A Sense of Urgency: Money Can’t Buy You More Time

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Over the weekend, I read the NYT Magazine article America’s Professional Elite: Wealthy, Successful and Miserable about the rich and unhappy, which included a man who earned $1.2 million a year in Manhattan and hated his job:

“I feel like I’m wasting my life,” he told me. “When I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return? My work feels totally meaningless.” He recognized the incredible privilege of his pay and status, but his anguish seemed genuine. “If you spend 12 hours a day doing work you hate, at some point it doesn’t matter what your paycheck says,” he told me. There’s no magic salary at which a bad job becomes good. He had received an offer at a start-up, and he would have loved to take it, but it paid half as much, and he felt locked into a lifestyle that made this pay cut impossible. “My wife laughed when I told her about it,” he said.

Based on a short conversation in a class reunion, it’s easy to extrapolate endless stressful hours at work, a huge mortgage, fancy private school tuition, expensive vacations, and a high-maintenance spouse. Such a picture makes all of us not earning $1.2 million a year feel better about ourselves. But is he really that miserable?

I suspect it is more like the same situation a lot of people are in. They aren’t happy, but things aren’t bad enough to keep them from still doing the same thing. It’s easy to just say OMY (One More Year) because change is scary. I’d certainly rather be in that position while earning a million bucks a year, rather than earning $40k. He has a lot more optionality than most.

Ever since my post on Retirement Nest Egg Calculators: Running Out of Money vs. Running Out of Time, this following statistic has been stuck in my mind:

If you’re 40, you have a 10% chance of dying before even reaching 65.

What is your likelihood of dying within the next 20 years? Here are mortality tables based on Social Security actuarial data for US citizens, sorted by age and gender. Below are the rough numbers, along with an edited screenshot of the source at the very bottom.

  • A male, age 30 has a 1 in 20 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 50).
  • A male, age 40 has a 1 in 10 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 60).
  • A male, age 50 has a 1 in 5 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 70).
  • A female, age 30 has a 1 in 35 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 50).
  • A female, age 40 has a 1 in 15 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 60).
  • A female, age 50 has a 1 in 7 chance of dying in the next 20 years (age 70).

I try to use these numbers to motivate myself and create a sense of urgency. I’m 40 years old now. There is a 1 in 10 chance that I won’t be old enough to see my daughters even finish college. The person profiled in this article is also probably around 40 years old (15-year reunion of business school). I’m sure there are plenty of 60-year-olds who say “60 isn’t old!” and it isn’t, but that is literally survivorship bias. We all know people who didn’t make it to 60, and these are the overall odds.

Time is your most precious resource. It doesn’t matter what your income is, you only have so much time. Therefore, you should spend it in a way that aligns with your values. Look for ways to get closer to that. If you can’t quit, do the same job with a better employer. Keep working, but switch to a different job within that field/skillset with more personal meaning. Saving more can mean you can get by working fewer hours. If you think you can retire but just can’t seem to pull the trigger, you need to directly confront those last few worries.

Are you unhappy with your situation and still in the same spot as a year ago? Try to find something psychological that will create a sense of urgency. I tell myself “Why am still wasting my time with [insert task]? 1 in 10.”

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  1. Unpresidented says

    You opine: “He has a lot more optionality than most,” referring to the million-dollar + annual earner. But does he really? After all, he himself admits he’s locked into the lifestyle, which is why he’s miserable. He may save a tiny amount of that income, thereby foreclosing most of his true options, while he’s likely spending most of it on mortgage payments for a lavish home (or homes – but building little equity), outrageously priced vehicles, drinking and dining regularly in fashionable places, etc. As you know, most of those expenses are, well, expendable, and add nothing of true value to life. For someone addicted to such a lifestyle, it would be a minor miracle to have the desire, the will and the clarity needed to break free of it and make a significant life course correction.

  2. These seem skewed. My guess is these include 3 world statistics.

  3. Morbid, but super helpful article! I loved it!

    • Agree, morbid, but a stinging slap with mortality figures is a quick way to put all in perspective. Very helpful. I loved it, too.

  4. a bit depressing, but something that will stick in my mind as i try to figure out life goals and make changes

  5. I am sorry but I don’t feel particularly bad for this person. What does “locked into a lifestyle” even mean ? Does he not have a free choice to live a simpler (but better quality of) life. There is very little relation between standard and quality. You could have a high standard of life and yet a poor quality of life as measured by the progress you are making toward your goals. Even a billionaire like Warren Buffet lives in his original home and drives an old car. I am sorry but the guy in this article has locked himself up in a certain lifestyle and has every power to unlock it himself.

    • Unpresidented says

      Not if he’s addicted to the lifestyle. He is limited by his impoverished imagination, which only has the power to envision making money, because that is his highest – perhaps only – priority. He values money so much that it blinds him to, or deeply diminishes, every other value in life, including family time, interest in the arts, philosophy, society, leisure. I’m not saying I feel sorry for him. I’m saying the capitalist society that created him is sick, and infected him with its disease, which many of us have some natural human immunity to, but he and those like him do not.

  6. I have to ask where you got those numbers. What is the breakdown? Is this US population for the last 20 years, the last 50, longer? There are a lot of things that impact those survival numbers, even if that is not the point of your article.

    In point of fact, it’s this very discussion that has me thinking about FIRE and my health in the first place. I’m asthmatic, and the past month was rough with illness including the flu. It does make one think when you get as sick as I was.

    At the end of the day, people really do need to do one thing; slow down and think. That guy in your story should be thinking about his wife. She laughed about him stepping down from a $1.2M a year job to one paying about half of that. Sigh, that would be a horrible situation for me.

    • The source is linked in the post, and the original dataset is taken from Social Security actuarial tables:

      The Social Security area population is comprised of (1) residents of the 50 States and the District of Columbia (adjusted for net census undercount); (2) civilian residents of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands; (3) Federal civilian employees and persons in the U.S. Armed Forces abroad and their dependents; (4) non-citizens living abroad who are insured for Social Security benefits; and (5) all other U.S. citizens abroad.


  7. I had some similar thoughts a bit ago and made a calculator about it. It uses those same SSA tables but lets you enter age and sex for a group of people (e.g. immediate family, parents…) and gives the survival probabilities over a given interval for each member plus the chance that everyone will make it.

    The group probability is by definition lower than the individual probabilities, so the answer will be at least as sobering as your “1 in 10″…

    It’s here: https://wolfwhalewolverine.blogspot.com/2014/10/survival-probability-calculator.html

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