Sam Polk's recent op-ed in The New York Times, "For the Love of Money," captured quite well the problem of America's money addiction. The writer, a former hedge fund trader, grabs the reader's attention with his first sentence: "In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million -- and I was angry because it wasn't big enough."
We have a serious money addiction problem in our society, and despite how insidious this addiction can be, we not only fail to recognize it as an addiction -- we actively encourage it. Although very few people admit it (even to themselves), we often use money to keep score of our success. Here are a few symptoms that might suggest you could be using money to keep score:
• You are in the top percent of earners in the country, but feel like you are underpaid because your friend is earning more.
• You measure your year in financial terms with thoughts like, "I had a good year. I earned $500,000."
• You feel like you are falling behind because your friends or colleagues are driving nicer cars, taking nicer vacations, or sending their kids to more expensive schools.
• You spend far more time thinking about how much money you have and how much you earn rather than thinking about how to build better relationships, how to have more engaging activities, and how to make a difference in the lives of others.
One of the problems with wealth addiction is that it serves as a distraction, and like all addictions, it can divert our attention from a painful experience or feelings. Just like drug or food addicts, we keep wanting more and more to fill up the hole we feel inside. But as Sam Polk discovered, these holes can never be filled this way.
We all know that being addicted to drugs, alcohol or even food can harm our health; many of us learned that lesson as young children. But we were never taught that wealth addiction also can be harmful. Being addicted to money poses unique problems because we live in a culture that celebrates the accumulation of wealth. We perpetuate the myth that the formula for a successful life is to work hard and earn a lot of money so you can do what you want and be happy. We even define success in financial terms: The more money you have, the more successful you are. Our society's endorsement of wealth addiction makes it even harder to break away and live a life based on what really matters.
Could you be suffering from wealth addiction? There is a world of difference between the healthy desire to earn a nice living and wealth addiction. For wealth addicts, no amount of money is ever enough. I'm a financial advisor, not a therapist, so I cannot give you therapeutic advice, but I can tell you that a good first step is to recognize you might have a problem. If you fear you might be a wealth addict, consider seeing a therapist who specializes in addiction issues.
Is there hope for those suffering from this terrible addiction? Like all addictions, it takes time to learn new habits and make life changes, but Sam Polk proves it can be done. For Sam, changing careers was an important step. He acknowledged that being a wealth addict working on Wall Street is like being an alcoholic working in a liquor store -- there are too many temptations. Sam left his high-paying job and sought counseling. He reported that he is a happier man today than when he was earning multi-million dollar bonuses.
I feel so strongly about the pernicious effects of wealth addiction that I wrote a Letter to the Editor about my own experience of observing the pernicious effects of wealth addiction. I became a financial advisor to help people manage their wealth so they can use it to create the lives they truly desire, not become enthralled to artificial ideas about success that make them wealthy, but miserable.
David Geller is the author of Wealth & Happiness: Using Your Wealth to Create a Better Life. He is the CEO of Atlanta-based GV Financial Advisors and is available for professional speaking engagements.