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Why enough is never enough and what it’s got to do with woolly mammoths

Why enough is never enough and what it’s got to do with woolly mammoths

If you don’t know what ‘enough’ looks like, it’s easy to assume you don’t have it.  That’s why so many of us end up working for longer – in an effort to earn more money, often unnecessarily, to make sure that we have ‘enough.’  And it’s not entirely our fault.  I think we can explain this one by thinking right back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

What are we trying to achieve?

Great financial planning work is about getting our clients to the big, human questions – in human terms:

  • how do you want to be?
  • how do you want to feel?
  • what is it that you really want?

The vast majority of people just want to know that everything is going to be okay.  Once we know we are going to be okay, we feel a sense of relief.  We can relax and enjoy life.

But if we don’t know whether or not we’ll be okay, we feel anxiety and stress.

The link between ‘enough’ and anxiety

When people wonder if they’ll be okay, they are really questioning whether or not they will have enough. 

‘Enough’ is a slippery concept.  When we are young, ‘enough’ is more about having the income you need to do the things you want to do.  When you’re older, it’s more about whether or not you have the savings that you need to get you through retirement.  In later life, it can even be about whether or not you have too much – how are you going to hand it down to your children?

When approaching retirement, most financial decisions are driven by anxiety and worry because people don’t know what ‘enough’ looks like.  They therefore don’t know whether or not they have it.  The result?  Anxiety tells us to spend less, earn more, work for longer.  But why is this?  To understand this behaviour, we need to look back at our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

For humans, anxiety is a survival mechanism

Humans have been around 300,000 years.  Throughout this period, we were hunters, gatherers and nomads.  Nature installed anxiety within us to trigger emotions and behaviours that would keep us alive and allow our species to evolve.

For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, a key anxiety would have been about food and shelter – basic needs.  They would have worried about whether or not they had enough food to see them through the winter, through periods of drought or to keep them sustained through periods of migration.  Anxiety would have triggered them to keep hunting woolly mammoths, foraging and storing to maximise their chances.  But, we are different.

How we are different to our hunter-gatherer ancestors

  1. For our ancestors, anxiety was short-lived. When the snows came, it prevented them from hunting and gathering.  At that point, their anxiety would stop.  If they had enough, they would survive and all would be okay.  If they didn’t have enough, they would die.

In contrast, we have the option to continue working.  We can continue to do the things that our anxiety triggers us to do – we can literally work until we are 90 and then die with thousands of pounds in the bank because we didn’t realise that we had ‘enough’.  The anxiety continues – without an end point.

  1. Our ancestors had the benefit of experience. Once they made it through the winter, they knew how long a winter would last.  They knew how much woolly mammoth meat and other foods they would need to gather for the next winter, and the next.  They could recognise what ‘enough’ looked like.

For us, it’s different.  Most of us can’t picture what ‘enough’ looks like, and can’t recognise when we have it.  This is because retirement is new to us – we haven’t retired before, so we don’t have experience to help us.  Anxiety therefore tells us to spend less, earn more and work for longer.

If we know what ‘enough’ looks like, we can recognise when we have it

This is the essence of what great Lifestyle Financial Planning is all about.  Our job is to help our clients to understand their ‘for what’ – what does a fantastic life look like? We can then help them to work out what ‘enough’ looks like, so they can recognise when they have it and actually achieve their ‘for what’ – comforted and reassured in the knowledge that everything will be okay.

To summarise (and no, it’s not a riddle) – the big problem is this:

  • if you don’t know what ‘enough’ looks like, you’ll never know whether you’ve got
  • And if you don’t know whether you have ‘enough’, (because you don’t know what ‘enough’ looks like) you’ll always live the life of someone who didn’t have ‘enough’, because you don’t realise that you already have it.

Got it?

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