A conversation with MoneyZen author Manisha Thakor

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Happy Tuesday, lovers and friends. Heather here.

We’re going to switch things up on The Joint Account this week by sharing my conversation with someone I deeply admire, Manisha Thakor. She’s a financial wellbeing expert who’s worked in the industry for more than thirty years. For many of those years, she was a workaholic—a self-proclaimed member of the Cult of Never Enough, believing that no amount of money, accomplishments, or praise could ever satisfy her. This toxic mindset impacted her relationships, health, and sense of self worth. So she set out to understand why so many of us chase our ambitions at the expense of our well being, and how we can change that narrative.

Manisha’s book, Money Zen: The Secret to Finding Your “Enough” offers so many critical lessons on living a better life. On a personal note, I am fortunate our paths crossed when they did. Manisha and I first connected last summer, when Doug and I had just announced this newsletter and our own forthcoming book. Reading MoneyZen at the exact right time reframed my thinking around work, money, and purpose. I’m so pleased to share snippets of our recent chat (edited for clarity and length) with you and look forward to bringing more authors to this space in newsletters to come.

H: As someone who has long tied my net worth to my self worth, I deeply resonate with how easy it is to exist on a perpetual hamster wheel in pursuit of an ambiguous goal of more. Will you describe the “never enough” mindset?

M: For me, no matter how much I earned, no matter how many accomplishments I achieved, no matter how much praise I received, it was never enough. In retrospect, it was because I felt I was never enough, and also because I had bought into this societal message that the answer for whatever ails us is more: do more. Have more. Be more.

H: Are there societal influences contributing to why people feel they never have enough?

M: There are layers to this. Over the past 50 years, we have been increasingly exposed to more and more of what I call “counterfeit financial culture,” where we are hooking our net worth onto false financial anchors. And by that, I mean we all kind of know that what we see on the internet is not real, but it still makes us feel like shit. 

What's even more insidious is that this permeates movies and TV shows. When I realized this, it really struck me. I can pick almost any character in any show now and run the numbers. But first, I first picked Donna, the woman on “Suits” who started off as a paralegal. She was flawless. Even in New York City, she had a fresh blowout, manicures, she goes out frequently after work for $15-20 drinks, and her clothes–they are wealthy women's clothes. My point is, whether it's a policewoman or a physician's assistant or an architect or a lawyer, what we’re seeing on TV are lifestyles that, when you run the numbers, would cost 30-50% more than what those positions pay. So we’re looking at that and thinking, well, I should look like that. And our friends are thinking the same thing. With easy access to credit, pretty soon, we’re off to the spending races. 

We lost the check that our parents had when they compared themselves to the Joneses next door. You couldn’t buy a home without putting down 20%. Banks made sure you would be able to comfortably afford those payments. Now, no one cares whether you’re going to be able to pay that mortgage back. So there are just all these different societal influences that have enabled us to lock onto these peacock feathers we use to assess and judge each other. We no longer judge each other by competence; it’s about the ability to have more and be more. 

H: We’ve been asking couples for our forthcoming book whether they feel like they have enough. What do you think the answers to this question reveal—especially if your version of “enough” differs from your partner’s?

M: I think about it as a scaled measure of content–not happiness, not joy, because we don’t feel that all the time. Contentment in the way in which you flow through the world. 

My ex-husband, who is 20 years older than me, was in a different stage of life when we met. I didn’t understand it at the time, but he had a successful career and was then watching his senior mentors die. In his fifties and sixties, we spent a lot of time on some really fascinating adventures together. I rode on the back of his motorcycle through 36 countries, but while he was enjoying the experience, I had my earbuds in listening to business books the whole time.

He felt like he had enough. I felt like we didn’t. He wanted to die with zero in the bank. My goal was to live off my income and dividends. We were so far apart. These differences in money opinions ultimately underpinned the end of our marriage.

So, I think it can go either way. I think it can irreparably ruin a marriage if you don’t listen to the heartfelt rationale behind your partner’s definition of “enough.” 

H: You are a self-proclaimed recovering workaholic. Aside from making money, what are some reasons why people lose themselves to work?

M: Within the first three sentences of meeting someone here in the United States, people ask: “What do you do?” People judge us and we judge us. This is our cultural norm here. 

H: What ties together workaholism and materialism? In other words, it’s not a coincidence that people seeking constant accolades and upward mobility at work may also arm themselves with, as you call them, “flawed self-worth anchors” like designer handbags, right?

M: It’s definitely not a coincidence. When I collected four-digit bags, I wanted the bags for what they symbolized and said about me to the outside world. They’re peacock feathers. Whether it’s the car you drive or the house you live in or where you photograph yourself on vacation, I think we tell ourselves we’re working hard for our family to provide them with these nice things. But for many of us, it’s rooted in moving through “small t” traumas, feeling the pressure of societal influence, or comporting yourself to be accepted in certain workplaces. 

H: Let’s address burnout for a moment. We often see these high-voltage professionals who fear they can’t possibly dial back at work—they’re either all or nothing, “on” or “off.” I love your notion of installing an internal “dimmer switch” to gain better control over how we spend our time. Will you explain?

M: I think a lot of us workaholics feel like there are only two options. We're either “on,” or we're sucking because we are not “on.” And “off” is a punitive state of being, so we can’t even enjoy being “off.”

There are now academics who specialize in studying workaholism. It's so pervasive. What they talk about is that workaholism isn’t tied to the number of hours you are working but whether you are able to disconnect when you are not working. So they say, “positive work engagement” is the opposite of workaholism. When you positively engage with work, you love your work, but you can step away and be fully present in whatever else you are doing. 

We need to allow ourselves during the day, or in seasons of our lives, to turn the dimmer down and feel comfortable with operating at a lower level.

H: Talk to us about MoneyZen as a formula to enjoy more with less.

M: I wouldn’t say more with less. What I would say is, it’s a nontoxic formula you can use as a guiding star. The original way I lived my life was to optimize my behavior to maximize the equation, self worth = net worth. That was me. I hit my financial goals by the time I was in my fifties, but I was emotionally bankrupt. I lost so many relationships. I had all these hobbies from my younger years I hadn’t acted on.

The equation I'm encouraging people in the book to use is financial health + emotional wealth = MoneyZen. We need to have a certain level of life satisfaction and well being, or what I would call “emotional wealth,” or else incremental earnings beyond our baseline of financial health will not increase our satisfaction in life.

H: Was this book your version of “enough?”

M: I kind of feel like it’s my “enough.” It was a two-year multidisciplinary research journey to figure out how I had gone from being so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 20 to feeling like I had truly face-planted at 50. This book gave me the bumper guards so that as life shifts and turns, I have a clear understanding of when I smack into one. I just felt the need to write a problem-solving book with the hopes that anyone else who might have the same problem could benefit. 

You can buy MoneyZen here and learn more about Manisha here

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