Defeating the Most Common Life Regret

A few years ago, Bronnie Ware, after spending several years working as a palliative nurse who helped people who were dying to enjoy their final days in minimal pain and discomfort, wrote a really powerful book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. In it, she collected together the biggest regrets that she heard people consistently share. Here they are, in summary:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

There are a lot of financial threads running through these regrets, but today I want to really focus on that first one, about which Ware said the following: “This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made. Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer have it.”

So, let’s look at that chief regret and the financial implications of it.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

When I read that sentence and reflect on my own life, what I see is all of the things I’ve done and the things I’ve bought that have been done with the primary intent of impressing other people or fulfilling what they expected of me, rather than truly pleasing myself and fulfilling what I expected of myself.

I think of times in my life where I’ve bought things primarily to impress others – the latest gadget, nice clothes, a nice car, a nice house, an impressive career, and so on.

What will people think of how I’m dressed? What will my parents think of my house? What will people think of me if I spring for drinks? What will my coworkers think if I whip out this brand new phone?

First of all, considerations of what other people think of you in terms of financial and personal choices are almost entirely useless unless you can directly tie them to career success. Obviously, there are situations where there is a professional dress code, and there are situations where you need to “dress for success” to influence clients. However, in normal day to day life, most people don’t think about you enough to draw a real judgment about you until your words or actions directly impact them.

Your neighbors barely think about your house, nor do your friends or family. If they do, they’re not making much of a judgment about you, but evaluating whether they want those things in their own life. The same is true for your gadgets or your car or your clothing or anything else.

We mistakenly overinflate how much people think about us, and we do it constantly. This is known as the spotlight effect and it has been established over and over and over again. Most people simply don’t notice you as much as you think they do, particularly when your words or actions aren’t directed toward them or involve them.

So, what can you do to have a good social presence? My strategy is to follow the golden rule in terms of everything I do with other people – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I don’t care what house people live in or what clothes they wear or what car they drive. I’ll hang out with someone who lives in a trailer or in a mansion if I like the person. I do care that they’re clean and practice good hygiene because that does actually affect me. I want people to be friendly, so I try to be friendly. I don’t want people to backstab me, so I don’t backstab people. I basically act with other people how I would like them to act with me.

The people I enjoy and respect the most in the world often dress in sweatshirts and flannel shirts, blue jeans and beat-up tennis shoes. They drive older cars. They live in modest houses decorated in ways that reflect their own interests, often with things like art done by family members on the walls.

If you carry that philosophy through to your spending and realize that the opinions of others means almost nothing in terms of how you spend your money, then a lot of purchases become far less important. If you’re not worried about impressing others at all (beyond the basics that you would expect from others, like basic cleanliness and politeness), then you’ve eliminated a big reason for spending money.

One of my mentors used to constantly ask the question, “What would you do if you were completely invisible to the rest of the world except for your family?” His philosophy was that if you do those things as much as possible, you’ll have a pretty good life. You could do things that help others, of course, but no one noticed you at all and you knew it. What would you do with your time, once you got bored with the obvious unwinding that most people would do?

How would you spend your days? What would you work on? What would you think about? What is it that you keep inside that you would no longer keep inside? What potential interests do you think of as “dorky” that you’d dabble in if no one saw you or cared about it? How would you dress? What would you use to get around from place to place?

What if you didn’t have to impress people any more, or live up to what you believe to be their standards?

Fill your life with those things and treat others as you would like to be treated and you’ll find that you actually have a pretty happy life, one that doesn’t have many regrets.

You’ll find that the more you commit to that, you begin to realize that there’s actually much less negative consequence from it than you expected, and the pressure to act and spend money to impress others and live up to what you think their standards are goes away. People are very much focused on themselves and their part of their interactions with you, so being who you feel most natural being and doing things you feel natural doing (provided they don’t get in the way of career success) is almost always going to be the best path to personal and financial success.

When I committed to making a financial turnaround in my own life, I was worried that there would be a lot of negative pushback from my social circle at the time. They were very much committed to going out for drinks, one-upping each other with spending, and so on.

What ended up happening? In truth, I got almost no negative pushback from any of them. We didn’t do as much together any more because most of their social choices were really expensive, but there wasn’t any animosity or blowback. A few friends from that group stuck with me; I’d still count a couple of them among my friends even today. Instead, I gradually began to find some new friends and I naturally gravitated toward doing things with them. I started being more true to who I actually was, and there wasn’t a bunch of negative response. Instead, I just strengthened my friendship with those who were friends with me because of me and the others who were merely acquaintances moved on pretty quickly. While some of those people were fun to hang around with, my life became better because I was around people who were more in line with the person I actually am. There was less need to worry about things that weren’t important to me.

Be the person you want to be, not the person you think everyone else expects you to be. As you do that, you’ll come to realize you were spending a lot of money and effort and thought on keeping up that appearance, and as you let that go away, not only are you happier with yourself, most of the people whose perspectives you worried about won’t even care in the least.

Don’t live your life in accordance with the expectations of others. Stop worrying about what other people think, especially since they don’t think about you nearly as much as you think they do. You’ll be in a better place with a lot more money in your pocket to boot.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.