How Americans Are Rethinking Prosperity

US News

Despite lingering unemployment and a still sluggish economy, many Americans are finding reasons to be thankful this time of year. In fact, for some, unexpected layoffs, financial setbacks, or simply a desire to spend more time with family have served as a reality check, a wake-up call for consumers to rethink their idea of wealth and prosperity.

"People are focusing more on life satisfaction than satisfaction by consumption," says Ethan Willis, co-author of Prosper: Create the Life You Really Want and co-founder of Prosper, Inc., a one-to-one distance learning company that focuses on topics like real estate, entrepreneurship, and personal development. "One of the big shifts is that people are questioning, 'Is the time that I'm spending bringing me greater satisfaction in my life versus something that is just on autopilot?'"

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More money doesn't necessarily lead to greater happiness, says Willis, so many consumers are getting off the "hedonic treadmill" and looking for ways to realign with family and the values that matter to them. He calls this finding one's "Polaris Point," a personal philosophy or set of values that guides decision-making.

For some people, like Shelly Cone of Santa Maria, Calif., that means starting a business that allows for greater flexibility, even if it means less money. Cone and her husband are serial entrepreneurs who once owned a successful real estate business. The housing bust took their business down with it, but Cone has made her peace with that. "We've learned that money can come and go, but life's experiences remain with you," she says.

Cone has seen friendships end because "their business coaches said that's not the right circle to be in." Although she has received similar advice from coaches focused on building wealth, she wants no part of that now. Currently, Cone runs a public-relations business and chooses the clients she wants to work with, rather than having to work with them. The former editor also pens a newspaper humor column, which allows her to bring her three sons along to events and write about it.

[See Home for the Holidays? How to Handle 5 Awkward Money Questions.]

"The focus isn't necessarily about pursuing the wealth," she says. "It's about pursuing it in a way that gives me a wealth of experiences." For instance, one of her clients, a luxury bed and breakfast, invited Cone and her husband for a weekend stay so she'd have firsthand experience for writing about and promoting the B&B.

For others, redefining wealth and prosperity may mean downshifting their career. After almost losing her son and nearly divorcing her husband, Cari Andreani traded her all-consuming job as a hotel and restaurant manager for a high school teaching job.

An ambitious type-A by nature, Andreani says she's happy with her decision but still struggles sometimes to maintain balance. "My personality is very driven, and honestly, it is a constant effort to stop working and put my family first," she admits. When that happens, her husband gently reminds her to check her priorities and she'll bow out of a project if she needs to.

Working as a teacher doesn't pay as much as her previous job, but Andreani appreciates summers off and school holidays with her three children. Last summer, she and her husband left the kids with their grandparents and backpacked through Spain. Although Andreani's former job in hospitality meant frequent travel to nice hotels, she says it never allowed the kind of time she wanted to actually enjoy it. Focusing on her partner during the trip was "almost like dating again," says Andreani.

In addition to rethinking her career, Andreani has also scaled back on holiday gifts. Her children each get one gift from their parents and one from "Santa," plus a few items from other family members. "I see my friends go crazy [with kids' gifts]," she explains. "I think it just feeds selfishness and entitlement." She hopes to model generosity and selflessness for her kids, so she donates money through a charity catalogue instead of buying her parents and grandparents a gift that would likely gather dust. "They love it because they know it's giving to the needy," she adds.

[See 5 Reasons to Skip Black Friday Sales.]

While some gift-givers choose donations in lieu of presents, others purchase experiential gifts, an option that has grown increasingly popular over the past few holiday seasons. For instance, taking a family member out for lunch, treating a friend to a movie, or giving tickets to a concert or sporting event. "People are looking at more time-based gifts and looking at making gifts, which from a time standpoint is one of the best gifts that someone can give," says Willis. "That shows someone you care about them tremendously."

Andreani recalls getting a "memory book" from her mother, which chronicled her life from her mother's point of view, including birth, ballet recitals, and other milestones, mixing text and images in a print-on-demand book. "That was the most meaningful gift I've ever received," she says.

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