What Is The Real Meaning Of Wealth?

Fisherman Over Bosphorus Bridge

Author bio: The following is a guest post from Steve the Money Infant. There he blogs daily about money; how to save it, make more and avoid wasting it. You can also find him on Twitter every day sharing great posts from all around the PF blogging world.

Do you think you are wealthy? In fact, what is wealth really? The Free Dictionary defines wealth as follows:

  1. An abundance of valuable material possessions or resources; riches. The state of being rich; affluence.
  2. All goods and resources having value in terms of exchange or use.
  3. A great amount; a profusion: a wealth of advice.

I think that many and possibly most people focus on the 1st meaning of wealth. We are so concerned with material wealth while there are many other kinds of wealth that we should be striving for. It hasn’t always been this way though. The word “wealth” actually comes from two Old English words; “weal” (meaning well-being) and “th” (meaning condition of) which when combined means “the condition of well-being”. That is significantly different when compared with the common usage of the word wealth these days.

While I certainly wouldn’t try to denigrate the usefulness of material wealth, in many ways my life has become a striving for wealth in the Old English sense of the world. I do not claim to have a great deal of wealth. Much of what I owned was sold before our move to Thailand. My investments are sorely lacking and my income, while sufficient to satisfy our meager needs, is certainly not that of what you would consider a wealthy person. What I do have on most days though is what I would call inner wealth; a great sense of well being or inner peace.

Outer Wealth

I am not going to deny that I do enjoy some of the trappings of wealth. 5 star hotels, Michelin restaurants, exotic travel and luxury items are all very nice. The thing about all of these outer wealth manifestations is that they are fleeting and in some ways illusory. That is, they don’t stay with you in any meaningful way other than as pleasant memories or items that once cherished become taken for granted among your day to day life. It may bring you momentary happiness when you purchase a Cartier watch, a Benz or those to die for Jimmy Choo’s, but the happiness doesn’t last long and soon you are once again searching for something to bring you peace.

Some even try to amass wealth simply for the sake of wealth. They claim a sense of security and safety comes from the knowledge that their wealth is there to back them up. This begs the question; How much wealth is enough? I continue to see wildly different amounts thrown about. There was a survey done on the super wealthy (those with net worth over 25 million dollars), finding that even among this group they do not feel financially secure and would need an additional 25% added to their already considerable fortunes to feel financially secure. Some claim they wouldn’t feel secure until they have 1 billion dollars. I wonder if they would even be satisfied then?

One other common theme I see among those striving to become wealthy is the trade off in terms of lifestyle, health and family connections. Is it worth it to lose the joys of watching your child grow up. What type of connection are you making with your family when you are gone or sleeping 85% of the time? And what lessons are you teaching your children. Those who live this type of life are almost sure to become wealthy by most standards, but at what cost?

I will be honest with you and admit that while still living in the U.S. I was as guilty as anyone regarding the need for outer wealth. I spent way too much time at work, focused more on my finances than my family and never felt that we had enough. Enough in those days was enough to leave my job and move to Thailand. It turns out I was richer than I once thought and since making the move my focus and priorties have shifted dramatically.

The beginning of the shift was making the actual decision to move. Up to that point I was always focused on having more money, feeling that we wouldn’t be able to afford everything we wanted (note I said wanted) once we arrived in Thailand. My figures for the move ranged anywhere from $60k to $90k at that time. My wife didn’t feel the same way, but went along with me for some time, I think she was just waiting for the right moment to strike 🙂

If we had followed our plans back then we would have waited a minimum of 8 more months to move, but life doesn’t always wait for your plans. Changes at my work, additional responsibilities in an already busy schedule and a feeling that the company didn’t value me as a person led to the early decision to finally call it quits and move on to another phase of life. I was considerably shy of the $60-90k I “thought” we would need and my income was just barely enough to cover our living expenses (based on my projections). Even so, I quit that job, we bought tickets, sold our stuff and said goodbye to life in the U.S. I wasn’t sure how we were going to make it, but this was a dream we had shared for almost 5 years and it was time to finally make it a reality.

Inner Wealth

I would like to tell you that once we arrived in Thailand all my troubles melted away, but that would be a lie. The first month was great, we were constantly busy, looking for a place to stay, catching up with friends and family and traveling. My personality was still the same as when we were in the U.S., stressed, demanding and always pushing for more. Over the following 4 months this would almost lead to my downfall and the end of our dream of living in Thailand.

I’m sure you have all heard of culture shock. Put simply it is a state of loss and disorientation predicated by a change in one’s familiar environment which requires adjustment. By the end of the first month I was definitely in a state of culture shock and my life was full of stress and anger. Thankfully I had made many trips to Thailand over the years and was able to go through the negotiation and adjustment phases fairly quickly. When I came out the other side I noticed some fundamental differences not only in how I viewed my life in Thailand, but in how I viewed life in general.

It Is Already In The Past So It Does Not Exist

For those who haven’t visited Thailand it might help to know that the population is 99% Buddhist. This combined with the fact that Thailand is still by in large an agrarian society means that the Thais are a very non-confrontational and family oriented people. It is unusual to see arguments among Thais and they have a very flexible and laid back attitude to life in general.

One of the most infuriating phrases for a foreigner in Thailand can be “mai bpen rai“, which we often take as meaning nevermind or even sorry. In reality the phrase translates literally as “no is nothing” and the Thais really do mean it literally. One of the main tenents of Buddhism is to live in the present and when a Thai says mai bpen rai to you they mean something like “it is already in the past and so it doesn’t exist“. Just as if it never happened.

When you are used to the typical control most Westerners try to place on their environment mai bpen rai can become infuriating. How can you plan for the future or correct what you see to be as past transgressions when everyone around you claims that past and future don’t truly exist? However, once you begin to embrace that mindset you start to see the benefits. I certainly did. Once I dropped my attempts to control everything, to plan for every possible scenario and to dwell on past transgressions my life improved, even though my finances had not.

After that 5th month I saw my weight dropping (I’ve lost over 20 pounds since moving here), my stress levels dropping (I no longer have the knots in my neck and back that I thought were normal) and my relationship with my wife and daughter improving dramatically. How wonderful it is to spend time with your loved ones without any sense of rush or guilt because you “need” to be doing something else.

How relaxing to spend your day doing the things you want to do and interacting with those who bring you happiness. And surprisingly, even though we are still living almost paycheck to paycheck here I have very little stress over my finances in the future.

I am content with what we have and while I would like to have more I know it will take time, but even so we have pretty much everything we need right now. I honestly don’t think that if you gave me 1 million dollars our life would change all that much. I would continue to work on what I love, spend time with my family and seek out new connections. I don’t fret much about our future so I can’t even say that the money would give me any sense of security.

Truly we have just this moment. You have no idea what the next moment will bring, so why not be content and happy with what you have and enjoy it to its fullest rather than focusing on what you don’t have and a future that may never come.

Balance and Understanding

I don’t mean any of this in the fatalistic sense of “we are all going to die”, but more in the sense of why not find the joy in your life as it is. Of course I still plan for the future. While I might die tomorrow it is just as likely that I will live for another 50 years. I would like to be prepared for either eventuality, but I don’t want to put more energy into one over the other. What I think I have finally found here in Thailand is balance and an understanding of how important relationships and experiences are versus material things and future possibilities.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned since moving to Thailand is to live life on my own terms. I’m no longer struggling to meet the demands of others who don’t have my best interests at heart. I’m not financially secure (whatever that means), however I am financially stable. And I am quite happy with this stability, especially knowing that for most people no matter how much they save they always feel as if it isn’t enough. Some might disagree with me, but life is not meant for amassing a bunch of stuff or for sacrificing connections and experiences in order to gain security.

When all is said and done, you can’t take it with you, not a single penny of it. I don’t think I will ever regret not making enough money, but I would definitely regret not spending time with my daughter, not connecting more with my wife and not at least trying to find peace within myself. This is what I call true wealth, happiness within yourself and the love of your friends and family.


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Readers, what is the real meaning of wealth to you?

Photo: Fishermen Over the Bosphorus, SD.

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