Personal finance

Harvard-trained financial expert: How to let go of ‘self-sabotaging beliefs and habits around money’

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Between 2000 and 2016, long working hours led to a 42% increase in deaths from heart disease, and a 19% increase in deaths from stroke, according to a 2021 report from the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization.

The bulk of 745,000 deaths in 2016 from such causes were among people between 60 and 79 years of age who had worked for 55 hours or more per week between the ages of 45 and 74.

In her new book, “MoneyZen: The Secret to Finding Your ‘Enough,'” author Manisha Thakor explores the reason why people fall into overworking themselves and the risks people face in the long run. Thakor, a certified financial planner and a chartered financial analyst who has an MBA from Harvard, wants to help people shed work addiction and “self-sabotaging beliefs and habits around money, careers [and] accomplishments.”

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

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Ana Teresa Solá: What is the “never enough” mindset? 
Manisha Thakor: I define the “never enough” mindset as a feeling that no matter how many accomplishments you achieve or how much praise you receive, it just feels like it’s never enough. And you feel almost compelled in a subliminal, toxic way to keep chasing after these things. No matter how many of them you receive, it just doesn’t seem to quench the need.

ATS: Can you explain the Buddhist concept of the hungry ghosts and how it’s connected to the feeling of “never enough?”
MT:
It’s the notion that hungry ghosts walk amongst us and they are beings who are seeking love, a sense of belonging, to be seen for who they really are and appreciated for who they are, not what they do. In the traditional Buddhist’s description, these ghosts have big bellies because they’re starving with these things, but they have throats that are as small as a needle. No matter how much of these beautiful things are coming to them, in their daily lives, they’re not able to digest enough to fill their bellies.

I met an unprecedented number of people who are struggling with this kind of mindset. My argument is that it’s because people are experiencing the symptoms of a society that’s been built on this false belief that the answer to our collective angst is pursuing more money, work and more prestige. Those things turn us into hungry ghosts because they have no finish line — you can never get enough of them.

‘Increased income is not leading to life satisfaction’

ATS: How do working conditions in the U.S. perpetuate “never enough?”
MT: Tremendously, and from a variety of different angles. We have a shocking number of people who are not earning a living wage. They range from individuals who are working two to three jobs at minimum wage and are utterly exhausted trying to provide for their families, struggling with the lack of social safety nets. And then we have another category of people who add enormous value to society — from teachers to medical frontline workers — who aren’t paid remotely compared to the value they bring to society.

The final rotten cherry on the top is the fact that as a society, we have come to so value each other based on what someone does. 

The overarching risk is that we end up, at the end of the day, looking back at our adult years and realizing we spent years as human ‘doings’ instead of thriving as human ‘beings.’
Manisha Thakor
Author of “MoneyZen: The Secret to Finding Your ‘Enough'”

ATS: You would say that work conditions have meshed into our lives so much that we become what we do?
MT: Oh, absolutely, and it starts early. We ask young kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We don’t mean “be” by your character. Be nice, be kind, be compassionate and be loving. We mean, “What do you want to do for a living?” That’s the lens and it starts from such a young age.

ATS: What are some of the risks we face if we overwork ourselves? 
MT: The overarching risk is that we end up, at the end of the day, looking back at our adult years and realizing we spent years as human “doings” instead of thriving as human “beings.” Another one is that your core relationships shut you down. My friends are my coworkers and they become my surrogate family.

But I think the biggest one is this pervasive sense of emptiness that just life isn’t fulfilling. You are working hard, you may be earning more, but that increased income is not leading to life satisfaction. 

‘Identify what’s on the other side of your self-worth’

ATS: You bring up significant data and anecdotes that highlight how overworking can lead to health issues. How can someone pivot their behavior before it’s too late?
MT: Most of us are optimizing our lives for some kind of toxic equation. In my case, I literally believed that my self-worth equaled my net worth. A key start is to identify what’s on the other side of your self-worth. I want to introduce people to what I think is a much healthier framework to make decisions about the asset allocation of your scarce resources of time and money, to bring you to this place that I happen to call MoneyZen. 

ATS: What is MoneyZen? 
MT: It’s a term I coined over a decade ago and which I refer to as having calm confidence and clarity about both your relationship with money and the role you want money to play in your life. There’s not a specific number associated with it, it’s a state of mind. The steps to get there is a mental model of “financial health” plus “emotional wealth.”

ATS: What advice would you give to younger adults who are embarking on their early relationships with money and their careers? 
MT: Live within your means, generally speaking. Your life isn’t going to look like your friends around you because most people don’t live within their means.

That’s the core foundation of establishing good lifelong financial habits because once you learn that skill, you then can start being responsible with debt management, and perhaps being very aggressive with the payoff of that debt management. You also have money to set aside for an emergency fund, because we all know the one thing you can expect is the unexpected. And you also have some money to set aside for the future because we know about the power of compounding.

Those three things are the three-legged stool of financial health. 

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