There’s a particularly riveting scene in the movie 12 Years A Slave that so dramatically showcases the two differing approaches people have to life. In my experience, people generally fall into one or the other way of thinking about life that is depicted in the scene.
If you haven’t seen the movie, it is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was lured from his Saratoga Springs home to Washington, D.C., and then sold into slavery. For twelve years, he was a slave on various plantations, until he was finally rescued and restored to his family: his wife, and his by then grown children.
Here’s the scene…
The choice between surviving and living. This is what life is about. A series of small opportunities to make a choice each day that either moves you closer to the life you want or further from it. You can choose to live or you can choose to simply survive. These small, daily choices will affect you at all ages and stages of life, but the older you get, the consequence of the choices you have made get magnified.
Financial freedom can look long, complicated, tedious and, for some, seemingly impossible to achieve. Wealth—and the lack of it—is the result of multiple small daily choices made over time. Every choice is a chance to move one step closer to living, to thriving. Financial freedom is the ideal, but so many people put a focus on just getting by, which no surprise, is exactly what they get in life.
I read a quote somewhere that goes something like this: “A wealthy person has 1,000 dreams. The non-wealthy person has one.” There is much wisdom in this. If you are wealthy, you have a myriad of things you are doing and planning to do. You’re thriving. When you talk to a person struggling to make ends meet, you most often hear only about what’s wrong with their finances and their life. They’re just surviving.
And there’s a huge difference between surviving and thriving.
Survive means to “continue to live or exist, especially in spite of danger or hardship.” Thrive means to “prosper, be fortunate or successful, to grow or develop vigorously; to flourish.”
Survival mode is characterized by:
Choosing the path of least resistance
Experiencing lack rather than abundance
Reacting rather than responding
Complaining and blaming others for your circumstances
Feeling inauthentic and stuck
Fearing failure and viewing it as a sign that things are going wrong instead of seeing it as a necessary part of success
Thrive mode is characterized by:
A positive outlook
Being engaged in life and taking on new challenges
Having a plan and proactively looking “up the field” to anticipate course changes
Possessing meaning and sense of gratitude and thanks for what you have in life
Accomplishment and self-actualization
Feeling like you’re doing what you were put on this earth to do
And when it comes to money, there’s a tell-tale marker that identifies whether someone has a “thrive” mentality towards life or one of just “surviving”… It’s this – do they manage their finances from a “bottoms-up” perspective or from a “top down” perspective.
Let me explain…
The Bottoms-Up Money Philosophy
Here’s some examples of people with a “bottoms-up” money philosophy:
They reduce everything down to a monthly payment. The final cost of something is irrelevant. What matters to the “bottoms-up” person is how they can afford the monthly payment.
They don’t plan for expenses, even very predictable expenses like their children’s college education or routine maintenance on their homes. They deal with expenses, both expected and unexpected, large and small, when they arrive at their doorstep.
They get angry upon hearing that their car needs repairs of $1,500 or that the cost to replace their home’s air conditioner is going to run $6,000. And you guessed it, they immediately ask if they can make monthly payments to pay the expense.
They think nothing of imposing upon family and friends to take them to the airport or pet sit their dogs, all with the aim of keeping them from having to shell-out their own money for these normal, everyday adult expenses.
They borrow money from relatives or look for complete strangers (via sites like Go Fund Me) to fund common expenses such as moving and home repair. They’re not poor by any imagination, just poor at planning. They complain about those depending upon social welfare programs but don’t see the irony of them depending on others for expenses that they themselves should be able to manage.
They let out a blue streak of profanity when the annual property tax bill arrives in the mailbox. Can you believe that the highways, bridges, schools, police and fire departments that they use aren’t magically free!?!, they wonder.
They pay all their bills at the very last minute, not one second before they are due.
They seldom take vacations. Rather, they would rather spend their money on “things” that depreciate in value than on experiences that create lifetime memories from travel, exploration and learning new cultures.
They rarely eat out and when they do, they’re eyes beat a hasty retreat from items on the menu such as steak and fish. Rather, they stick to the chicken and the lowest cost bottle of wine.
They cite “having children” as they reason they are not financially successful, completely ignoring the thousands of financially successful parents among their peers.
They look for politicians to rescue them from their bad habits and poor money choices. They let their minds wander into stupid conspiracy theories and daydreams of winning the lottery.
In summary, the bottoms-up person is often surprised and in reaction mode when it comes to expenses. They never truly get ahead but don’t see that it’s a result of their poor planning and decision making. Rather, they see themselves as a victim to the “system”. They’re anxious and nervous about the future. They’ve set the financial threshold of their life to “surviving”. And guess what? That’s what they’re doing.
The Top-Down Money Philosophy
And for contrast, here are some examples of people with a “top-down” money philosophy:
They focus on the total cost of something, including interest. They realize that rent-to-own and some bastardized payment plan are for suckers. With the exception of large expenditures such as a house, just about everything else in their life is paid for in full, up front, at the time of the purchase. They realize that doing so may change their ownership timeline, but to them, there is nothing wrong with delaying gratification for the satisfaction of avoiding debt. They want to own something free and clear, rather than that something owning them.
They have a big boy/big girl mentality when it comes to homes and cars. They know that if you’re going to buy a $300,000 house you should also have the financial wherewithal to maintain it properly in the future. They never buy as much house or car as they can afford, so that they can build a financial margin of safety to pay for both the unexpected and the expected expenses of homes, children and automobiles. They know that waiting until your child is 16 to start wondering how you’ll pay for their college is the domain of the naive.
They know that the air conditioner is going to eventually go out and so will the refrigerator and the water heater. They’ve planned in advance for these common home owner expenses. They simply write the repairman a check for $6,000 and go on with their day.
They see grown men and women borrowing money from relatives, friends or strangers as a moral failing and mental laziness. They would never let themselves get to a place in life of having to depend on the kindness of strangers for everyday needs.
They see paying for a cab to take them to the airport, vacations and nice dinners as normal expenses of adults their age. They would never think of imposing upon family and friends for expenses such as dog care and child care that they themselves are responsible for. Their motto is “if you can’t afford the upkeep on something, then don’t get it.”
They laugh at politician’s (on both sides of the aisle) promises of jobs and a better economy. They make their own economy regardless of what idiot politician is in office at the time. They know that depending on politicians and community “leaders” to rescue them is a sign of victimhood.
In summary, the top-down person plans their financial life so they don’t have to be in reaction mode for everyday expenses. They get ahead because of their planning and they’re able to enjoy the peace and serenity of being on top of their finances. They laugh when people talk about the “system”, because they know they are the captain of their ship. They’ve set the financial threshold of their life to “thriving”. And guess what? That’s what they’re doing.
I have a question for you… Are you just getting by or are you getting better financially?
I see many people, especially at midlife or later, who want to thrive, and yet the majority are simply surviving. They want to feel vital, passionate, energized and excited about life, but the sense of flourishing they felt in their 20s and 30s has disappeared. They’re just surviving.
And why is this?
The main reason I see is this – they’re comfortably uncomfortable, stuck in a routine that’s kind of working but certainly isn’t making them happy.
You see, the thief of happiness is not being poor. Poor people aren’t even trying to be happy. They’re focused on true survival – food and shelter.
The real thief of happiness is mediocrity. Muddling thru life. Just getting by.
My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style. –Maya Angelou
Here’s the best part: You can shift to thriving rather than just surviving today—right now. Your brain changes based on what you do, big and small, moment to moment, and that adds up to significant change over time.
Thriving Instead Of Surviving
Here’s some tips on how to move from surviving to thriving financially:
Start to reframe negative thoughts and focus on the positives in your life.
Improve your self-awareness and identify what is important to you.
Realize the situations that typically cause money problems for people and implement proactive strategies to either avoid or manage yourself thru these situations.
Create rules around how you manage your money. Every dollar should have a purpose. Without a purpose, money is like a puppy off a leash. Take control of the flow of money in your life before it takes control of you.
Spend time planning your life. Being surprised financially as an adult is the mark of the mediocre. And know this – without planning you will become part of someone else’s plan. Is it any wonder that the majority of people are paycheck hostages? They’re part of someone else’s plan.
Stop being “invisible” to wealth. Anyone can be financially free. Most millionaires are self-made. Demand your rightful place on the podium of the good life.
Now, if reading the tips above left you wanting for more concrete ideas (ex. invest in XYZ stock), let me say this – building wealth is 85% mental and only 15% mechanical (investing). It’s the “why” way more than it is the “how”. The mediocre majority exists primarily because they ignore the mental part of wealth (why) as they desperately seek for someone to hand them some stupid 3 step process for “how” to become wealthy. Hence they stay stuck. Hence they just survive.
I want you to know something – we live in a world that caters to the thriver. And herein lies my main point: a survivor’s mentality might have succeeded in getting a person thru some financial challenges and problems (just getting by) in the past — but it will take a thriver’s mentality to succeed in the game of money today and in the future.
Direct your mind toward your money choices and you’ll thrive. Use the survive mentality and you’ll just get by. When you shift your mentality to thriving, you’ll start making small choices each day related to good money management that will nudge you closer and closer to wealth and financial freedom. You just might end up retiring early and living the good life!
Get better or just get by? Survive or thrive? The next opportunity to choose is coming soon.
Be free. Nothing else is worth it.
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Ready for more tips on how to achieve the free life? Check-out more articles from the blog archives below: