The other night I watched Mr. Rogers and Me, a sweet PBS documentary about the director’s friendship with real-life neighbor Fred Rogers. And the popularity of the recently released Won’t You be my Neighbor? demonstrates our desperate need for civility and decency in current times. As I learned more about Fred Rogers, who died in 2003 at the age of 74, I began to wonder if his words held any value to the world of personal finance. The answer is YES. Here are six lessons we can learn from Mr. Rogers.
Mr. Rogers was notorious for his cardigans, which were hand-knitted by his mother. The show wasn’t commercialized – you couldn’t buy Mr. Rogers lunchboxes or action figures. Instead, the show taught us about values and how to treat our fellow human beings with kindness. I’m sure Mr. Rogers could have taken advantage of his fame and lived a glamorous lifestyle. But that wasn’t him, and sometimes, the glamorous lifestyle serves as a facade for an empty life.
Last week I spent some time decluttering, starting with my closet. I sorted and donated bags of perfectly good business clothes and assorted casual wear. I had to laugh as I came across so many Casual Corner labels – my favorite store that went out of business in 2005. Yes, those clothes have been in my closet for at least 13 years. And there’s nothing like a good purge to make one realize that we don’t need all this stuff. Mr. Rogers got it right – stick to the simple cardigan.
So many of us walk the path of what is expected of us – college, career, house, marriage, children, and retirement. And our idea of “success” is deeply woven into whether we reach the corner office and how much wealth we accumulate. For Mr. Rogers, success was about doing what we love to do. Ideally, our passion will pay the bills, but that’s not always the case
Today there’s a growing FIRE community – folks who strive for Financial Independence and leaving the traditional workforce early (Retired Early). And for this group, very often there’s a trade-off – an understanding that a high salary combined with frugal living will provide an escape valve. By dropping out of the 9 to 5 workforce early, society might consider FIRE’d friends as “dropouts” or “failures.” But I think Mr. Rogers would approve. Success is not about the career, money, or fame. It’s about being true to yourself and living a simpler, less consumer-oriented life.
“What do you do for a living?” That’s the typical first line of questioning upon being introduced to someone. I struggled with answering that question myself after being fired from a highly successful career. But as time wore on and I moved forward on my own path, I realized that I didn’t miss the career, nor the recognition – or stress – that it brought. I was still ME. And I’m rather fond of me!
For many of us, work is a means to an end. It provides the salary, benefits, and often times, camaraderie. But for others, work defines their lives, and their departure from the workplace often signals early death. Our jobs have become the center of the universe. We schedule all of our personal activities around work. And work no longer ends at 5:00. We log into our work email and take calls outside of office hours. The result? High levels of stress and a sleep-deprived nation. And is it worth it? Mr. Rogers might kindly suggest that we take time to explore who we are, deep down inside, underneath the layers of business clothes and professional demeanor. So let this be a reminder to strive for a more balanced life, pursue your own desires, and discover what brings you joy.
In the United States, we don’t start from an equal playing field. In fact, the best predictors of our financial success as adults are where we were born, how much our parents earned, and whether our parents were married (visit the Equality of Opportunity Project). So let’s be truthful – not everyone in our society has the same opportunities.
Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. So what do you do when things fall apart? From an economic standpoint, most of our jobs are precarious – we can be fired on a moment’s notice, downsized during a re-organization, or have the bad luck of working for a company that relocates jobs overseas (all the more reason to start a side hustle). For Mr. Rogers, the end of something is the beginning of something else. Will you be resilient and fearless and see the end of something as an opportunity? Or will you lie in bed anguishing the loss of something, and eventually settle for whatever you are handed? I think Mr. Rogers would encourage us to create and take advantage of life-changing opportunities whenever we can.
Happiness is an evasive concept, but the formula is basic – understand who you are deep down inside and make choices based on your values and desires. There’s a popular blog called Afford Anything. The tagline: You can afford anything … but not everything. Success comes from setting a goal and then working like the dickens to achieve it. Just know that you’ll have to bypass lots of glittery stuff along the way. Because you can’t have it all, you need a laser point focus to get what you want.
Do you have a financial plan? Now I’m not talking about complicated spreadsheets detailing equity allocations and Monte Carlo simulations. I’m referring to a basic plan – with goals, priorities, and action steps. What are your goals? Do you want to get out of debt? You need a plan! Do you want to travel the world for your 50th birthday? You need a plan! Mr. Rogers would approve! So if you don’t have a plan in place, craft one today. Think about short-term, mid-term, and long-term goals. Make choices that will drive you to a better future.
All too often, we make financial decisions based on a scarcity mindset – we compare ourselves to those who are better off and waste our energy pursuing the “good life.” And in the end, we never have enough. A scarcity mindset is about instant gratification, and consequently, those long-term desires go unfulfilled. Those with a scarcity mindset are not generous with their time or money and are envious of those who have more.
In contrast, if you approach your personal finances from an abundance mindset, in which you practice delayed gratification to focus on what matters most, you’re more likely to build wealth and increase your happiness level. Mr. Rogers said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.” His philosophy is one of abundance, in which we practice gratitude, appreciate all that we have, and give more of our selves. So today let’s share more smiles and acts of kindness.