The Definition of Financial Success is Not So Obvious

Abandoned Tataouine set for the shooting of the movie Star Wars in the Sahara desert on a background of sand dunes. Used in this blog post as an analogy for financial success.
Tataouine, not Batuu.

The Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction recently opened at both Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, and Walt Disney World in Orlando, FL. Despite the long-awaited openings, Disney stock analysts were disappointed to see overall theme park attendance down 3% in the fiscal third quarter. 

Visitors to the planet Batuu meet face-to-face with the Millennium Falcon and a cadre of stormtroopers, but do not face massive crowds and unbearable lines. 

Bob Chapek, chairman of parks, experiences, and products, said:

The deep secret is that we don’t intend to have lines. If you build in enough capacity, the rides don’t go down, and it operates at 99% efficiency, you shouldn’t have 10-hour lines. So, 10-hour lines are not a sign of success. It should be seen as a sign of, frankly, failure.

Attendance numbers and the associated revenue, as it turns out, isn’t how Disney measures the success of Galaxy’s Edge.

Disney defines success as delivering an unmatched customer experience without the waits. Customer surveys indicate that visitor satisfaction at Galaxy’s Edge ranks among the highest of all the attractions at the Disney amusement parks.

Success is not always what it’s perceived to be. 

What is Financial Success?

Defining success, in any discipline, depends on who is setting expectations.

If I were to attempt to run a marathon, success would be to finish and not get injured. But a more experienced runner with a few races under his/her belt may set a goal to run a sub-four-hour marathon time.

We could both accomplish our goals and consider ourselves successful. Success is not mutually exclusive.

Financial success is the same. You and I have different goals and ways of defining financial success. But if I don’t achieve the same level of wealth or income as you, that doesn’t make me a failure. 

Maybe you worked your butt off in your 20’s instead of seeking adventure as I did. Or perhaps you overspend. 

We tend to compare ourselves to others when it comes to career achievement and money, even though we have limited information about the financials of our peers. Comparing ourselves to others a useless exercise rooted in envy.

But we all do it.

More money — earning, saving, and spending it — is not an accurate measurement of financial success. 

Money is just one part of financial success. The more critical aspect of financial success is how we utilize, conserve, and compound the money we earn.

People at various stages of life and wealth may pinpoint financial success on specific goals, such as eliminating debt, saving a fixed sum in the bank, or paying for a child’s college education.

Those are all steps along the way. 

Real financial success is attained when the accumulation of wealth or achieved level of income is enough money support your ideal life, hopefully, for the rest of your life. Some might define it simply as financial independence

Financial success is a combination of wealth and wisdom.

Someone earning $1 million per year is not financially successful if the earnings are matched with $1 million in annual spending.

How the $1 million is utilized once attained is what determines financial success. Is it spent blindly, or cherished and stashed away to solidify financial security? Does the income enable an ideal life? 

Financial success cannot be determined by visible wealth, such as a big house or a fancy sports car. Nor can it be defined by arbitrary numbers or percentages.

It’s not about one-upping your neighbor or business rival, or earning an above-average salary for your zip code.

It’s about optimizing your finances in alignment with your values and what makes you the happiest.

Define “Ideal Life”

Aging is an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been. ― David Bowie

A good friend of mine was backpacking in Australia years ago and came across an abrasive fellow traveler in a hostel bar. He asked my friend his opinion on a nearby tourist excursion outside of the city. 

My friend responded with something like, “Oh, it was cool. We had a fun day out there. Good tour.”

The arrogant vagabond leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms, and responded: “Define cool.”

Stunned, my friend was speechless and went back to his beer. The phrase became a recurring joke during our road trip in Ireland.

“Define craic.”

How can you put a definition to something as broad as an ideal life? Is there only one perfect life that someone can live? Of course not.

So an ideal life is, perhaps, the life you’re living today. Or, some combination of being happy where you are now (a result of where you’ve been), and improving upon that each day for rest of your life (on average, factoring ups and downs). 

Financial success empowers you to live the ideal life, a happy life. But money alone doesn’t make it happen. It’s the wisdom you apply to the money you earn and keep. Too much money can even detract from living your best life if you do stupid things with it. 

Happiness is not a straight line. As popularized by in the book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch, happiness is more of a curved smile. 
I was going to draw a nice chart, but the book cover already has one:

An ideal life may very well follow this trajectory. The sooner one acknowledges the things (family, relationships, community, travel, good health, purpose, hard work, simple pleasures, etc.) that bring happiness and fulfillment, the sooner life will naturally evolve to prioritize those things and eliminate distractions, accelerating the upswing.

What Does Financial Success Mean to you?

I interviewed for an internship at a small financial adviser firm for the summer before my college senior year. By the end of the interview, six different people had hotboxed me in a small conference room asking philosophical questions entirely unrelated to the position.

The last question, the president of the company asked me what I wanted to get out of life. My response was, I just want to be happy.

Wrong answer. They were hoping I’d declare that I wanted to use this internship as a launching pad for a wildly successful financial services career, one that would bring them whale-size clients and make me rich in the process.

My failure to read the situation and deliver the right answer solidified my destiny as an unpaid copier-boy at Merrill Lynch that summer, where I learned I didn’t want to become a financial adviser. 

But I remained true to myself with that answer, as it remains true today. The interviewers wanted philosophical, so I unknowingly out-philosophized their lame questions and never entered that fee-sucking industry. 

Happiness is, ultimately, what I’m striving for today. But I admit, some days I feel the pull of the happiness curve, down from the peaks of childhood dreams and the independence of enduring travel, to being broke and unemployed, to an unsatisfying job, to the weight of responsibility that comes with the unequaled joys of marriage and parenthood.

To now, career satisfaction and attainable retirement achievement in my sights. 

I tend to overweight financial goals because finance is my side business and hobby. Finance is fun and measurable to the penny. But it’s the other side of financial success that I’m starting to focus on more, utilizing what I accumulate to prioritize what’s most important. 

How do you measure financial success?

Disclosure: Long DIS
Photo via DepositPhotos used under license.


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  1. Kathryn Hong says:

    Your article reminded me of another article i saw recently that said $75,000 is the best salary for happiness (adding more doesn’t decrease or increase happiness)–and that is about what i make now. That gave me a certain satisfaction and put a smile on my face.

    But more importantly, what really put a smile on my face was realizing that i have enough money to be generous–a value that is important to me. I can give to charities whether it improves my tax situation or not (last year, the increased standard deduction made more sense than itemizing). And if i want my sister’s company on a trip next spring but her job situation is uncertain, i can cover the entire cost out of my existing Trip fund.

    So being able to meet my own needs now and in retirement, save for the future, and be generous (share the wealth) is my definition of financial success today.

    1. $75,000 is that magic number according to studies. Of course, doesn’t work if you live in San Francisco, but it’s pretty good even for DC if you don’t have a family. I do think more money can help make a person happier, but not alone. It takes intentional pursuit of happiness.

      Great point about generosity. Part of living an ideal life is being able to focus on what you value most, and being able to support it with time and money. Be it charity, a good cause, or helping loved ones.

      Thanks for chiming in with your thoughts.

  2. nancy finney says:

    One of the best things of reading your articles is that you give us great advice – but on a continuum, making us think about our choices and WHY we make them. Same goes for satisfaction. Keep up the good work!

  3. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your post. It shows that you have reflected on your experiences and gotten even more than memories. I look forward to each post. Please keep posting on whatever schedule works for you.

  4. Everyone has to find their own path to happiness. It’s tricky, but I agree with the book. LIfe gets simpler as you age and you gain more acceptance. Financial success is tricky too. I had to ignore conventional wisdom and forge your own path. For me, financial success means living a comfortable lifestyle for the rest of my life without having to stress about money. Our comfortable lifestyle is relatively modest compare to our neighbors. That’s the biggest challenge. We have to reject what other people think.

  5. This is a great post- I see financial success as having complete control of my time. No one telling me what to do!