
The universe does not care whether you have a big house, an ultimate driving machine or where your child went to school, it doesn’t even care whether you are happy.
But as you grow older you will have the memories of your life. Make it a life well lived, which is the measure of true net worth. Most of us will have food clothing and shelter, we are already richer than humans throughout history. Focus on what you can control and you will have enough.
Every year on my birthday, I post the following quote from Cicero to Facebook as a reminder to myself, and all my aging friends, on the meaning of a life well lived. I think it sums everything up:
“The best Armour of Old Age is a well spent life preceding it; a Life employed in the Pursuit of useful Knowledge, in honourable Actions and the Practice of Virtue; in which he who labours to improve himself from his Youth, will in Age reap the happiest Fruits of them; not only because these never leave a Man, not even in the extremest Old Age; but because a Conscience bearing Witness that our Life was well-spent, together with the remembrance of past good Actions, yields an unspeakable Comfort to the Soul.” Cicero