True Wealth

Joe Kesler

YOU NO DOUBT remember Peter Lynch, the celebrated manager of Fidelity Magellan Fund. He quit Magellan’s helm when he was just 46 years old. His comment at the time: “You remind yourself that nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’.”

Nothing brings more clarity to money’s limitations than consideration of our mortality. A few weeks ago, I thought about this truth as I lay awake all night, waiting to hear from my son. He and his wife had checked into a hospital to give birth to their first child. The plan was that we would receive regular text updates, regardless of the time. But the hours passed and no updates arrived.

My wife and I had an ominous feeling that something was wrong. As we agonized and prayed, we struggled to contain our fears, imagining all the things that could be going wrong. Why hadn’t our son kept us updated? Were mother and baby okay? Finally, a call came at 3:30 a.m.

Our fears were not unfounded. It was a traumatic birth—the baby initially had trouble breathing. But I’m happy to report that, thanks to incredibly talented medical personnel, our new grandson and daughter-in-law are doing fine.

For me, the difficult birth has triggered a time of introspection. Has my life been too focused on the accumulation of things that won’t last—or have I have been building true wealth? The word “wealth” comes from an old English word. Its meaning is closely related to happiness and to the wholeness that comes from a well-balanced life.

As we each examine our life, what traits should we look for if our goal is true wealth, rather than just lots of money in the bank? Here are eight things I view as valid metrics for measuring true wealth:

  • Family and friends. According to research, a robust support network is almost always a leading indicator of happiness. That network is even more important amid today’s COVID-19 isolation.
  • Community. The richness that comes from connecting with others through churches, civic groups and other forms of community engagement are at the core of civility. It’s what made my years as a community banker so rewarding.
  • Education and experience. If we suddenly took all the money in the world and gave everyone an equal share, there would be inequality again by the next day—because of our differing abilities to adapt and respond to the situations we find ourselves in. That, in turn, partly reflects the wealth we’ve accumulated in the form of education and experience.
  • Contentment. Growing up, I was surrounded by many lower middle-class families—and yet I rarely saw the envy and angst that destroy happiness. Instead, I saw that in the workplace, with its constant jousting over salaries and bonuses.
  • Health. If we lose our health, we can’t work, play or travel as much as we might desire. To compound that aggravation, we must budget more for medical expenses. Good health is a key part of true wealth, and it’s worth investing in through a healthy diet and regular exercise.
  • Spiritual peace. My daughter taught me a little about this when I visited her in South Africa. She was spending a gap year helping at an orphanage. Coming from an affluent American family, she assumed the people she’d be working with would be poor and unhappy. But as she explained to me, they were poor but happy. She saw the connection between their deep spiritual faith and their joy in life.
  • A generous spirit. It’s a wonderful feeling to give generously to others. Studies show that many people derive great happiness from giving to those less fortunate. As a banker, I met many wealthy people who couldn’t enjoy this sign of true wealth—because they had for too long failed to give.
  • Virtue. When we acquire our wealth by stepping on others or cheating, there’s ultimately a loss of joy in our riches. The Book of Proverbs says it well: “Ill-gotten treasures have no lasting value.” I looked at a lot of tax returns as a banker, trying to qualify customers for loans. When they didn’t qualify, many would admit that they didn’t report all their income and instead were often paid under the table. John Wooden, the great basketball coach for the University of California at Los Angeles, said it well: “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

I’m not against success and riches. But we should all ask ourselves, “How am I using my riches to bring true wealth into my life and the lives of others?” It is, I believe, a crucial question—and it took a family crisis to jolt me into giving it the serious thought it deserves.

Joe Kesler is the author of Smart Money with Purpose and the founder of a website with the same name, which is where a version of this article first appeared. He spent 40 years in community banking, assisting small businesses and consumers. Joe served as chief executive of banks in Illinois and Montana. He currently lives with his wife in Missoula, Montana, spending his time writing on personal finance, serving on two bank boards and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. Joe’s previous article was Life as a Loan Shark.

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