Living in the Present…Effectively

Sam Swift, CFA, CFP®, AIF®

Sep 23, 2020

There’s plenty of versions of the old axiom that “we must live in the present” and I have always found comfort and joy in that simplicity, even if I am guilty of not always adhering to the philosophy. But the comfort and joy I experience “living in the present” is dependent on it being a conscious choice—a state of enlightenment worth striving for. Here in 2020, however, we have all been forced into the present through a severely diminished ability to experience and interact with other people and places. Suddenly, “living in the present” feels like a penance instead of a reward. Or at least it can if you’re not careful.

A Visit From The Tooth Fairy

What prompted me to start thinking more about my relationship to the present is what always gets me thinking deeper about my life: my kids. My son lost his first tooth yesterday. As a quick aside, he lost it in what is probably the best way possible—biting into an apple. And we didn’t even know he had a loose tooth in the first place! No anxiety for him about whether it would hurt. No anxiety for me about slamming a door, hitting a baseball or other crazy method of removal. Nope. Just apple, tooth, and pure joy on his face realizing he was getting a visit from the tooth fairy. It was awesome. (And about that tooth fairy—let’s just say there’s another article to be written on the impact of inflation!)

But with any milestone in my kid’s lives—first steps, first words, first time my two-and-a-half year old daughter told me I was “exhausting”—I am reminded of the passage of time. It’s hard to even remember my life pre-children, and that was just barely five years ago. I am also reminded of the future and what the next milestones will be. In other words, it’s hard to just “live in the present”.

But thinking about the past and looking into the future do not have to, by default, diminish today.

Past, Present, and Future Working Together

The key is that the nostalgia which comes from daydreaming about how things used to be cannot turn into crippling regret about opportunities missed. The time spent wondering about future opportunities cannot turn into crippling anxiety about things you can’t control. The past and the future cannot be all that consumes your present.

The mantra, in my mind, would be better stated as such.

“Negative experiences from the past or anxiety about the future can take away from us experiencing the present, and the present is all we have to live in. The experiences of the past and the possibilities of the future should enhance our present. We should live all three. No one of them should come at the expense of the others.”

Admittedly, not as catchy.

Your Financial Well-Being

It’s not hard to see how this type of thinking can relate to your financial well-being, just as it can relate to any part of your life. It’s important to realize where you came from, the things you experienced with money (good or bad), and how far you’ve come. It’s hard to see the progress you’ve made when you’re simply living in the moment. Financial success is a journey that—with the exception of a very small handful of people in the world—does not happen overnight. It’s valuable to reflect on your progress from time to time.

You also need something to strive for in the future. What kind of life do you want to live? What kind of places do you want to see? What kind of legacy do you want to leave for your family or community? These possibilities inform as to what you need to do in the here and now.

“Living in the present” meaningfully and joyfully cannot be achieved, in my mind, without the context of the past and the hope of the future.

As for me, my son has already informed me he has another loose tooth. It’s another opportunity for me to be thinking about the future (how much money are we on the hook for here? Do the subsequent teeth command as much of a premium as the first tooth?) to help better inform my present (what actions do I take so the tooth fairy doesn’t have to go on credit?).

Wish me luck.

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