This is a guest post by Philip of Weakonomics. If you like what you see here, please consider subscribing to his RSS feed.
Last week, I took my car in for some scheduled service. The dealership is near my office but far from home, so it made sense for me to take the shuttle offered by the dealership. Upon boarding the shuttle, I was greeted by the driver and three other gentlemen. The conversations wavered for a few minutes until everyone learned that I work for a local bank. At that point, the conversation shifted to the economy. And once I told them I was also a finance blogger, they let me take the lead.
The first thing that I asked was what they all did for a living. While I realize that this will sound like the beginning of a bad joke, I was seated alongside a lawyer, a doctor, and pastor — as well as the driver, who was a retired teacher. And then there was me, a banker.
The conversation moved from auto bailouts to social security before we settled into my sweet spot: personal finance. Everyone was willing to talk about their situation because they all had something to brag about. But the ultimate shocker was when we learned what kind of money each person had.
Want to guess who had the most money? I’ll give you a hint… It wouldn’t be a very interesting post if it was one of the high income earners. Still wondering? Well, our driver had more money than the rest of us. Considering his inexpensive clothes and the fact that he probably earns $10 an hour, this took us all by surprise. Even more so given that he had worked as a teacher his entire life.
Profiles in finance
No matter how many times I read it, I always lose sight of the fact that high income does not necessarily translate into high net worth. Our driver was very financially savvy and had a healthy nest egg. In fact, he said that he takes all of the money he earns driving the shuttle and parks it in 529 accounts for his grandchildren. He only works because, as he said, his wife can’t stand him being around the house for more than a few hours every day.
Next in line was the pastor. The spiritual leader of our short journey learned his personal finance lessons early in life when he was working at a small church. He was the treasurer, accountant, and head usher. Money was tight for the church, and he sometimes used his personal credit cards to help the churchgoers pay bills. Sure, he meant well, but it almost wiped him out. After balancing a church budget for a decade, he figured he should get his own house in order. He moved cross country after getting married, and he also started working at a larger church. He took the lessons from his younger days and adopted a debt-free lifestyle. Ultimately, he paid cash for the car that he bought from the dealer.
Next in line after the pastor was me, the banker. You don’t need to know too much about my finances. Just know that I’m a debt-free twenty-something who hasn’t worked long enough to amass a large net worth.
And now we’re left with the two who should have been at the top… The doctor was in better shape than the lawyer, but he was also older. It took him 14 years to pay off med-school, and now he’s in his late 40s and has only paid off about 10% of his mortgage. He leases a minivan, and carries a balance on five credit cards. He says that every doctor in the hospital lives like this. He also told us that doctors that work in small offices generally make less, but they don’t have the same pressures for social ranking, and are thus in better financial shape.
Finally, the attorney. He’s been out of law school for five years, and still owes over $100,000 in student loans. On top of that, he’s upside-down on a mortgage and has no investments. Though he’s married, she isn’t working because she is taking care of their new baby. He’s dressed nicely, but he can’t afford new suits, and was proud of the coupon he’d found online for his oil change. This poor (literally) guy was very open about his problems, and admitted to feeling lost in a world of debt. The pastor gave him Dave Ramsey’s name. Hopefully he’ll see the light.
While I’ve read stories like this in the past, the truth never really sunk in until I shared a ride with these guys. There was a time in my life when I was jealous of doctors and lawyers. They wear nice clothes, drive fancy cars, and send their kids to private schools. However, so many of them spend money like it’s going out of style, choosing to live above their impressive means in an attempt to keep up with the Joneses. My jealousy has now died; all that is left is pity.