Years ago, my colleagues and I conducted a fairly large-scale research project. We interviewed a bunch of high-income professionals who provided professional services. This group included doctors, dentists and lawyers, and like most of us, they earned money only when they were working. In essence, they traded their time for dollars.
Our finding was this: Homes and retirements accounts aside, the most valuable asset they owned was the person staring back at them in the mirror each morning. Chances are, the most valuable investment you own is the investment called you.
A more technical way to think about it is that the most valuable asset you own is the present value of your future earnings. But here’s the problem: Despite what your spouse may tell you, the investment called you is getting less valuable with every year that passes.
It’s nothing personal. I’m sure you’re great. But this is simple math. Every year that goes by means you have one fewer year to earn money. If I were to sketch this for you, it would look like this.
Traditional financial planning spends almost no time on this issue. Instead, the traditional financial services industry focuses on getting you to take as much money as you can and put it into other investments, like mutual funds, stocks and hedge funds. That’s all fine and, to be clear, a very important part of your overall plan. But far more needs to be said about the investment called you.
One person doing some fascinating work on this topic is Joshua Sheats at his site, Radical Personal Finance. If you’re interested in this subject (hint: you should be), you might want to check out his more technical treatment.
But for this column, I want to focus three ways you can think about this.
Make your starting salary as high as possible. Remember that friend from high school who had a great summer job? At the time, he made what seemed like a lot of money. Everyone was jealous. Then when you headed to college in the fall, your friend’s summer job turned into a full-time job. Why would he quit making money to go to college? But you put in the time and graduated a few years later.
Now your friend is a supervisor, but you’re a doctor. By investing in education and training, you increased your starting point and initial value. Obviously, not all us of really want to become doctors, but you get the idea. In the beginning, don’t let short-term rewards get in the way of increasing your long-term value.
Make more money each year. Yes, I know this advice is obvious. But rather than being satisfied with just the annual cost-of-living adjustment, look for ways to increase your value where you work. Pick up new skills. Take extra classes and projects that no one wants. Don’t settle for doing just enough. To borrow a phrase from the author Cal Newport, make yourself so valuable they can’t ignore you.
Outside of your 9-to-5 job, find a side gig if you can make time. What could you do to earn an extra $1,000 each month? What happens if you start earning enough to cover your mortgage? What happens if you build a business that earns more than your regular job? This phase reminds me of Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper. Do a little more today and avoid being the grasshopper.
Make your working window longer. Look, I know most of us really like the idea of retiring, but it’s a myth. Most people don’t simply work their guts out until 60, then suddenly pull that plug and put on the golf shoes. People are living longer, and you might be facing a very boring 20 or 25 years without work.
You can only golf so much.
Instead, most people find they still want to be doing something. Contributing value to the world. Working. So plan on it (and invest in your health too, so you’ll still be physically capable of working).
But think of this side hustle as an opportunity to do something you love to do. Maybe it looks a bit more like this: You work at your day job until 55 and then slow down a bit. You do more of the work you love. Maybe you’ve always wanted to be a teacher, or perhaps you’d really love to become a guide at your local botanical garden. Whatever the work, it lengthens your overall line.
You may love the job you’re doing now, but your employer might have a set retirement age. Could your value be so great that they might consider working with you as a consultant for a few more years? Adding a little time at the end will give your line another upward bump.
These are just a few of the ways we can invest in ourselves. And by now, you’ve probably thought of a dozen things you can do that are unique to your own life. If you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear your ideas. You can find me on Twitter @behaviorgap or send me an email, email@example.com. Just don’t ever forget that more we invest in ourselves today, the more valuable we become over time and the less we need to worry about that line on the chart.
This commentary originally appeared December 14 on NYTimes.com
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