Many years ago, my grandfather retired from his job as a tire salesman at a local department store. Had he waited just two more years, he would have received a monthly pension. Instead, he got nothing.
That was his decision, and he made it alone. After decades selling tools and tires, he'd grown weary of work and was ready to spend his days at the lake fishing. So he quit.
My grandmother protested, arguing that his pension could make a difference to the family's financial well-being. But for my grandfather, money never meant much. As long as he had money to buy milk and cornbread, and enough left over for bait, he felt he was living as large as he ever wanted to.
In some sense, the problem here was that my grandparents had conflicting priorities and lacked the communication skills to work through them. But there's a deeper issue here, and it's one many families confront in some fashion: When it comes to personal happiness versus family financial security, whose desires rule? How do you weigh the individual's pursuit of happiness against the common good?
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Everyone deserves some version of their definition of happiness. After my grandfather spent more than 40 years in the work force and a hellish stint in the Pacific islands during World War II, it's hard to argue that he didn't earn the right to stop working and concentrate on his lifelong love of fishing. At the same time, my grandmother's hunger for financial security is equally understandable: She had spent her youth in an orphanage, and throughout her life never felt she was able to get ahead financially.
Was my grandfather being selfish for deciding he was ready to do what he wanted to do? Was my grandmother being selfish because she wanted a more secure financial future? Whose happiness counts more?
A reader essentially asked me that question recently when relating the story of her friend, whose husband, unhappy with his employer, quit his well-paying job to buy a small business making pretty much nothing. In his late 50s, he was a year or so away from being fully vested in his pension, and his wife was uncomfortable with the thought of him throwing away a good, reliable salary to gamble on a business with little income.
The husband insisted that it was unfair for him to be unhappy at work, and that since he was the major breadwinner the decision was his alone to make. His wife felt that he only needed to hang on for another year and that he owed it to his family to put aside selfish wants and take into consideration the family's well-being.
Most people, I suspect, would side with the wife: What's one more year, if you're talking about the family's financial security? But when you're in the heat of a moment, things can look very different.
A friend at work, for instance, recalls that years ago his mother-in-law went through a painful divorce and immediately set about selling the family house. Her kids knew it was the wrong decision financially; homes in her area were beginning to move up quickly in value. But she was so desperate to sell and leave behind the bad memories that she basically gave the house away.
Had she stayed in the house just a few more years, my friend says, she would have pocketed several hundred thousand dollars more enough to live on the rest of her life. As it was, she needed, and continues to need, financial help from her children.
"It was easy for us to say she should stay there for a couple of years," my friend says. "But for her sanity, she needed to get out quickly. I don't think any of us thought it was the wrong decision for her."
None of this necessarily means that following your happiness marks the road to financial ruin. Sometimes, pursuing individual happiness is in the greater good of the family even if the short-term potential for financial damage can seem immense.
A friend relates the story of his father, who many years ago took over the family's manufacturing business a business he hated running. So he sold it when he was in his 40s, figuring he could take some time off and decide on a new career. But the money started to run out sooner than he expected.
"It was difficult for everybody," says my friend, who was in high school at the time. "Suddenly, my father was unemployed. And all because he didn't like what he was doing. To us, it seemed crazy."
But the move turned out to be a godsend. He found a job he loved, he was happier at home, and he made a lot more money than when he was running the factory. "It was a gamble," my friend says. "But the biggest factor was that my mom supported it because she knew how unhappy he was."
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The trick, obviously, is to find a balance, so that one person's happiness can also benefit the family good. The enemy in this quest is impulsiveness. I remember leaving a burger-flipping job in 11th grade and never picking up my last paycheck. I needed the money, and if I'd quit a few days later, I would have had it. It was a silly, impulsive decision that cost me.
The penalty when you're 40 or 50, of course, is a lot greater than when you're 16. And that's why it's so crucial not to act rashly.
My longtime friend Jack acted rashly a number of years ago when he accepted a job on the West Coast without telling the woman who ultimately became his wife. His actions prompted her to drop out of law school in the East to follow his impulsive move. She wasn't happy about it.
Just a few years ago, a new opportunity arose back East, which he wanted to jump at. But he had learned something about relationships in the last go-round. "You're on a chain gang in a family," he says. "Your actions tug on other people."
He learned from this experience that it's best to question everything. His wife, for instance, challenged him to justify the impact on the family they have two young daughters asking him: Why this job? Why now? Why is this opportunity better than others that might be available and that wouldn't uproot the family? And, how does this impact me and what I want in our relationship?
After talking about it, they compromised: Jack took the new job, and his wife got to stay home with their two daughters awhile longer than they had expected.
"Ours was a very measured decision," Jack says. "In pursuing what I wanted, we had to focus on family security and be very cognizant of the impact on our finances and our family."