More Money Might Not Satisfy You

Chevy Chase

Get that man some Tylenol!

“The best things in life are unexpected – because there were no expectations.”
–Eli Khamarov

I’m not a planner by heart. I like spontaneity. Sure, I plan for the long term, but when it comes down to what I’m doing this weekend, I usually don’t have plans. However, when I do make plans, I find that I get them set in concrete in my brain. Once I have an expectation of what is going to happen in my mind, if it doesn’t, I’m a wreck.

Although I don’t really go looking for psychological terms with which to tag myself, I’m apparently a sufferer of neuroticism. At least, according to a study conducted by Eugenio Proto and Aldo Rustichini, I am.

The key findings in this report show that, in general, if you’re not particularly successful financially, as measured by income, then you tend to underestimate how well you’ll do in the future. On the other hand, if you have a higher income, you tend to overestimate how well you’ll do in the future.

For these people, when it comes to raises, it’s all about the expectations game.

Since their expectations are so low, lower income people are pleased with raises that they get, particularly because the raises tend to be better than what they expected. The high earners, though, are usually disappointed with the raises. Even though they got more money, they wind up being dissatisfied because they had expectations of getting even more money. They also tend to overestimate the impact that the raise will have on their lives, and are subjected to a psychological phenomenon called the impact bias, meaning that we overestimate how future events will actually affect us.

Think about Clark Griswold in the movie Christmas Vacation. Clark was expecting a nice fat Christmas bonus to pay for his pool. When he only got a subscription to the jam of the month club, he was furious, launching an epic tirade (you can Google it for yourself). Even though he did receive something, since he had much higher expectations for what he’d get, he was seriously let down.

Clark Griswold, too, was a sufferer of neuroticism.

What can those of us who suffer from neuroticism do to prevent ourselves from being disappointed in the future?


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  • Set realistic expectations. If you have no expectations, they cannot be let down. As the old saw goes, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
  • Put yourself in control of your future. Are there things you can do to increase your income so that you are not dependent on raises in the future?
  • Have the critical discussions as early as possible. Even if you’re not talking about raises, you should get feedback on your performance so that the end of the year review is not a surprise and you have a really firm idea of where you stand.
  • Gather evidence. Know what others in your industry and your position are being paid. Know how much value you are bringing to the company. Provide ideas to improve your worth to your employer. Tie in what you do to what your boss is measured on.

Set yourself up for the upside surprise. If not, you may find that you have more, want even more, have hopped on the hedonic treadmill, and need some Tylenol.

About Jason Hull, CFP®

Jason Hull, CFP®, is the Chief Technology officer of myFinancialAnswers, an online comprehensive financial planning service.

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