Financial Goals Are Oxymorons

By Karen Whaley

August 20, 2018

Have you ever felt the thrill of achieving a financial goal only to discover a few days, weeks, months after achievement you feel the same as before you met your financial goal? If so, you are not alone. This feeling is the result of your financial goals. Financial goals are oxymorons creating emotional highs and lows with no lasting satisfaction.

Due to financial goals’ point-in-time focus, you trap yourself in an emotional high/low cycle. Instead, you need to create time-based goals with supporting financial milestones. Spending money to support time-based goals allows expression of your core values, increases your happiness, and fulfills a basic human need to be your “best self”.

Financial Goal Woes

Per Wikipedia, a financial goal is: An objective which is expressed in or based upon money. Examples include debt reduction, sufficient wealth to retire or minimization of tax.

Sounds great, right?

Most people would agree they want less debt and taxes – plus the ability to retire and live a life of leisure. Or maybe your objective is a new car, having an emergency fund, or adding a deck to your home.

For some people the biggest financial goal (objective) is to have a seven-figure investment account. One of my Dad’s favorite financial goals is “to bounce his last check.”

These goals seem well and good, however, financial goals tend to focus on a specific point-in-time. Often, this centralized focus on a set event or objective is done without consideration for what comes after. (Well, except for my Dad’s goal. He needs to focus on what comes before to make that last check bounce.)

You get caught up in how amazing you will feel (and yes, it will feel amazing!) when you achieve your financial goal. Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t last long.

Shortly after you reach your financial goal, the principles of hedonic adaptation make their presence known.

Things look good on financial paper but, frequently, you discover you are emotionally at the same place you started after reaching financial goals.

This all-too-common feeling (a financial goal hangover) haunts many a person and prevents you from properly handling your money. Worse you can get stuck in a life-long emotional rut due to financial goals. You seek and receive temporary emotional highs from your financial goals, but long-term seem to have less life satisfaction.

Why? Because financial goals are oxymorons.

Financial Goals Are Oxymorons

The word oxymoron is derived from Greek and means pointedly foolish (oxys = sharp/keen and moros = foolish).

When you pursue financial goals, you have a very sharp focus on one particular objective or point-in-time, but have foolishly failed to consider what comes after.

To make matters worse, all your money decisions are centered around these financial goals until the goals are met. Goals that leave you emotionally flat a short time after achievement.

Maybe you have another financial goal to chase and receive the next emotional high – but maybe you don’t. What then? How do you decide where to spend your hard-earned money?

Some people may not fall into this vicious cycle because on some level, they recognize the underlying life values or impacts on how they spend their time in their financial goals.

However, for the vast majority of us, financial goals become an emotional dead end. When you seek only financial goals, it is akin to filling your vehicles’ gas tank with no plans to take a road trip – or even run errands.

Bottomline, financial goals are an oxymoron way of managing your money – and subsequently living.

Shifting Goals for Satisfaction

To escape the maddening emotional high/low cycle fed by foolishly sharp financial goals, you need to focus on the underlying motivators behind those goals. Because, again, financial goals are oxymorons.

Your true aim when managing money is to express your values but, most importantly, be able to control more of your time. The greatest life satisfaction comes from time-based actions. Therefore, your goals must emphasis time more than money or other material goods.

To focus your time-based goals you need to consider your values, known happiness factors, and human needs.


Your values are central to who you are (or wish to be) as a person. They are as complex, and unique, as our DNA. Further, just like DNA, they tell a story about who you are at your very core.

How you spend money generates a physical reflection of your values to the world. The physical objects (clothing, houses, food) you fill your life with reflect what you value.

For example, if you have a large home you may value reputation or success. On the other hand, if you always dress in the latest fashions you may value beauty or status. Always paying for the next round of drinks may reflect the values of friendship or fun.

Alas, focusing only on the physical reflection of values also tends to be a point-in-time based objective and won’t lead us to lasting satisfaction either. So, while many financial goals reflect values via physical objects, they still fall short for long-term satisfaction.

However, if you spend money on creating more time and then focus spending that time to reflect your values, you will generate lasting satisfaction. This is true based on various academic happiness studies and basic humans needs theories.

Happiness Factors

According to Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending, greater happiness is found spending on leisure experiences and buying time to pursue more enjoyable activities.

Additionally, various studies show once basic human needs are met more money does not equal more happiness. Since 1956 roughly 30% of Americans surveyed claim their lives are very happy. Yet, during that same period personal income (adjusted for inflation) has doubled. If more money equals more happiness, then one would think the 30% very happy should now be 60% – but it’s not.

This data indicates that it is through the spending of time, not money, where you increase happiness.

Further, how you spend that time is critical. Per research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people are the happiest (and arguably the most satisfied) in life when in a state of psychological flow.

Psychological flow, per Wikipedia, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. To achieve this state one needs, among other factors, to strike a balance between skill level and challenge.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 

When you spend time doing activities you enjoy, time spent reflects your values and builds a skill set for active pleasures vs passive pleasures. These active pleasures then drive the ability to achieve a state of psychological flow and achieve lasting satisfaction.

Human Needs

On top of that, when you spend time developing skills allowing for psychological flow potential, you are meeting a human need. And not just any human need but, according to Abram Maslow, the pinnacle of a person’s existence or self-actualization.

Self-actualization is the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities. Self-actualization is a drive or need present in everyone.

My kids’ schools teach them to “be your best self.” If you spend all your time working to earn money just to spend it on temporary emotional highs of financial goals, you have possibly forgone the ability to create more time to be your best self. You have lost the opportunity to reach self-actualization.

Side note: Even if you have diligently saved for the financial goal of retirement (thus creating the possibility for self-improvement time) if you haven’t figured out how to spend that time, you may find yourself in an even lower emotional place than when you spent your time working.

There is no way for us as humans to achieve this highest level of self-actualization without spending time improving ourselves.

Your self-actualization (best self) may be creating music, feeding the hungry, teaching others, or developing the world’s greatest social media platform. Regardless of what your personal talent or potential is, you can’t realize it without spending time to achieve it.

Time is a true source of lasting satisfaction but, unlike money, it is a finite resource. We all only have 24 hours in a day. We need to use those hours wisely.

Time-Based Life Goals

To accomplish life-long satisfaction with money, you need to develop time-based life goals. Knowing what you value and, expressing those values through your use of time while developing skills to generate psychological flow is key to happiness.

Once you have established how you want to spend your time, then create a financial milestone (not a goal) to support your time-based life goal.

Focusing on time goals versus financial goals will break the emotional high/low cycle and allow lasting satisfaction with your money.

If you really want to improve your overall satisfaction with life and your finances, you must have more than a financial goal! Financial goals are oxymorons.

Creating time-based goals with supporting financial milestones is the true path to satisfied spending.

Have you ever felt emotionally flat after achieving a financial goal? How can you shift your goals to reflect time versus money?

Karen Whaley

About the author

Karen Whaley

Financial Lifestyle Coach
Certified Financial Instructor

I help clients use money to live - not live for money. If that sounds appealing, you are in the right place my friend!

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