The Real Meaning of Personal Wealth
When I ask an audience or a client what their biggest concern is about their personal situation in the military, they invariably say that they wish they had more money. Regardless of rank, and despite the many benefits that the military offers and the attempts to teach military financial planning, most military personnel are not thriving financially; they’re living month to month.
A choice to serve in the armed forces is a choice to directly correlate money with your time. There are nice pay raises you can go for, and there is always the potential for promotion, but they are all based on a timeline. Essentially, you have to sacrifice more time to earn more money. If you want to look good in the military, you’ve got to be the first up, the first in, and be wearing the shiniest boots. You’ve got to be the best at PT and the best at performing your duties. You have to stand out. In order to stand out, you’ve got to have that something extra, and having that something extra takes you extra time. This sacrifice of time in order to get ahead is above and beyond the sacrifice that you are already making in order to perform your duties and train for the mission. So where does the extra time come from? You’ve got it ― it comes from the time you would otherwise be spending with your family. It also comes from the time you might otherwise be spending organizing and preparing for the inevitable: life after the military.
Taking all this into consideration, it’s not surprising to me that so many people serving in the military set themselves a military retirement planning goal of having a million dollars in ROTH IRA savings plan and not needing life insurance as a wealth management plan. Why not? It’s a good, round number, and we associate good things with it: security, freedom, happiness. Most people believe that security, freedom, and happiness come along for the ride with large sums of money, but few people think to ask themselves whether or not this means that the reverse is also true: are security, freedom, and happiness only possible when you have large sums of money?
Admittedly, it is probably impossible to be happy if you don’t know where you are going to sleep at night; if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from; or if you are unable to take care of your family. But studies have shown that once basic human needs are met ― shelter, food, clothing, transportation ― there is no absolute or direct correlation between an increase in income and an increase in happiness. You don’t need money to be happy. You simply need to have your basic needs met, and then you need a reason to get up in the morning; something to do that matters to you; a sense of purpose and meaning in your life.
Now fast-forward to your military transition. People join the military because they want to serve their country. Not only save for a military retirement pension and low TSP expense ratios in the Thrift Savings Plan. That service is their purpose. But a common problem that many people face in civilian life is how to align a new life’s purpose with the necessity of earning a living. Aligning the way that you earn a living with your new life’s purpose is a big reason why I encourage beginning to plan for your transition back to civilian life at least three years before you intend to leave the military. But instead of looking ahead and planning ahead, far too many of us simply make the decision to get out, sit through classes about how to write resumes, and focus solely on “getting a job.” And we get a job.
But then what?
Did you know that the Blue Star Families survey reports that of post 9/11 veterans who are employed, 47% are not in their preferred career field, and 34% report that they find it difficult to establish a sense of purpose, value, or meaning in post military life? And that’s just the people who have reported it. What this means is that many of us are leaving a life of purpose in the military and walking right into a trap. Once the relief of actually having gotten a job wears off, we start to realize that we are NOT HAPPY. We start thinking about how we might escape. We end up in what can feel like the paradox of personal finance: we can’t do what we want to do with our time unless we can afford to do it; and we can’t afford to set ourselves up to do only what we want to do with our time unless we do the thing that we don’t want to do, i.e., keep going to an uninspiring or unfulfilling job.
Does this Military financial planning paradox have to exist?
Not for my clients. Because I don’t just work with people who want to build personal wealth; I work with people who want to build happy, productive, meaningful lives. With this simple shift of focus, the idea of what wealth means takes on a completely different dimension.
Money does not really make the world go round. Actually, money is fairly arbitrary. Here are some truths about money:
Personal wealth does not mean retiring with a million dollars. In fact, personal wealth can’t be measured in dollars at all. In this series of blog posts, I am going to reveal to you the real measures of personal wealth; secrets that will change how you think about money forever. Keep reading and you will see that being financially fit is totally within your grasp, sooner than you think, and it starts with getting the right attitude about what money is.
Earlier above I talked about how many people believe that only money can change their lives, and that they can’t change their lives without money, what I call the paradox of military personal finance. But is it money in and of itself that changes our lives, or is it actually something else that comes along with money?
Most people want money so that they will have the freedom to do the things that they enjoy ― every day ― which is where that idea of being a millionaire creeps in. To aspire to “be a millionaire” is essentially to say that you want freedom from the necessity of working, so that you can spend your time doing the things that you enjoy. What I say is that you need to stop focusing on your bank account or thrift savings plan and start focusing on what it is that you enjoy; what it is that has meaning for you. I have people around me who live on a thousand dollars a month. They hang out in countries like Thailand where the cost of living is low and no one is trying to keep up with the Jones’. They have a yoga practice or work in the travel industry, for example. That’s all they need. These people consider themselves wealthy because they feel free. They live a very nice life and are extremely happy because they got out of the 9 to 5.
The number of dollars that you earn is not important. The amount of confidence that you feel, however, is paramount. According to a few of the other military financial advisors who think like I do, the key to effective military financial planning is to holistically build a solid foundation from which you feel absolute confidence about how to achieve your dreams and live your life.
Money is confidence.
Most people’s confidence is linked to knowing they can expect a next paycheck. We are content to keep paying the bills, go out to eat once in awhile or go away for the weekend, maybe take a nice vacation every year. I felt that way for a very long time after I left the military.
Then one day, I woke up. I took a look around, and I realized that we are all just going through the motions ― service members and civilian alike. I peered into my future and saw myself at fifty-five years old, still in a job and a relationship that I had drifted aimlessly into when I got out of the military, having never really committed to my community or made a difference in anyone’s life. That’s the day that my paycheck ― as just a paycheck ― stopped being at the center of my confidence. Yikes! I shook myself and felt like I’d had a nightmare! I knew that was not the kind of life that I wanted for myself. It was that vision that started me on a path to finding and developing my life’s mission.
I want you, too, to have personal satisfaction in your life. Your military pay should be more than “just a paycheck.” However you earn your money, when it comes in, you should feel the abundance that it represents. You should be aware that you have done your best and contributed the most that you can to your community. Your paycheck should make you feel good ― not because you are confident that you can pay your bills for one more month, but because the work you do to earn it makes you feel alive and purposeful and part of a community that you have chosen. Military financial planning is not about making sacrifices now or in the future. It is about creating abundance, joyful abundance, or abundance that you can be joyful around ― or feel proud of – every single day.
Money is confidence. It is about the ability to confidently pursue your passions. But before you can start thinking about the money that will be required for you to pursue your passions, you have to know what those passions are. You have to know what purpose really resonates with you. Only then does it make sense to translate your passions into an income, or into some sort of means of creating the resources you need for it. And once you reach that point, it’s obvious that you aren’t planning just to realize some dollar figure; you’re planning to get what you will need in order to pursue your passion and your purpose with confidence. A person who can do that is a person who has achieved financial freedom, something I will talk about in more detail in my next post.
Earlier I started digging into what money really is, and talked about how money is confidence. Now I want to talk more about something I only alluded to ― financial freedom.
Everyone wants financial freedom. But let’s peel that apart a bit... is financial freedom a number? Think about it this way; what is the money that you think you need to have to feel “free” going to buy you? Most of us want freedom to be with our military families; freedom to keep on learning; freedom to contribute our leadership and participate in our community; freedom to live out our dreams with passion and purpose. We want financial freedom so we can afford to do the things we want to do. Which leads me what I want to talk about today:
Financial freedom is about your time, not your money.
I am a professional working in the financial services industry, and it took years for me to really GET this. Most people don’t, but YOU can. Think about it: You’re a veteran. You’re considered a leader. You’ve proven your own success. You can create things that you’re passionate about. When you suddenly see that your wealth is not just about the money you have, it’s about having the ability to devote time to what you feel passionate about, then it doesn’t matter how much money you have. The ability to spend your time intentionally is the real wealth.
Did you catch that word I just used there: “intentionally?” If you want to be in control of your destiny ― which includes your money ― you have to be intentional. And if you are still serving in the military and you haven’t yet started military financial planning for veterans to be ready for your transition back to civilian life, then now is the time for you to get serious about what you intend to do with your life as a civilian.
An intentional transition starts by looking at reality, by being present to your current situation, to your current possibilities, and to what YOU want, rather than “following the orders” of society about how we’re supposed to live as civilians. Money plays a huge role in your military to civilian transition, but it’s about so much more than how you will be earning your paycheck going forward! Truly well-rounded financial planning for military involves understanding your goals and priorities ― not just for your money, but for your LIFE. Financial freedom isn’t about the amount of money you can accumulate. It's about the money you can produce and then use for something that has MEANING to YOU; something that makes good use of your time; something that you would choose to do whether you are getting paid to do it or not, because it’s what you want to do.
This is what I call my Transition First philosophy or Military Financial Planning 2.0, that you need to concretely define what “financial freedom” actually means for you. Once you do that, you can brand yourself and position yourself financially to create more opportunities along the path you have chosen to travel.
You serve your country in the military. You are going to be a veteran. You will always be a leader, and when you lead from your true self while you are accomplishing your post-transition mission, you will actually get paid a lot more. You won’t just make money; you will accumulate personal wealth.
I repeat: Financial freedom is about your time, not your money.
Have you ever asked yourself, “Am I happy?” I was 32 the first time that I actually asked myself this question, and I had no idea how to even approach the question, let alone answer it. In fact, it felt weird and icky just to go there. But you have to go there. Do you really want to just pay the bills, or do you want more? Do you want some structure and certainty that you have created for yourself and for your family? Or are you satisfied to just keep “going with the flow,” paycheck to paycheck?
Guess what? None of these questions have anything to do with your money; they have to do with your time. The money is just a means to an end. Your lifestyle has money as a part of it, like grease in the mechanism, but it is not what drives your life (I hope).
What drives your life is your answer to the question, “Why?”
You have to go into figuring out your why. Not your “what” or your “how to.” You have to discover the “why” of your very own life before you can determine an approach to it. Which brings us to where this series of posts has been headed: what is your mission and purpose for your life after your transition? If you think you already know, go deeper. If you’re saying, “I want to open a business after the military;” “I want to start a nonprofit that connects veterans with our ancient past through worldwide travel;” or “I want to go back to school;” that’s all the “what.” That’s not the “why.”
You want something. But why do you want that? You need the complete answer to the question, “Why?” Why are you here? If you don’t care about getting your answer, or you find it uncomfortable to ask the question, or are too pansy to bother with it, then I guess I’m surprised you already read this far. Get with it, guys – this is the bottom line of the whole deal!
Another way to get to the why is this question: what is it you were meant to be on this earth for? It doesn’t have to be a “change the world” kind of thing; it could simply be to be happy. God put you on this earth to live a good, happy life.
I hope you understand what I mean by going deeper. It takes self-examination, and self-work, and self-improvement to dig deep down and really open yourself up to what your interests are, what your passions are, and to what is really, truly important and meaningful to you. Are you a doer? A leader? A teacher? A creator? As you come to some answers around these questions, and you build up the excitement around it, you’ll know, “This is why I’m here.” This is the secret of personal wealth that I want to share with you today:
Money is not your why. Money is the means to your why.
When you know your “why,” you will experience clarity about how you will create the life you were meant to live, because you’ll know who you are, who you connect with, and how you like to serve. Everything will fall into place.
Let me share my “why” with you: I’m here to help veterans live with a purpose. I’m here to help them develop their happiness in life around that purpose. Even if I only help one, then I’ve accomplished something valuable to me.
As an active duty service member or veteran, you are a leader by nature. You have earned the right to have a life outside of the service as your life within the service has been. You deserve to achieve personal wealth, and you CAN achieve it; you’ve started already, today, by taking to heart these three secrets of personal wealth:
So you’ve read this far, and you can feel in your gut that what I’m telling you is true ― so what do you do now to permanently shift your mindset around money, your military career, and your ambitions as a veteran?