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My Biggest Financial Lesson

Mellody Hobson on making money secondary in decisions

Marketplace Contributor Mar 25, 2015

I was 22 years old, starting my first job out of college and at lunch with my boss, John W. Rogers Jr., the founder and chief executive of Ariel Investments. I hung on John’s every word, filing away his every utterance.

And then he told me this: “Don’t make decisions based on money.”

Come again? This was peculiar advice for an investment manager to bestow — wasn’t every investment decision he made based on his research into which companies would thrive and make money?

On a personal level, his words contradicted my entire life’s mission to date. As one of six children born to a single mother, financial security was an elusive and fleeting dream that our family rarely held with a firm grasp. Attaining it was my sole purpose; it was what propelled me to work hard and pursue my dreams, and it was the reason I got out of bed each morning.

Eleven years my senior, John was successful and financially secure. He couldn’t possibly understand that money was the most critical deciding factor in life’s big decisions. Clearly, he was out of touch.

But I had completely missed his point. He wasn’t suggesting that I be careless about money or unrealistic about living within my means. His counsel was not about trivial matters like what shoes to buy. He also didn’t mean that money shouldn’t be a factor in my decisions.

What he meant is that it shouldn’t be the only factor in my choices.

From my older and wiser perspective, the warning is so legitimate that it is deceptively simplistic. Yet, I see people making major life decisions for the wrong reason nearly every day. So I question the young person who wants to take the job that pays more over the one that inspires her, the graduate who pursues the field he thinks will be more lucrative instead of the one in which he will thrive, the bride or groom who marries the financially secure mate over the one who offers true compatibility, partnership and love. They ought to anchor personal life choices with long-term consequences in something more meaningful than money.

My younger self might judge me now and say, “Sure, it’s easy to say money doesn’t matter when you have plenty of it.” But John’s words echoed in my head when I was just 30. A Fortune 500 company offered me a higher-paying, more prestigious position, but it would have meant abandoning a job I not only loved, but that also provided a platform for me to promote financial literacy, which had become my life’s calling. Weighing the relative importance of money instead of making it my singular consideration, I chose to stay at Ariel and have never regretted it.

Today, I consider the advice in my business decisions too: When making a new hire, I want the best person for the job, not the most economical one. Money is without a doubt a practical element that we should carefully measure in our decisions —we need to be pragmatic about paying the bills — but it should never be the solitary driving force behind them.

Money matters, but the question should always be: At what cost?


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