Wealth as a Status Symbol

What are your aspirations? To live a healthy and honest lifestyle, to raise happy well adjusted children, to contribute something of lasting significance to humanity, to live a life of piety, to master a subject and become a scholar; are all worthwhile causes, but accomplishing any of them requires money.

We earn a livelihood so that we can pursue the life causes that are important to us. But money is an aphrodisiac; the more we have the more we want. It holds power over us and can become an obsession.

Can you imagine growing up with the single objective of becoming wealthy? Suppose your overriding ambition was to make your first million by age thirty, what would it say about you? Before you chuckle and dismiss this possibility consider that millions of people are just like that.

An Impossible Dream

Making wealth your goal is like pursuing a mirage. You can set a goal and pursue it, but when you arrive you inevitably find that you haven’t attained the status you hoped for. When you reach your pre-set line it recedes into the distance. When you were poor, one million seemed a laudable goal, but reaching that goal means that two million is now within reach and you can’t rest until you earn two million. Two leads to three, and ten to a hundred. It’s a never ending race bound for disappointment and frustration.

The gaps between you and your goals continually widen. As our sages put it, “He who has one-hundred desires two-hundred. He who has two-hundred desires four-hundred.” Whereas poor folk with one-hundred are only one-hundred short of their goal, wealthier people with two-hundred are twice as distant from their goal. The end result of accumulating money is not having more, but lacking more.

Taking Risks

Another problem with making wealth your life’s goal is that you live in perpetual fear of losing it. If being prosperous is your only goal then losing it can deprive your life of meaning. This can drive you to obsession. If your entire life is centered on making money and your entire purpose is the display of its status symbols, your life is tethered to your fortune. Should you, G-d forbid, experience a turn of fortune, you would be shattered. Life would lose all meaning and value. To prevent this you’ll be driven to ridiculous lengths. You’ll seek to increase your wealth so that you’ll never be at risk, but to accomplish this you’ll be tempted to leverage yourself unwisely and take on unnecessary risk.

 Living up to your perceived status also compels you to throw away good money on meaningless purchases. It won’t be sufficient to buy a comfortable home. You’ll feel compelled to spend millions for a prestigious location. It won’t be sufficient to purchase a dependable vehicle. Instead you’ll feel compelled to spend hundreds of thousands for a vehicle of status. If you pay ten times more for a car that is only three times better you are buying status. You might believe the amount is negligible, but if this becomes the general thrust of your lifestyle you’ll soon be living beyond your means and taking on unnecessary debt.

Compromising Morals

The third problem with this approach is that you’ll be driven to unethical decisions. To be sure, there are those who grow obscenely rich by making wise and ethical business decisions, but as a rule, obscene wealth is acquired by unethical means.

What if you have a lifestyle to support and a status to maintain and your position at the top of your venture capitalist firm is suddenly threatened because you refuse to cooperate with an unethical business scheme, will you have the backbone to step away? Can you throw away the padded salary, generous bonuses, company shares and prestige to uphold your principles? Can you move out of your Park Avenue home, give up your Bentley, Gucci shoes and Armani bag to stand up for what’s right?

The temptation is far too great. If money is power and wealth is a status symbol, it is excruciatingly difficult to step away from it. If money is a means to an end it is much easier to maintain perspective. To be sure, where there is money there is temptation and where there is profit there is desire for more; that is human nature. But it is much easier to keep it in perspective when we have the proper attitude.

Wealth as a Status Symbol

Much of what I’ve shared in this essay is a reproduction of a remarkable presentation by Mr. Steven C. Goodman, founder and CEO of Nestegg Group, who addressed a group of young adults in Chicago, in 2012.  Allow me to conclude the way Mr. Goodman did.

When we are young and carefree we are often content with less. As we mature and grow set in our ways we become dependent on our creature comforts. There is nothing wrong with wealth and comfort so long as we remember its purpose; to help us serve.

In that spirit I offer the following prayer: May we grow wealthy, but never grow dependent on wealth. May we grow wealthy, but never lose the ability to be content with less.