Brett Arends's ROI: What is true financial freedom?

United States

Two recent surveys show the troubles Americans are having with money, and especially with retirement. And it’s not just in the wake of the pandemic, either, although that’s made things worse.

First comes a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of CNO Financial Group’s Center for a Secure Retirement. It looks at the toll that the crisis has taken on the retirement planning of baby boomers aged 57 to 70. The pollsters spoke to more than 2,500 boomers earning between $ 30,000 and $ 100,000 a year, and with less than $ 1 million in investible assets.

Among the findings: Just over half have had to tap their retirement savings to pay for living expenses over the past 16 months, and a third say they’re delaying their own retirement because of the costs of supporting other family members.

Yet more reason to suspect we haven’t counted the full social costs of the crisis yet. And may not for years to come.

Meanwhile, a survey on behalf of Personal Capital, a “digital first” wealth management company, asked over 2,000 adult Americans how they defined “financial well-being.”

And the overwhelming majority, 81%, replied: “I will feel financially well when I have the freedom and ability to spend how I want to.”

Not “live,” “work,” or “retire.” Spend.

Apparently, for most of us, the big goal is to be able to spend how we want to.

“Give me credit, or give me death!” as Patrick Henry nearly said. Or, in the words of Rene Descartes, “I spend, therefore I am.”

“With credit cards and debt, you already have the freedom and ability to spend how you want to,“ points out finance YouTuber Prepper Princess. She adds: ”Anyone can do that, they just have to pay it back. I think what this dives into is wanting the ability to spend how I want to without any consequences.“

Say what you like about the FIRE or Financial Independence, Retire Early movement—and I’ll confess I’m skeptical of the “retire early” part—they do at least have a sound definition of financial independence: The ability to quit and live life as you want.

Back when I was a consultant and hung around Ivy League M.B.A. types, they used to talk about “#$ %& you money”: The amount you needed to have saved so you could say that to your boss.

Or we could call it Johnny Paycheck money. How much do you need so you can tell your bosses—and co-workers—to take this job and shove it?

As Prepper Princess puts it: ”Freedom is time.“ And it isn’t free.

Meanwhile working stiffs focused instead on the goal of being able to spend more may be living in a dreamworld.

First, the infamous “hedonic treadmill” means they’ll never get there. The hedonic treadmill is the term psychologists have coined to refer to the great flaw in the human brain: We’re never going to be satisfied. No matter how much we get, we quickly get used to it and want more. This is why guys driving down the highway in a Ferrari don’t look any happier than guys driving an old Chevy. (Actually, I’ll bet the car that made you happiest was the first one you owned when you were 17, even though the door was falling off and the AC didn’t work.)

Another problem with focusing on being able to spend more is it takes your eye off the ball. Hardly anyone should need reminding right now that life and work is precarious. Actually, even before the pandemic 22 million Americans got fired or laid off every year—about 15% of the workforce. If we’ve got about a one in six chance of losing our job in any given year, even without a pandemic or a financial crisis or a terrorist attack, worrying about whether we can upgrade to a fancier car next year may be unhealthy.

According to the survey, just 41% of people said they associated basic financial survival with “financial health or well-being,” and just 45% of them said stability.

There again, maybe people now think the Federal Reserve will always provide. That whenever there’s a crisis the Fed prints a gazillion dollars and throws it at the economy, boosting the markets and keeping things rolling. Maybe this can continue indefinitely, so there will always be lots of good jobs and no one really needs to worry about anything.

Jack Reacher likes to say: Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Meanwhile, only 39% told the Personal Capital survey that they are spending less on nonessentials than they used to due to the pandemic. Some 37% say they can be happy spending less than they used to, and 35% said they can live on less.

So about two-thirds aren’t cutting back and don’t think they really can.

No wonder 2 out of 5 said they thought financial well-being was a “lofty goal” they could “never reach.” No kidding.