Time Poverty of the Ultra Rich

A billionaire’s conference? I didn’t know such a thing existed. I was listening* to a discussion the other day about a conference put on exclusively for billionaires. Founding members of the conference noticed a strange phenomena. Although the conference was originally planned as a week-long event, none of the wealthiest individuals on the planet could actually attend the entire time. Most were only able to come for a day or two. The irony is simple- wouldn’t the wealthiest people in the world have the greatest ability to take a few days off? The surprising answer is No. Although we currently do not have billions, a lot of us fall into similar situations as our careers, incomes, commitments, expectations, and responsibilities grow and mature. The question begs to be asked: Is the money we make bringing us any closer to actual freedom?

stressThis observation has also been discussed on the other end of the spectrum when looking at individuals with very little money but plenty of margin. Although the case is compelling, Simple Economist readers tend to be high income earners with above average accumulation rates. In essence, we actually have to deal with a different set of challenges and expectations that arise when our incomes go up, even if we are maintaining consistency in our levels of consumption. We must be attuned to the fact that income often comes with responsibility and, if we are not careful, can limit our freedom rather than add to it.

Real Time Off
Again, the irony of time is that often the more money we make, the greater the demands for our time go up. It takes a lot of effort and energy to maintain our intentionality as we move through our careers. The president of our flagship state university, when asked what he will enjoy most about leaving his post after 15 years, responded with the simple idea that he was looking forward to no longer being on call 24/7. The luxuries that are afforded to the most important linchpins of organizations also happen to be the things that bind individuals to a freedomless existence. I know many entrepreneurs, small business owners, and founders that, although successful in society’s eyes, are bound to the organizations they helped to build. I know people with huge incomes and monster net worths that are practically on call all the time. When something goes wrong, individuals who lead organizations will inevitably be the ones responsible for the solution.

I don’t mind being a leader. And I don’t even mind taking on responsibility. In fact, I often seek it out. However, one of the difficulties, especially when it comes to ways we generate income, is to manage the tension between the stressfulness of responsibility and the monitory reward it provides. There is a different kind of stress attached to most high paying jobs. It is a subtle form of stress that is mild but consistent. It seems to always be in the background with the potential to need action. This is why it can be difficult to actually take real time off. We are attached to our responsibilities by the cell phones and email accounts we hold so dear. And chances are, the further we move along our careers, the pressures and expectations would continue to increase.

Translating Our Money Into Freedom
This is the missing key. The marketing engine that drives the United States is filled with the notion that additional income is simply needed for additional consumption. This is fundamentally apparent if you observe the average person around you as they move through their life and careers. According to the rule of the American Dream, as we age the goal is simply to consume more and more. If we get a bigger house, a shiny car, a nicer vacation destination, prettier instagram pictures, we will certainly make our families happy. Although counterintuitive, I know many individuals who are locked into high stress, highly compensated situations due to the expensive lifestyle they have designed for themselves and their family.

This missing key is this: In order to translate income into freedom, we must learn to contain our consumption. If we simply celebrate a new $500 raise with a $600 car payment we are no closer to the goal of true freedom. We have simply elevated our expectations and made our lives arguably more expensive moving forward. Sure, the $600 car will smell good for a few days and may even impress a few passing strangers, but it too will fade and age within a few years.

We often try to buy extra time with our new-found wealth. We spend heavily on services to give us back the commodity that alludes us all. As incomes rise, more money is spent on childcare, lawn services, house cleaning, yard work, stuff maintenance (vehicles, homes, etc), and leisure time. I’m not against spending money on these items, it just takes a bit of awareness to understand they often evolve from a desire to a need in no time. Elevating our expectations is just one part of the hedonic treadmill that often goes unobserved.

Income and Time
The end goal of life is not to consume more stuff. Our personal desire to earn money and build wealth is simply to have more choice, time, and freedom. Although countercultural, the pursuit of wealth and consumption is often an exercise of futility. The more money we make (just ask your favorite billionaire) often comes with expectations and unexpected stress. It is important to be aware of this phenomena and plan for it as we begin or end the process of becoming wealthy. It often starts with the notion that we simply need to buy our freedom first. In addition, we need to be conscientious as we take on new responsibilities attached to a few more dollars in the bank. For Simple Economist readers, the goal is having plenty of money, but also having the time to relax and enjoy it.

*Discussion was held by Tim Ferris and Rolf Potts on TF’s Podcast, coincidentally, Potts’ book Vagabonding is one of my favorite books of all time.

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