Aiming at a deeper understanding of our own financial contentment

By Tyler C. Gilley, CFP®, AIF®, Wealth Advisor at Halbert Hargrove.

I used to watch “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” on TV with my parents. The idea of having a MILLION dollars seemed like the ultimate financial goal. You don’t have to look far to find a slew of game shows and lotteries that offer the chance to win impressive sums of money.

The problem – apart from the fact that these opportunities are rare – is that the amount of money that constitutes “wealth” is arbitrary. To a child with no allowance and a limited number of teeth to redeem for cold hard cash, a $20 bill might as well be the golden ticket to the chocolate factory. But to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, what’s 20 bucks?.

Obviously, we can’t set a single dollar amount as the threshold for contentment. So what does it take to actually feel wealthy? I’ve given this question quite a bit of thought and come up with my own answers. Here are two things I’ve come to understand for myself that may help you come closer to gaining that clarity:

  • What does your money mean to you?

At Halbert Hargrove, I’ve been an active participant in the first “discovery” call with many prospective clients. During this initial call, I have the opportunity to ask several questions directed at helping me better understand each person’s goals, motivations, and fears – all of which contribute to how they feel about their current financial standing. Yet my favorite question of all is What does your money mean to you? This question truly gets to the root of things.

Often, people tell me they want to enter retirement with the ability to maintain their current standard of living. Some value stability and the freedom to make decisions about how to spend their time. Others have a desire to provide for their children and prevent them from experiencing the same financial hardships they themselves faced as kids.

No matter your motivation, it can be helpful to identify the real reasons you value money. These automatically create more concrete landmarks against which you can measure your progress toward completing your financial goals. There will always be more money to accumulate, so a dollar amount by itself means next to nothing unless it helps you to achieve what you value in the first place.

  • What bias(es) are influencing your sense of contentment?

When it comes to money, it can be easy to observe the ways that people around us are influenced and even manipulated by outside pressures and flawed assumptions. Yet it’s much harder to acknowledge our own biases and influences! Some people, for example, will anchor to other people’s goals and values, mistaking them for their own. For instance, if one couple sets the goal of sending their kids to an expensive private college, their friends may be tempted to adopt the same financial goal simply as a result of peer pressure.

Similarly, people can become victims of a herd mentality bias. In the age of social media, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the constant buzz of people sharing the latest trends and opportunities to get rich. Identifying these biases can help prevent you from making decisions swayed by emotion or someone else’s goals.

In all my own attempts at understanding financial contentment, I’ve come to realize that there’s no “formula” that can ensure a feeling of wealth. But I do know that we need to look past the number of dollars and focus on our underlying goals. I doubt that a TV show would gain significant viewership if it were named “Who Wants to Achieve Financial Stability?” But knowing what our money means may play a small part in helping us dismantle our biases, reframe the way we think about wealth – and, yes, deepen our contentment so we can truly enjoy the fruits of our labor.


Halbert Hargrove Global Advisors, LLC (“HH”) is an SEC registered investment adviser located in Long Beach, California. Registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training. Additional information about HH, including our registration status, fees, and services can be found at This blog is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as personalized investment advice. It should not be construed as a solicitation to offer personal securities transactions or provide personalized investment advice. The information provided does not constitute any legal, tax or accounting advice. We recommend that you seek the advice of a qualified attorney and accountant. All opinions or views reflect the judgment of the author as of the publication date and are subject to change without notice. All information presented herein is considered to be accurate at the time of writing, but no warranty of accuracy is given and no liability in respect of any error or omission is accepted.