How Much Control Do We Have Over Our Financial Success?

A fair amount of financial advice hinges on the belief that we have the power to control our financial situation, but is that true? How much of our financial success is attributable to our decision making and how much is determined by our circumstances? Are we making smart decisions, or is our prosperity circumstantial or even pure dumb luck?

To answer these questions, I took a hard look at my path to financial success. As I replayed the events, I wondered, “would I be a millionaire if I tweaked a few pivotal moments in my life?”

Asking “What-If”

Do you ever play the “what-if” game? You know, the game where you ask yourself what might have happened if you made different choices throughout your life? What if you chose another career, studied abroad, or took a year off between high school and college? What if you married your first love or didn’t get married at all?

How might your life be similar or different? Would you have the same friends you have now? Would you live in the same place?

Think about pivotal decision points you’ve encountered and then envision an alternative life.

Now let’s think about money for a moment. How would your finances change if you altered a few of these decision points? Would you have a higher or lower net worth?

After you play this game for a bit, change the focal point. Rather than thinking about circumstances under your control, think about those you had little to no control over. How have those altered your financial well-being?

Many of us ask these types of questions when life doesn’t go as planned, but we fail to reflect upon them when things go well. Is our success a direct result of our financial decisions or is there more to the equation than that?

How Circumstances Affected My Financial Success

For years I thought my financial success was entirely within my control. Every dollar I saved was proof of the time and attention I spent thinking, planning, and dreaming about money. I told myself this story over and over again, but my narrative wasn’t entirely accurate.

Sensible decisions helped make me a millionaire, no doubt about it, but they had less impact than other events and circumstances of my life. External factors played a significant role in my accomplishments and success.

To discount them is a disservice to anyone aiming for financial success.

How My Parents Affected My Financial Success

Whether we like it or not, our families and past experiences impact our current financial situations. Growing up, my best friend’s parents didn’t attend college, nor did anyone else in her family. As a result, she didn’t apply to any schools her senior year.

She didn’t have anyone to guide her through the application process or stress the importance of higher education. No one explained how to fill out financial aid forms or scholarship applications either.

So, rather than going to college, she began working in retail, where she will most likely work for the rest of her life.

My parents stressed the importance of college from a very young age. I never considered the alternatives. College was not really a decision point for me. I didn’t decide to go. Instead, I considered it my destiny.

I chose to attend a state school, but I didn’t choose it because of the lower tuition. When I was eighteen, future financial obligations never crossed my mind. I simply lucked out and fell in love with a school not too far from my parents’ home. I applied to plenty of other schools with much higher tuition rates but ultimately decided against them.

How Timing Affected My Financial Success

I graduated at the height of the dot-com era. As a result, I stumbled out of college and into a bustling economy.

Yes, I studied hard, racked up internships, and gained as much work experience as possible before grabbing my diploma, but it was easier to find work in 1999 than in 2020.

If I graduated at a different time, I might not have switched from marketing assistant to software engineer. The opportunities that presented themselves when I was young aren’t as readily available today.

The ability to hit the ground running isn’t an option for many of today’s college graduates. I succeeded, in part, due to lucky timing.

How a Partner Affected My Financial Success

In college, I met the man who would become my husband. Two years after graduating, I bought my first house with him.

Without that relationship I wouldn’t have bought a home at twenty-two. Who knows when I would have felt comfortable covering a monthly mortgage payment, property taxes, and utilities on my own.

My husband and I didn’t make a ton of money right after college, but our salaries rose quickly, and we both reached six figures in record time. Having two salaries pushed us to new heights. It would have been much more difficult to grow my net worth alone.

My husband’s earning power improved my financial outcome dramatically. This blog is called One Frugal Girl, but it should be called One Frugal Girl and the Guy She Married. Make no mistake if I remained single or even married someone else, my net worth would not be as high.

I didn’t marry my husband for his income, but that decision had lasting financial implications. Sure, you can bring in a roommate to help pay for expenses. But there is a big difference between living with someone you love and living with someone to decrease your monthly costs.

Living as a dual-income couple without kids for over a decade significantly impacted our bottom line. I decided to marry my husband, but surely I cannot pat myself on the back financially for making that choice. It was pure luck that I fell in love with a man who earns six figures.

There is simply no way I could have reached the height of my financial success without my spouse. If you are married or in a partnership, it’s easy to discount your relationship’s impact on your finances.

How Medical Insurance & Short Term Disability Affected My Finances

In 2005 I experienced a horrific medical situation that took months to diagnose. As I scheduled appointments and underwent diagnostic testing, I racked up over $60,000 worth of medical bills.

I shudder to think what would have happened to my finances if I was unemployed, self-employed, or unable to pay for insurance at that time. Thankfully, medical insurance covered those costs with minimal co-pays or out of pocket expenses.

Thanks to FMLA, I was able to leave my job for five months after surgery. Rather than rushing back to work, I had time to recover mentally and physically.

Short term disability also covered my salary during my five-month absence. Without that policy, it wouldn’t have been easy to cover our bills and mortgage.

Up until the time of that medical emergency, I was thin, healthy, and fit. I had never been to the hospital or encountered a major medical issue in my life. I had no preexisting conditions, and I was in good shape.

When choosing my employer, I didn’t worry about the type of medical insurance provided or the short and long-term disability options. I was lucky to have a job that covered me.

When chronic pain and other medical problems continued, my husband and I used our high salaries to pay for alternative treatments. Our medical insurance didn’t cover those extra costs, but I was willing to pay anything to alleviate my pain.

I never had to question the decision to visit a doctor or seek help. My finances allowed me to seek the care I needed without ever doubting my decision or myself.

After my short-term disability plan ended, my employer made special accommodations so I could work from home. If I worked in a different industry or career, I might not have continued working.

I decided to explore a high-paying career, but I didn’t think about short term disability or medical coverage when I took that job. My benefits package was a lucky perk.

Decisions Versus Circumstances

Over the years, I’ve taken my life circumstances for granted. What if I was raised by parents who didn’t stress the importance of college? Would I have navigated the school application process alone?

What if I didn’t meet my spouse when I was young? It would have taken much longer to save and wait for compounding to take effect.

What if I didn’t have a job that paid for medical insurance, short term disability, and enabled me to work from home. How different would my finances look?

Financial experts often make judgment calls against those without. You see quotes like, “Why don’t people in debt just stop eating out?” or “Why do they go to Starbucks every morning?”

While our decisions certainly play a role in our financial outcomes, much of our success comes down to our circumstances, our families, and sometimes just pure dumb luck.

Some Decisions Aren’t Really Decisions At All

What does this exercise prove? It proves that we don’t have as much control over our finances as we think. Perhaps we have been graced by good fortune, that doesn’t mean that everyone else has had the same ride to financial success.

As a personal finance enthusiast, it’s essential to be accountable for the decisions we can control, but also recognize that we cannot govern every aspect of our future financial success.

Financial experts love to blame those who can’t manage their money, but making different decisions isn’t always the answer. Some of us simply have different circumstances presented to us.

8 thoughts on “How Much Control Do We Have Over Our Financial Success?”

  1. There is a lot due to genetics I think. If you are born super graceful and grow 6’9″ tall you likely can make money as an athlete. If you are born with an extremely fast computer inside your head then you can master medicine or engineering. If you are stunningly good looking and can sing and act then there’s a chance you can be an entertainer. Most people can’t claim any of those advantages but many can, even though those traits were accidents of birth. And those advantages often lead to higher incomes.

    • Thanks for your comment. I had an entire section of my post focused on these advantages, which somehow didn’t get published with this post 😉 Looks like I’ll need to dump my thoughts out on that again.

      I completely agree that our mental and physical abilities play a huge role in our success. I am a 6’1” woman, which definitely helped me succeed in the male dominated field of engineering. Good looks can also make a huge difference in your success. We may not like these truths but they are true nonetheless.

  2. Given a few pivotal tweaks you may have had harder times in some parts of your life, and easier times in others. Who knows where the balance lies?
    I’m all for root-cause analysis though, especially for a success story 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    I’m also surprised that you never supplied the word “privilege” in the article.
    If you don’t mind me twisting some of Heinlein’s words on decisions:
    “There is no such thing as luck. There is only adequate or inadequate preparation to cope with a statistical universe.”
    In my view I see privileges as being a huge factor in the so-called “preparation” for life.

    Your decisions vs. circumstances point is like the business saying: “readiness meets opportunity.”
    You need both to be successful.
    There are privileged people who squander their money with poor decisions, as they lack discipline and readiness.
    Likewise there are disciplined people who are underprivileged, and who end up waiting and waiting for the opportunity to become wealthy.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      I kept the word “privilege” out of the post on purpose. I wanted to walk through the scenarios and guide the reader to make the connection between my circumstances and my wealth. I find a lot of financial enthusiasts turn their nose up at that term, which is utterly ridiculous. I hope people read this and think about their circumstances. If I wrote privilege in the title a lot of readers would have turned a blind eye to it. They wouldn’t have thought through the connections before dismissing them. But yes, you are right, this post is all about my privileges.

      I love your view that “privileges are a huge factor in the so-called “preparation” for life.” I completely agree. The hard part is balancing what we can control against those things we can’t. As you said, you can get all of the privileges life has to offer and still squander each and every one of them.

  3. What a thought provoking post! I think about this sometimes, that I have been fortunate and lucky in my life’s choices and in many of the things that have happened to me. On the other hand choices DO play a role.

    I have two friends who grew up poor and went to college and paid more than they should have because they didn’t know how to apply for scholarships. No one in their families had been to college and they didn’t understand the system. They are a doctor and a highly paid retail manager.
    I also went for a check-up at the eye Dr who congratulated me on retirement. I had tried to get her to invest with me years ago, and she declined. She told me certainly wished she had.

    People can’t make good choices if they don’t know what they are- I think our school system is really lacking in teaching basic finance and life skills.

    • It’s definitely a strong mix. If you have opportunities you don’t want to squander them, but there can be cultural fears in making big decisions too. A lot of people don’t invest, because they fear the market. I was terrified of dropping money into mutual funds, but eventually I made enough that I didn’t miss the money. If I had made less I certainly would have been more fearful of losing it all.

  4. I am from Mexico and I have been reading some articles I found them very enjoyable and useful.
    This article made me to remember when we lost our ticket from París to Cancún Mexico because XL airways went to bankruptcy….
    There was nothing we can do about that just to pay a very expensive ticket to way back home
    That was our circunstánce not our decisión

    • A lot of things happen to us that are entirely out of our control. It’s easy to blame people, but circumstances do have a large impact on our overall success. Things happen that we cannot impact or change.


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