This post is by staff writer Honey Smith.

Just because two people hear the same word or phrase, doesn’t mean that they are conceptualizing the same thing. For example, I live in the desert, so when I say that it’s “cold,” it’s a pretty safe bet that I’m talking about something different than the person who lives in Vermont. Similarly, if I say it’s “humid,” I am probably not thinking about the same thing as the person who lives in Florida.

It comes down to the difference between denotation and connotation. “Denotation” refers to something’s definition or literal meaning. “Connotation,” on the other hand, refers to what we associate with the use of a particular term. Connotations can be cultural in nature, though they may be based on personal experience. They can also evoke strong emotions (positive or negative), in both the speaker and the listener.

I have noticed this tendency come into play right here in the comments of GRS. “Get Rich Slowly” is the name of the site, but what do those words mean? What, exactly, is “rich”? What do I think “slowly” means? Is that the same time frame you have in mind? Why does it matter, anyway?

What it means to “get rich”

Does “rich” mean a million bucks? Does it mean homeownership? Does it mean financial independence? Is being rich even something that can be restricted to money? “Financial independence” seems to be rising to prominence as the preferred term in personal finance circles these days (as opposed to a term like “retirement”). I think that is in part because it assumes a more encompassing understanding of the term “rich” than simply money. For example, “financial independence” assumes something about how you spend your time.

For one thing, “financial independence” assumes that you may still be interested to work. However, when you no longer have to spend nine hours a day earning the money you need to survive, then you are free to spend that time on other things whether it’s part-time work, a change in fields, volunteering your time to a cause that’s near and dear to you, or spending time with friends and family.

“Rich” implies something else completely, at least to me. When I think of “rich,” I always think of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault of gold coins. In other words, to me the term “rich” has a tinge of selfishness. It calls to mind someone who has more than enough money to do anything they want, but who doesn’t give — of time or money. Given the connotation I apply to the terms “rich” and “financially independent,” I know which I’d rather be.

What it means to get rich “slowly”

At what pace do you have to be moving to be slow? If you’re still in the debt-payoff phase, should you allocate all your discretionary spending possible toward that goal in order to get out of debt as quickly as possible? Do you have to be gazelle-intense, or is it okay to pay off your debt at a slower pace so that you can allocate some funds toward wants?

And if you’re in the asset-accumulation phase, is it okay to act like a corporation, obligated to make every decision with an eye toward shareholder profit? Do we have a duty to live up to our potential? Or is it okay to take a lower-paying job that you enjoy in order to create the life you want? What if it means that you are still dependent on a paycheck and may have to work until you reach retirement age, or even later?

It’s like the saying goes, anyone who drives slower than you is an idiot and anyone who drives faster than you is a maniac. As long as you are moving at a pace that works for you, why does it matter to you what other people think of your progress? Why would you care about the pace of other people’s progress? Does it make a difference if they’re your friend or family as opposed to a stranger? Does it matter if they have dependents, or if they’re dependent on others? Is there morality in personal finance?

Why you should do what works for you

Do what works for you is one of the fourteen core tenets of Get Rich Slowly. At the end of that article, J.D. Roth says:

“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you there’s just one right way to do something. Each person is different. What works for one person may not work for another. Be willing to experiment until you find methods that are suited to your life.

“Make informed choices, understand the consequences, and focus on your goals.”

This doesn’t mean that you don’t have things to learn from other people. I think it’s always important to consider how other people’s methods and circumstances can inform your own. Sometimes, you’ll find the best tips and tricks come from those you have a lot in common with. Other times, you’ll find that stories from someone in completely different circumstances and with radically different values can change your perspective for the better.

Doing what works for you means letting go of your fears about what other people might think about your decisions. However, it means letting go of your fears because you have carefully considered all the options and are making the best decision for you and your circumstances. It means that your spending matches your values. Being certain that you are doing what works for you doesn’t mean that you become certain about what other people should do. It doesn’t mean your way is the only way.

Final thoughts

In a way, the key to success is selfishness. Don’t be influenced by the connotation “selfishness” has for being a bad thing. It can be good! “Selfishness” means that you shouldn’t be afraid to take tips or learn from anyone who might help you reach your goals. You also shouldn’t let your goals be dictated to you by friends, family, or society at large. However, if being selfish means being primarily concerned with your own welfare, then it also means not judging other people for having different priorities than you (assuming their priorities don’t harm others).

What does “success” mean to you? What does it mean to be rich? Is it okay to get rich slowly? How slowly? What if you never want to be rich, or you want to get rich as quickly as possible?

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