Earlier this month, I was traveling with my family in Toronto. I was waiting outside of the CN Tower for my family to meet up as my parents had gone in one direction, my wife and children had gone in a second direction, and I was using the bathroom, so I was standing at our meetup point.
While standing there, I was leaning next to a guy in a Blue Jays jersey who was waiting for the Rogers Centre to open up the gates for that day’s Blue Jays’ home game. Being friendly, I commented on his jersey and we talked about baseball for a bit, and gradually the conversation dipped into some general small talk. He asked what I did for a living and I mentioned The Simple Dollar.
The guy had heard of the site and he was almost gobsmacked by the realization that it was actually the author of The Simple Dollar standing there outside of Rogers Centre. He actually pulled up the site on his phone and found an older picture of me in the archives to verify it.
We ended up getting into a very long conversation about personal finance. He was almost like a firehose of questions, both about personal finance and about the history of the site, and eventually he gave me his business card and asked if it was okay if he emailed me later, which he did a couple of days later. (He actually okayed me talking about our conversations in this post, provided I didn’t mention his name.)
It turns out that the guy is a very high income earner, earning substantially more in an average year than I typically earn. With strong financial discipline, he could easily blow away my net worth in just a few years – and honestly, he probably already can.
To be honest, I’m a bit envious of his income level. It would not take me long at all with that kind of income to build a very secure life that I would be incredibly happy with.
This fellow happens to work in what I would consider a very stressful career path, one I would not enjoy at all, even for a short while. He’s involved in upper level management of a business in a market where I would be stressed out constantly by the demands on me.
He’s also struggling financially. He’s wearing what I call the “golden handcuffs,” a term I actually used while talking to him. (“Golden handcuffs” means that you’ve made a series of lifestyle choices that put you in a situation where you need a substantial income to maintain it. If you lose some of your income, it’s likely that many aspects of your life will be ripped right out of your hands either due to foreclosure or due to emergency selling of assets.)
When I compare our career paths, I’m pretty happy with my own path compared to his. I’m also pretty happy with my relative state of financial security.
The truth, though? The truth is that we’re each on our own journey. What someone else is doing really doesn’t matter. Those comparisons I made, where I compared my income and my financial state and my career path to his? They don’t matter.
It doesn’t matter what someone else earns. What matters is what you earn. Could you earn more without adding excess stress and responsibility to your life? Could you find ways to add a side gig? Or, maybe, you want to step back from working and earn less to achieve other things in life. What you earn is your own business. It’s part of your own story. It does not matter what someone else is earning or what they think.
Similarly, it doesn’t matter how someone else chooses to budget or spend their money. I spend my money in a different way than this fellow does. Even if I shared his income level, I’d make different choices. That’s because we happen to care about different things. We have different lives and different values. We can learn from each other, but our differences aren’t judgments on each other.
What matters is what you make and what you choose to do with every dime of your income. What do you do with each dollar that comes into your life? Do you use it on things that you really value? Do you use it to secure those things into the future? Or do you spend it on things that aren’t really all that important to you? Those are choices you make, not what anyone else makes.
So why should we care about the stories of others at all? The reason is that we can harvest ideas from what other people are doing to make your own path better. His situation inspires me to do what I can to earn more income. My situation inspired him to do what he could to earn a little more freedom and independence.
Along that same track, we can learn tactics from each other. Part of the reason he achieved his position is an ability to negotiate and a pretty good mind for statistics. I achieved my situation through a lot of frugal tactics and careful consideration of how I spend my money.
We can learn from each other without having to abandon what works for us. We can learn from each other without jealousy or without comparison.
In fact, the only comparison worth making is where you were a month ago or a year ago. Are you in a better position than you were a month ago or a year ago? Has your net worth gone up? Has your income level gone up? Has your debt level gone down? Have you accumulated some money in your savings or your retirement accounts?
I can learn things from the guy that I met in Toronto about how to improve one’s income, how to negotiate for better wages, how to set up side gigs, and so on. Similarly, he can learn things from me about how to separate needs from wants, how to make good spending choices oriented toward what you really care about, and so on.
Those factoids do not mean that his journey is better and I should measure myself against his journey, nor does it mean that my journey is better and I should measure myself against his journey.
What it does mean is that we can learn from each other to make both of our journeys better. It also means that if we do actually learn from each other, we’ll improve against the one measuring stick that actually matters – ourselves.
This philosophy holds true no matter who the other person is. Comparing your financial success to that person is a waste of time. What matters is that you compare your financial success to where you were in the past, and that you learn from what worked for that other person to bring them success.
It’s your journey, not theirs.
Don’t worry about what that guy you just met outside of the baseball stadium makes each year and how it compares to what you make.
Don’t worry about what percentage of annual income that guy who writes for an internet site manages to save.
Those people aren’t you. They’re going through their own journey.
Instead, focus on where you want to go, and make sure that you’re a step closer to that destination than you were a month ago, and hopefully several steps closer to that destination than you were a year ago.
Talk to that guy outside of the baseball stadium. Read the stories that the guy on the internet shares. Steal their ideas and use the ones that make the most sense for you, on your journey, and discard the ones that don’t really fit.
Then, when it comes time to think about progress, about how well you’re doing, don’t think about those other people for a second. Think about you. Think about where you started, where you came from, and where you’re headed. Think about the progress you’ve made from the beginning and how far along you are.
The stories of others are only useful for inspiration and for the tactics you can take to apply to your own story. When they inspire jealousy or they inspire a sense that you’ll never be able to achieve anything, you’re taking home the wrong message. You achieve something every single moment that you’re in better shape than you used to be in. That’s the real measure of success.
It’s your journey, not theirs. Stop worrying about what other people are doing. Focus on what you’re doing.