Compare Yourself To Others At Your Own Risk

by: Russ Thornton

I’m the oldest of 3 boys.

A while back, my youngest brother and I were helping my Mom move some furniture.

While moving beds, dressers, nightstands and more around her house and down a flight of stairs, I strained my back pretty bad. It took several weeks for the pain and discomfort to go away.

This wasn’t IKEA furniture we were moving around either. Some of it was heavy. The rest of it was HEAVY.

But, was I going to let my little brother get the best of me?

Should I have said, “let’s take a break for a minute (or an hour)” before picking up that armoire?

Was I going to be the first one to say “uncle” and confess my limitations?

Of course not.

Now to be clear, we weren’t taunting each other or competing. Not explicitly, at least.

And I’m confident that my brother didn’t see anything we were doing that day as a competition or an opportunity to prove himself to his older brother.

But I’m pretty sure I did.

And my back paid the price.

Thankfully, after a few weeks, I was back to feeling fine.

Perhaps I should mention that my youngest brother is more than 10 years younger than me. And he and his wife own and operate a gym. It would be a gross understatement to say he’s fit just as it would be a gross overstatement to say I’m fit.

But there I was comparing myself to a Crossfit-loving, paleo-eating beast of a younger brother.

It sounds a little silly in hindsight, but apparently I’m not the only one that is tempted to compare themselves to others.

I see it every day in my financial planning work with clients.

But instead of a sore back hanging in the balance, the consequences can be much more serious and long-lasting.

It’s not uncommon, for example, for a person or couple to ask me – sometimes in a first conversation – how they compare financially with my other clients. Or others in general.

My answer is always, “I can’t answer that question.”

Then, seeing the puzzled look on their face, I explain . . .

There is no apples-to-apples comparison of one person’s personal financial situation with another’s.

I have younger clients with a significant net worth who live within their means and take very little investment risk (because they don’t need to).

And I have older clients with a more modest net worth who need to take more investment risk to support their lifestyle and the achievement of future goals.

And I have other clients that fall everywhere in between.

But this isn’t simply about how your balance sheet stacks up against someone else.

Even if you and another person were the same age and both had accumulated a net worth of $2 million, you will almost certainly have different goals, different professional circumstances, different personal circumstances and more. Even if you share a similar balance sheet, in my experience, the similarities end there.

Yet we still want to compare ourselves to others.

I think this is largely because money is such a taboo subject in our society. People don’t talk about money with each other.

And even for those of you who are doing all the right things with your money, you’re the only one that knows it. Money is a private matter. We have to celebrate our financial success and achievement in private just as we have to learn from our financial mistakes in private as well.

Despite this, it’s always interesting to read articles that cover topics like “average retirement savings by age” or “average net worth by age.”

And don’t get me wrong, I always click the links and read those articles too. Just like you, I’m human.

But don’t lose sight of the core concept behind “personal financial planning.” Remember, it’s personal. And as a result, it can be problematic to compare yourself to others.

When it comes to money. Or with regard to anything else.