10 Money Lessons From Elderly Americans Who Have Seen It All

Learning from the wise ones.

Jan 13, 2014 at 11:39AM


Karl Pillemer is a gerontologist and a self-described person who "goes directly to the self-help aisle in the megabookstore." He combined these two passions and interviewed more than 1,000 elderly Americans -- most in their 80s and 90s -- seeking out advice on how to live a good life. He calls them "the experts." His book, 30 Lessons for Living, is wonderful, and I'd recommend it to everyone. 

The experts give advice on everything from raising kids to a proper diet. But I found their advice on money and work the most fascinating, because it goes against so many maxims younger Americans live by. Here are 10 from Karl's book. 

1. Young people obsess about making a lot of money. Older people wonder what they were thinking.

When asked about their prescription for happiness at work, what wasn't mentioned spoke the loudest. And fancy statistics aren't necessary because the results are so clear.

No one -- not a single person out of a thousand -- said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.

No one -- not a single person -- said it's important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it's real success.

No one -- not a single person -- said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.

2. Money is often at war with time. Balance them appropriately.

The view from the end of the life span is straightforward: time well and enjoyably spent trumps money anytime. They know what it means to make a living, and they are not suggesting that we all become starving artists. But they also know firsthand that most people who decide on a profession because of the material rewards at some point look back and gasp, "What have I done." In their view, we all need a salary to live on. But the experts concur that it's vastly preferable to take home less in your paycheck and enjoy what you are doing rather than live for the weekends and your three weeks (if you get that much) vacation a year. If doing what you love requires living with less, for the experts, that's a no-brainer ...

If you are willing to accept a lower income level, you can gain enormous benefits by choosing part-time work as a lifestyle. Imagine if you suddenly had more leisure than work time. Some experts made this decision: living on much less money, renting rather than owning a house, and forgoing expensive consumer goods to pursue a job and a lifestyle they enjoy.

3. Independence at work is crucial.

When the experts discuss their work lives, two themes go hand in hand: purpose (beyond making a salary) and autonomy. Neither one can be found in every job, every time, but without them work can become a miserable burden...

Career satisfaction is often dependent on how much autonomy you have on the job. Look for the freedom to make decisions and move in directions that interest you, without too much control from the top. 

4. You'll spend 40+ hours a week at work for half a century. Make sure you enjoy it.

[Expert:] "No amount of money is worth more than having a job that you're glad to get up and go to every morning, instead of one you dread ... I have learned many lessons, but there are only a few that in the long run are meaningful and which I have tried to pass on to my children and students. If you can't wake up in the morning and want to go to work, you're in the wrong job ..."

You know those nightmares where you are shouting a warning but no sound comes out? Well, that's the intensity with which the experts wanted to tell young people that spending years in a job you dislike is a recipe for regret and a tragic mistake. There was no issue about which the experts were more adamant and forceful.

5. Jump at new work opportunities.

I've seen people who turned down a promotion for fear it would be too time-consuming or taxing, or who rejected a chance to spend a year or two abroad because they were "not the adventurous type" ... The experts' view? This approach to life is a huge mistake. Their advice is to embrace new challenges at every turn, saying yes as often as possible. The most frequently reported regrets about work in particular involved times when opportunity knocked and they kept the door firmly closed. According to our elders, the greatest reward you can receive in your career is the opportunity to do more.

6. Not traveling enough is a key source of regret

I learned that whether [the experts] had visited dozens of counties or stayed put in one place, the experts had one thing in common: they wished they had traveled more.

I came away from my interviews with the realization of the profound meaning travel has at the end of life. To sum up what I learned in a sentence: when your traveling days are over, you will wish you had taken one more trip. Often, after a long narrative about trips taken, I heard an elder say wistfully, "But I always wish I'd visited ..." 

7. To succeed at work, you need to be more than talented. You need to be nice.

The experts come from hundreds of different occupations and employers. They have observed people who succeed at work and those who crash and burn. It is on such experiences that this lesson is based. Their consensus: no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant -- you must have interpersonal skills to succeed. Many young people today are so focused on gaining technical expertise that they lose sight of this key to job success: traits like empathy, consideration, listening skills, and the ability to resolve conflicts are fundamental in the workplace.

8. Be frugal, but live a little.

[Expert:] "Don't worry so much. There is not enough time in our lives to trade off the gold of our existence for the dust of what-ifs or what-if-nots. I had my first job before I was twenty and saved everything I could from my paychecks. I closed my ears to good advice from a dear woman who told me that I should enjoy my days and not become so absorbed with thrift. I did not understand what she said. Although I used money to attend plays and concerts, I did so knowing that each ticket for a performance meant less money in my savings account. As I grew older, people I knew and loved died, and I began to see how very precious each moment of each day is." 

9. Stop worrying about things you can't control.

It seemed reasonable that people who had experienced the Great Depression would want to encourage financial worries ... the reverse is the case, however. The experts see worry as a crippling feature of our daily existence and suggest that we do everything in our power to change it. Most important, they view worrying as a waste of time. They see time as our most precious resource. Worrying about events that may not occur or that are out of our control is viewed by them as an inexcusable waste of our precious and limited lifetime.

10. Long-term thinking is a great way to live as an investor. It's a terrible way to live as a person.

[Expert:} "It seems to take a lifetime to learn how to live in the moment but it shouldn't. I certainly feel that in my own life I have been too future oriented. It's a natural inclination -- of course you think about the future, and I'm not suggesting that that's bad. But boy is there a lot to be gained from just being able to be in the moment and able to appreciate what's going on around you right now, this very second. I've more recently gotten better at this and appreciated it. It brings peace. It helps you find your place. It's calming in a world that is not very peaceful. But I wish I could have learned this in my thirties instead of my sixties -- it would have given me decades more to enjoy life in this world. That would be my lesson for younger people." 

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Contact Morgan Housel at mhousel@fool.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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