Last week, Ben Carlson from A Wealth of Common Sense published an interesting article about how staying rich is harder than getting rich. He writes:
Research shows over 50% of Americans will find themselves in the top 10% of earners for at least one year of their lives. More than 11% will find themselves in the top 1% of income-earners at some point. And close to 99% of those who make it into the top 1% of earners will find themselves on the outside looking in within a decade.
It's great that so many people get to taste what it's like to earn a lot of money, if only for a little while. What's not so great is that as most people earn more, they spend more. But if you spend all (or most) of what you earn as you're surfing an income bubble, you can find yourself in trouble when that bubble bursts.
Carlson quotes a story about a couple that lived a lavish lifestyle because they were making a lot of money. When the income dried up, they realized they had nothing left. They were broke. Says the husband: “The money was just coming so fast and so easy that my ego led me to believe that, ‘Oh, this is my life forever.'”
I've been thinking about that last line for a week now: “This is my life forever.” This couple fell for a common (but seldom examined) mental trap: the forever fallacy. The forever fallacy is the mistaken belief that you will always have what you have today, that you'll always be who you are today.
The Forever Fallacy
It's easiest to see the forever fallacy at play in extreme cases. Take professional athletes, for instance.
In a 2009 Sports Illustrated article about how and why athletes go broke, Pablo S. Torre wrote that after two years of retirement, “78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress.” Within five years of retirement, roughly 60% of former NBA players are in similar positions.
Fundamentally, the problem here is the forever fallacy. Athletes (and popular entertainers) tend to enjoy a few years during which they earn great gobs of money. The challenge is to figure out how to make five years of income last for fifty years. This never occurs to most of them. As the money is rolling in, it feels like the money will always be rolling in. When the income stops, the pain begins.
“[A pro athlete] can't live like a king forever,” says Bart Scott in ESPN's Broke, a documentary about pro athletes and their money problems. “But you can live like a prince forever.”
The forever fallacy doesn't just trap athletes and entertainers and lottery winners. It snares average folks like you and me too.
I'm sure we've all had friends who found themselves flush, whether from a windfall or from a raise at work. They succumb to lifestyle inflation, spending more as they earn more. They buy a bigger house, a new car, a boat. Then, without warning, something awful occurs and they're no longer rolling in dough. It felt like the good times would last forever — but they didn't.
The forever fallacy manifests itself in lots of little ways too.
- When you choose not to keep an emergency fund because you've never needed one in the past, you're succumbing to the forever fallacy.
- When you take out a large mortgage, one that pushes the limits of your earning power, you're giving in to the forever fallacy.
- When you fund your lifestyle through debt, you're living in the forever fallacy.
The forever fallacy doesn't apply only to positive expectations. People also give in to the forever fallacy with negative expectations. They're trapped in a minimum wage job and project that they'll always be working minimum wage. They're in a shitty marriage and let themselves believe that they'll always be trapped in a shitty marriage. And so on.
The key thing to understand is that everything changes. You change. Your circumstances change. The people around you change. Nothing is forever. The challenge then is to balance this concept — everything changes — with living in the present. You must learn to enjoy today while simultaneously preparing for possible tomorrows. [Read more…]