Too Clever by Half

Jim Wasserman

I WAS EDITING a fellow graduate student’s paper. She’s in her mid-20s, less than half my age. She’s bright and communicates well in class discussion, but her paper—frankly—was a mess. Great ideas, but she expressed them in overly pretentious language. One bloviated sentence was more than 60 words.

When I asked her why she did this, she said she wanted to “sound smart” by not using the same old words she normally uses. She worried that no one would take her seriously unless she adorned her ideas in the polysyllabic jargon of academia. I told her that, ironically, her convoluted writing was burying the great ideas she had. If I hadn’t been tasked to read her paper, I would have given up by page three.

I explained that the best writing is when profound ideas are delivered in simple language. Nothing beats the maxim inscribed at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi and espoused by Socrates: “Know thyself.”

Still, I had sympathy for my fellow student. My 20-something self would have done the same thing. We all feel the need to prove our worth to the greater world, even if it’s counterproductive. Seasoned coaches will tell you that trick plays win fans, but mastered fundamentals win championships.

The same is true for money. We jump on the latest, hottest trick for making money, hoping to speed ahead of the traditional, boring-to-youth “spend less, save more” strategy. And when we do make financial progress, we want to be acknowledged, so we spend our wealth to show it off, never thinking how this demonstration of our financial smarts actually backfires. We get enough money for some personal freedom, but then we go for the overly large house with the overly large mortgage, and shackle ourselves with debt. We imagine the easy life of the future, but on the way buy convoluted investments and end up having to work more years. An expensive lifestyle often becomes a life sentence of work to pay for it. The British have a saying for all this: “too clever by half.”

Time and again, articles on this site reinforce simple strategies that can have profound results when adhered to over time. Spend to have enough but avoid unnecessary debt. Max out retirement accounts. Invest so your money makes more money, but also make sure you have the right investment balance for your stage of life. Know your spending vulnerabilities, like keeping up with the Joneses, and avoid them. In a nutshell, know thyself.

Perhaps it takes the wisdom of being older to appreciate that any “respect” earned by youthful overcompensation is short term and not worth it. It’s a bad investment. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we can master the financial fundamentals that build championship portfolios.

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Philip Stein
Philip Stein
5 months ago

Those prone to show off their wealth to win the admiration of others are probably also prone to make risky investments to try for the big score. Short-term thinking to be sure.

The other more certain way to grow wealth, compounding market returns over decades, doesn’t allow one to do much chest thumping during their younger years.

Brent Wilson
Brent Wilson
5 months ago

I get a sense that many view the following as mutually exclusive activities:

1) Living below your means and carefully considering the value of each purchase
2) Maximizing your income

Why not strive for both?

R Quinn
R Quinn
5 months ago

The tendency is to allow one’s lifestyle to creep up as income increases, thus possibly getting nowhere.

The cure sounds simple; live below your means – save first, carry no consumer credit and then spend as you want to.

Human behavior says it’s not simple for perhaps the majority of people.

Jim, I’m betting most younger people actually know what they should be doing, but the forces of the Jonses and their peers and maybe entitlement are too much to overcome.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
5 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

I agree. One of the keys is to save every paycheck, ideally through payroll savings to a 401k. Once the meeting goes into the checking account, people’s minds start churning about how to spend it. A personal observation of me.

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