Miserable and barely making ends meet in the rat race? Join the club. Better yet, get out like so many of us are doing. Or at least stop drinking its b.s. infused water so that you can take back your life. If you don’t, the rat race will keep you poor not just financially but also emotionally and mentally. Your health will probably also become a casualty – all of which will make your bank account take a hit. Don’t believe me? Here are the top 5 ways the rat race makes you poor without you realizing it.
The Success Trap
Success isn’t a dirty word. Striving for purpose and meaning can be a worthy endeavor. Our ideas of success will shape our aspirations, activities and even the way we value our self-worth throughout our life. This can be a double-edged sword, either moving you forward and building you up or dragging you down and filling you with stress. If you take your ideas of success from our present rat race culture, expect stress, anxiety and disillusionment. And an always leaking bank account.
In today’s rat race society, to have meaning and value means:
- Going to college – but not all colleges are “good enough”
- Succeeding at your job – and there is a hierarchy of jobs, many of which aren’t “good enough”
- Having a certain degree or title because anything less isn’t “good enough”
- Being wealthy (never defined)
- Living a lifestyle that means having the right car, house, clothes, and possessions (the latest, greatest and usually most pricey)
- Getting married (expensive wedding) and having a certain number of kids (or something is wrong with you)
- Raising your children in a certain lifestyle based on possessions, pricey activities and experiences, and with a “good”, i.e. expensive, education
- Consuming endless entertainment and experiences – from fine dining to exotic vacations and anything else the industry can market successfully to you
The rat race idea of success is all externally based and the goal posts move forward just when you think you might reach them. Rat race success also revolves around time and money-expensive achievements that give little back for all the effort you put into them, leaving you tired and disillusioned. I should know. I worked in corporate law in Washington, DC – a rat race capitol – for sixteen years. Most of that was spent undoing the damage the rat race script did to my life and trying to get out of the rat race itself.
The rat race nearly broke me and it certainly did a number on my finances until I recognized its game, said enough was enough, and took back my life and money.
Here’s how it got me and is probably getting you.
#1 – A Good Education
Our parents believe and we are told growing up that we need a “good education” to succeed in life. Parents will spend tens of thousands of dollars on private schools just so their children will get into a “good university”. They’ll move into more expensive neighborhoods just for a “good school district.” All of this sounds really loving on paper but it bleeds people dry and offers little in the way of results down the road.
Parents are theoretically adults with some understanding of personal finance. Young adults deciding on colleges at 17 or 18 usually have little concept of how money actually works. This idea of a “good education” has them buying the marketing hype that educational debt is good debt. This might be true if you actually quickly got back you invested cash and made a solid return on it, say 10% or more a year, but students are taking on massive debt for universities and degrees that get them a minimum wage job or mediocre pay upon graduation. Instead of that return on investment, they’re sometimes saddled with interest rates of 10% or more and a debt that takes decades to pay off! That debt is a mortgage, which means they will have problems saving for a house or retirement for decades, let alone other goals.
With all that debt, they live lives of indentured servitude, chained to paying the bank every month for the rest of their lives. That’s not success, it’s slavery.
Don’t misread me. Education is important but whether you go to Harvard or the University of Smallville actually matters little. I’ve worked in top firms in the US, Ireland and Scotland and seen people from both small and large or famous and humble universities sitting across the same conference table making the same pay. My own credentials were meek but I made more the than two levels of bosses ahead of me, some of them from ivy league schools. (See my article How I Tripled My Income in 20 Months)
The trick with education isn’t about where you go but the skills you have, leveraging your resources, and your ability to network and market yourself through your professional and personal friendships and relationships. True networking is not exchanging business cards at a professional meet and greet. It’s knowing people, them liking you or valuing you or your skills enough to recommend, recruit or hire you. In a world of competition where more and more people have the same resume, popularity matters – not the meritocracy lie you’ve been fed about working hard and standing out because of it. That will get you part way through the race but it won’t get you across the finish line.
Most people get strapped with debt chasing after prestigious schools, rank or certain degrees that just don’t pay back the hefty cost incurred earning them. If you’re smart, you go to a cheap school (if you go at all), get the same degree or experience but make professional connections during that time. Otherwise your future is literally based on a one page piece of paper called a resume that reads like anyone else’s. The person who actually gets hired has connections in the company, has out-sized skills no one else has, or is the most-liked candidate interviewed.
Meanwhile the rat race will insist on more continuing education certificates or workshops or other pricey courses to learn endless skills that again probably won’t make up for their cost and which you could probably learn online for free or from a cheap certification program. Education is a big business. The banking industry loves it. Save your money. Put it to better use by not buying the marketing hype.
#2 – A Good Career
In the rat race, we’re supposed to find a good career, especially one that can provide a snazzy title, so that we’ll be set for life. We’re supposed to climb the ladder in order to get the perks, ones that usually revolve around higher pay and better kudos in the hierarchy. This is supposed to mark your success, provide a more luxurious lifestyle and make you happy. Only it doesn’t.
Instead you spent tons of money on a degree and can’t seem to get a job that pays or brings any amount of joy or fulfillment. Or maybe you went into good sounding careers like law, medicine, accounting or IT but now find yourself on a soul-sucking treadmill of long hours, too much work, no say in much of anything and where, quite frankly, the company owns your a*s. Your commute sucks too. If you’re lucky you get a few long holiday weekends off and two weeks of paid vacation a year. Hurray! Meanwhile you’re miserable and hate your life – and possibly the people around you at work.
We then think there’s something wrong with us for not achieving enough, or not feeling grateful or fulfilled. Some people go on to strive harder, pursue more titles or degrees, and change jobs in order to find the ever elusive success point that will bring meaning, happiness and fulfillment.
But that’s a false pursuit. With each goal post reached, the posts move forward. Endlessly. You’ll be left wondering why you can’t reach them or why after you’ve done everything you were supposed to, you still can’t win or still feel miserable and unfulfilled. The truth is that the rat race can’t give you anything. It’s a treadmill spinning mirages about the meaning of life. Nothing external can give us anything. Meaning comes internally. Everything else just exhausts you with running after it, grabbing it only to find it provides at best a momentary joy.
In our society, you often here that “money isn’t everything” but the reality is that our society and culture promotes workaholism, wealth, and status-chasing at every turn. That good career may barely pay the bills but it has a high fee in terms of the toll it actually takes on your happiness. And because you’re working for others, you’re getting paid what they think you’re worth or how little they can get away with paying you. So you’ll always be poor or middle class. The rich own the companies and you do the work. They think up the ideas that generate products. You handle the day to day affairs. They may work long hours but they are calling the shots while you have no or limited input.
A “good career” for 75% of adults means working for others, not themselves and always chasing after a paycheck and employment provided by others. There’s not much money in that. You can live decently if you’re good with personal finance and make money work for you but most people aren’t and don’t. Most people are in debt, many up to their eyeballs. When the company needs to trim spending, you get fired. The reality of the “good career” is a far cry from the safe, dependable and lucrative ideal we were taught to expect.
#3 – Dining With the Joneses
The rat race in addition to providing poor wages is also designed to flush your money down the toilet. It’s all about chasing after appearances or semblances of happiness. In other words, it’s all about keeping up with the Joneses. Once we start making any money – whether minimum wage or a six-figure salary – that money burns a hole in our pocket. We need a ride, a place to live, furnishings, entertainment and signs that we’ve made it like nicer clothes, going out on the town, and taking pricey vacations or splurging for “experiences.”
We start focusing more on these trappings, many times thinking that if we do more or own more we will feel bigger inside – like we’ve finally made it or that others will look at us with respect or that we’ll feel happier or that our lives will have meaning. Instead, we spend our money on drinks, tickets, meals, clothes, and other ephemera. Sometimes it’s therapy to make up for our misery at work or home but most of it comes from our culture and society telling us that this is how we’re supposed to live.
We are to make money and then spend it to look the part. It’s sometimes called lifestyle creep by those who don’t want to call it what it is – living beyond your means. Down the road, you wind up with a lot of hours or a lifetime worked and nothing to show for it but credit card statements. Your possessions never seem good enough and are cold comfort when inside you feel empty and lost.
The rat race says look the part and you’ll be happy. This is how the middle class or wealthy are supposed to act. In reality, the self-made wealthy put money aside to make more money for them. They conserve and they rarely buy new or if they do, it’s for quality that will last.
The takeaway: In the rat race, you live paycheck to paycheck because you’re encouraged to spend everything you make – whether you make minimum wage or a six-figure income.
#4 – The Rat Pack
The rat race is a set of beliefs and ideas about how we should live our best lives but it doesn’t provide the results it touts – in happiness or wealth. One problem with seeing through the illusion and breaking away is our pack mentality. We believe others know better and we don’t question our beliefs or assumptions too closely. We want to fit in and we don’t like to take risks, even calculated ones. We don’t listen to or trust our inner voice and we’re too fearful to leave the treadmill to strike out on our own. That pack attitude feeds right into the rat race and keeps you poor. Without questioning rat race assumptions and principles, you’ll stay on the treadmill, never getting ahead financially and feeling more and more drained mentally and emotionally as time goes on.
If you look ahead at the leaders, no one is any happier than you. Not your bosses or other colleagues. You may want to be like them but if you look beneath the veneer you’ll probably see lives lived with just as much frustration and desperation. They’re running the treadmill too so they’re probably also weighed down with debt and financial obligations. Their grass looks greener simply because we haven’t been trained to see how sick or dead it really is.
If you do what everyone else is doing, you’ll wind up just as strapped financially as them – and just as unhappy and miserable. To get ahead, you have to drop the pack mentality and start thinking for yourself, learning what others don’t or won’t, and stop following in footsteps that don’t lead anywhere but into more financial problems. Getting ahead financially means understanding personal finance and money – which the rat race won’t teach you. You must teach yourself and put what you learn into practice. See my articles What Our Parents Should Have Taught Us About Money But Didn’t with the Book of the Month: Rich Dad, Poor Dad and Did You Know Building Wealth Had These 7 Rules?.
The takeaway: To build true wealth and be happy doing it, you have to ditch the pack and be your own leader.
#5 – Time Is Money
The biggest way the rat race keeps you poor is in how it takes time from you while giving little back but a paycheck that never seems big enough. In spending most of your awake, productive hours working for someone else, you aren’t using that time to work on your own skills or dreams. When you’re off the clock, you usually are tired and want to relax, not work on yourself or you goals. Meanwhile, your family or community obligations will demand the remainder of your scarce time.
Clawing free precious time for yourself from the rat race is a difficult and nearly impossible task once you’re locked into the race. But it’s doable. See my article 5 Secrets to Clawing Back Your Personal Freedom.
Most people commute, work for someone else, clock out, deal with personal life, and veg in front of the TV when they have a free moment to relax. Those who build wealth work for themselves first. Every moment they can get is spent on their dreams or goals – which is invigorating and lucrative. Even if they’re in the race, each job or task is a skill-building or a learning experience – and they see it as such each day. Those who get ahead work on themselves – their skills, their inner self, problem-solving their weaknesses, shoring up strengths, learning what they need to know to move forward. They’re also building relationships professionally – whether obtaining mentors or making professional friends.
This is how the self-made and financially independent spend and arrange their time. The rat race won’t provide much help. You have to do it on your own minute. The results are extraordinary as you leverage in-demand skills, become your own boss or close in on financial independence. Doing this is when life truly starts to change, meeting the expectations you had for it all along.
Don’t Race to the Bottom
The rat race is a race to obtain a set of impossible and poorly defined status markers. The race will exhaust you and the entry fee in terms of student loans is exorbitant, let alone the continuing fees as you try to keep up with the Joneses and lose your shirt, freedom, energy, and even your health from overwork and stress. The rat race teaches how to spend but not how to save or put money to work for you so that you build financial independence and security. The rat race will also lure you into working for someone else, getting paid what they can get away with paying you, while they reap the benefits of your labor. You’ll be spending your precious life hours on someone else’s dreams and goals, leaving you scant time to work on yourself, your skills, your own dreams or to spend your time with the people you love.
Don’t run the race. Stop and find your own game. When you leave the other rats behind, as well as their beliefs about how to make and spend money, you’ll actually start recovering vitality and wealth in the process. That’s when life starts taking on real meaning and value. That’s when it finally feels like your life and that feeling is priceless.
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