Updated: May 3
Every so often there is a news story that crosses the borders of various genres. Usually entertainment news stays within the universe of entertainment. Sports news stays on the sports channels. Crime and punishment stays on the police blotter. But occasionally, there are those stories that bleed into multiple realms and become unavoidable for individuals who spread their attention across multiple interests.
The college admissions scandal is the latest example of one of those stories. Whether you watch the nightly news, ESPN or TMZ, the story has been front and center for the past few weeks. I can’t avoid it, so I figured I might as well dissect it. So, for this month’s ‘For Your Consideration’ I want to explore how the need to impress your social circle can often spell doom for your life goals.
Two disclaimers for this story: First, I admit that I cannot commiserate with the parents involved in the scandal. My children are still too young for me to experience the pressures of attending college. I will say that within my parental circle there are already signs of concern about how children will perform academically or athletically, but I don’t foresee anyone in my circle becoming part of an FBI sting. Then again, you never know.
Second, I feel that I am missing the gene that places an importance on matching status with other people. I will admit that I do follow trends and have a ‘want’ for some toys I see owned by other people. But not having certain things doesn’t make me feel lesser than. Especially regarding college. I came from a family where the former generation did not attend college at all and for the current generation attending college was the victory (regardless of where you went). Maybe the pressure will tick up a notch with the next generation of college attendees, but only time will tell.
So, I don’t understand why the parents involved in this scandal put such a high price (figuratively and literally) on their children’s admission into these ‘prestigious’ universities. The news coverage tells a tale of parents who wanted their children to attend the schools for the social implications more so than the educational value. It appears that the participants in the scandal wanted the ability to declare that their children were attending ‘Super Impressive Great Reputation University of America’. Even some of the children (who will remain unnamed in this piece but can easily be Googled) showed little interest in attending classes but liked idea of belonging.
I am astounded by how often people strive to ‘accomplish’ goals for the mere purpose of being able to talk themselves up at a cocktail party. I guess I understand the ego boost it can bring, but when the accomplishment is in not based on achievement but rather greasing palms, is there really an accomplishment? And if you’re trying to accomplish something (financially or otherwise) for the mere goal of ‘one-upmanship’ when can you possibly reach a state personal satisfaction? There’s will always be another thing to obtain, one more upgrade, or one more impressive story to wow your captive audience.
One of the very first tasks in financial planning, and an ongoing task to boot, is identifying what you are trying to accomplish. No matter how small or large, no matter how expensive the price tag may seem, understanding what is important to you is the first step to understanding what it takes to be successful. My first task as a financial planner is to help a client understand his or her limitations. How realistic are your goals? Are they achievable?
Woven into these ideas is the underlying question of ‘why’? Why are these goals important to you? How will you feel if they are or are not realized? One of the things I want to understand when reviewing goals is whether this goal is truly a personal benchmark, or possibly a societal benchmark. Who is the person that feels this goal is necessary; the client or societal pressures? These can be created by friends, family, or the general cultural atmosphere. Is the luxury car a goal because it will fulfill a sense of accomplishment or because the guy down the street has one? Do you want a house next to a park because you enjoy the sounds of screaming kids or because you didn’t have that as a child and feel you owe it to your children?
For a financial plan to have any chance of success, the accomplishments must satiate your wants and needs, and cannot be the indicator of where you stand in society. Because the requirements that will allow you to feel like you fit in with the ‘it-crowd’ are never ending. There will always be another rung you will need to climb, and you will continuously need to use up more and more of your resources to make the climb.
And then, when you realize that your do not have the monetary, mental or networking resources to meet those goals, will you be among the group that is willing to bend the rules to make those goals obtainable? Or, will you be willing to accept the goal is not achievable and removed it from consideration? Ethically, the choice is easy. Emotionally, maybe not.
So, my advice is to not even get to a point where you are trying to keep up with the Joneses, or live your life based on an effort to impress others. Because those moments are short lived and can have serious ramifications. Instead, it is necessary to know thyself and consider the entirety of your financial life. What will truly make you feel satisfied and accomplished in life? You must accept that not everything is within reach and focus on the joy of accumulating those things that are obtainable.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t allow yourself some flexibility to include in your plan helping those whose success would also help you find satisfaction. We just must accept that they too need to find their own path and accept their own roadblocks. Financial planning affords us the opportunity to be selfish, in order figure out what we want to make our lives great. Accepting our deficits and exploiting our strengths. Our goals should be our own benchmarks of success, not trophies to show off to others.