Not About The Money

Not about the money

Back in my 20s, when I was still working my somewhat boring corporate job, I had a few friends who managed to “break into” investment banking immediately post undergrad.

The lead-up to Christmas was always an exciting time for them – not least because back then, quite a few banks would pay bonuses in early December.

Thus, my friends would share stories of walking into their group head’s office – and walking out with twenty, thirty, or even forty thousand dollars more to their name than they started the day with.

Those numbers, punchy as they seem, would pale in comparison to what the more senior bankers would rake in after a good year – and you will hardly find a banker complaining about the mid-noughties.

With spirits already in spending mode (thanks to relentless Christmas advertising), the bonus round was like a nitro boost for bankers.

An orgy of conspicuous consumption would ensue, as everyone headed down to the brightly lit downtown shops, topping it up with extravagant nightclub parties later on.

Post bonus party

This may or may not have happened…

For my friends, most of whom did not come from money, it was like a trip to fairyland.

Observing them, I often wondered just how good it must feel to be able to buy anything you want, and to spend Christmas ensconced in a firm sense of financial security?

The Flip Side Of The Coin

It’s fair to say that the 2010s have nothing on the noughties, what with the hangover of the financial crisis and everything else. No more Aston Martins outside the office at bonus time.

And yet, having migrated over to the other side, I find it nothing short of fascinating observing the behaviour of people in the industry.

As it turns out, my friends weren’t lying when they regaled me with stories of spending bacchanals. At the same time, they didn’t exactly share the full picture either.

Conveniently, they would leave out the stories of anxiety, the fear of the Blackberry flashing red come Christmas eve, a signal that holidays were about to be interrupted and spent back in the office.

Control over bank account? Check.

Control over calendar? Gone with the wind the moment you signed up to this modern-day Faustian bargain.

Interestingly enough, most folks don’t seem to appreciate how merciless this trade-off really is. Year after year, they engage in the futile exercise of trying to spend their way to happiness.

Sadly, the latest trinket from Selfridges provides nothing more than a temporary serotonin boost.

On many an occasion, I would watch my colleagues waltz into the office on a Saturday afternoon, sporting a new Burberry coat or flashing a new Rolex or even a Patek.

Fifteen minutes and some perfunctory chat later, they would settle in front of their screens and stare down the barrel of a long night ahead.

Reality would slowly sink in. That expensive piece on their wrist only reminding them how quickly the valuable time goes.

Those who still think money equals happiness should take a walk through the City or Canary Wharf come the first week of January.

That experience alone should be enough to make you reach for a bottle of Prozac.

Thousands of seemingly successful, well-paid people heading back to work.  Soul and bank account, both empty. Control over their time still nothing but a distant mirage.

And yet, it simply doesn’t have to be this way.

Taking Back Control

Unfortunately, I’ve had my fair share of Christmas disasters over the years, with just a couple of uninterrupted holidays.

One year stands out in particular. After an exceedingly tough year, I was really looking towards a period of quiet decompression at home – and bonding with our newborn child.

It was all going swimmingly until December 25th, when a calendar invite landed in my inbox for a 9 am call the following morning.

Twenty-four hours later, a client mandated us on a deal. Cue in weeks of relentless execution and more time in deserted airline lounges I could ever wish for.

It could all have been very depressing – except that it wasn’t.

A big reason was the deal’s raison d’etre.

Our client was facing an existential crisis and had to move incredibly quickly to ward off bankruptcy. Thousands of jobs were on the line, which made signing on the dotted line a few weeks later much more enjoyable than usual.

Another big part of it was the process itself.

By this point in time, I’ve already had enough experience (and confidence) to practice my craft pretty much independently. I guess you could say I was in the flow.

But most importantly, it was the knowledge that I wasn’t on a hamster wheel. By virtue of not signing up for the investment banking “lifestyle”, I had no golden handcuffs to break in the first place.

Perversely, the freedom to walk away was the very thing that kept me going in the first place.

A Moving Target

Someone once said: “By the time you have the money, you realize it wasn’t about the money”.

There’s a lesson here for FIRE devotees as well.

Pursuing financial independence can be a very blinkering experience at times. Supremely focused on the net worth number, we fail to ask ourselves what comes next.

However, as Monevator recently pointed out in yet another excellent post, there is much more to FIRE than hitting an arbitrary number in your bank account and waving your cubicle goodbye.

Just like the unrealized promise of banking bonuses, all the free time and independence could well fail to hit the spot.

In a way, thinking FIRE will make you happy is just as misguided as thinking that money will make you happy. And by the time you FIRE, you could realize that it wasn’t about FIRE in the first place.

Now, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t pursue financial independence in the first place. Please do – just don’t forget to enjoy the journey.

Thank you for reading!

About Banker On FIRE

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Banker On FIRE is a London-based M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker.  I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence and living the best life possible.

Find out more about me and this blog here.

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19 Comments

  1. Bonus time was a fascinating study in human behaviour. The team sitting around pretending to be busy as one by one they were summonsed to the bosses office for a one-on-one chat.

    The victors return with shit-eating grins to high-fives and pats on the back. The bottom 20% of the performance review pool carried boxes to clear out their desks, Darwinian natural selection in action.

    The fear was real.

    Would the size of the number be large enough to cash the mental cheques already written (and often the physical promises too)? Saving them once more from a lifestyle that cost more than their wages alone could cover.

    The creeping fear that the number wouldn’t be enough. Bonus allocation is as much about politics as performance, each successive level of the management food chain taking half the pot and passing it down the line. Had the firm done well enough? The department? Our team? Had any of the line managers done anything to upset the money gods during the year, as ‘tis the season of retribution?

    Then there was the unspoken fear that they may somehow be in the bottom 20%. Somebody has to be, right? Those poor wretches who quietly disappear while the rest of the team is out blowing their bonuses in an orgy of cocaine, strippers, and sports cars.

    • Things are a bit more muted these days, but the overall tone of bonus day hasn’t really changed since your days in the industry.

      Other than the fact that layoffs now happen just a week or two before the bonuses, as opposed to on the actual bonus day…

  2. “The freedom to walk away was the very thing that kept me going in the first place.” – very interesting note, BOF. Sometimes, in the midst of the crazy deal environment in FDD/TS and a few days/weeks not seeing my mrs and my son (although they are just in the living room/kitchen!), I also wonder why I’m doing this…Not sure those thoughts cross your mind once in a while?

    • Of course they do 🙂

      I usually remind myself how fortunate I am to have a job that pays well and that I (mostly) enjoy. Many people out there who would love to swap places with you or me.

      Over and above that, I have a pretty concrete timetable of when I will leave this industry. I know I won’t be doing this forever.

      And if the work-life balance gets unbearably out of whack, I always have the option of walking away earlier than planned.

      Usually when I frame it this way, things start looking much brighter!

      • Yup. That’s a nice and inspirational way to look at it! You could open some coaching classes as well, if one day you leave the IB world :). Reading your blog is an amazing way for me to pause from the relentless deal environment once in a while! Thank you!

        • Cheers

          Remember – all things come to pass 🙂 One day, we may find ourselves in wistful recollections of days gone by!

  3. “just don’t forget to enjoy the journey.” – completely agreed. How often we forget this in the hustle and bustle of life. I need to remind myself this as well!

  4. I worked in IT support at three different investment banks in the noughties and did pretty well as a contractor. I remember very clearly being asked a favour one Xmas Eve, to check a senior banker’s blackberry.
    The timing and phrasing stank to high heaven, but there was a queue of guys in back office waiting their opportunity for a trade floor role, so …
    The favour later turned out to be babysitting the device while the address book wirelessly synchronised almost 5,000 contacts (the official limit was 2,000 but she senior, and the wired option was disabled for supposed security). Literally waiting hours for the thing to finish and then handover to a junior who would have to drop it off at her London address.
    I offered the junior banker my personal number and suggested he call me once it was finished. I could check the BES every so often to check that the synch was still running, but no, it was insisted that we both stay seated in the middle of the floor and just wait.
    I cycled home sober, richer and a lot wiser about my position in the pecking order.

    • Ahh, nothing like the good old ego. “I will make you do it because… well, because I can!”

      I worked with one senior banker who asked his team to prepare multiple presentations for him to read every time he would fly to the US. Other colleagues who would fly with him said the presentations always went unread, taking a back seat to drinks and the latest BA movie.

  5. If you don’t enjoy your job, that says more about you than it does about the job. Unhappy workers are going to be unhappy early retirees. Jobs that never interrupt a weekend or a holiday generally are trivial pursuits. If what you do matters, then it is very likely it will interrupt your plans from time to time. That’s a good thing!

    • Agreed, the big question is finding the right balance.

      A few weekends in a row or one disrupted holiday is palatable. Working without any days off and having multiple holidays interrupted (or outright canceled) can feel like being asked to do a sprint right after a marathon.

  6. My day to day job sounds less challenging (and certainly less lucrative!) but it’s a similar thing in my industry (insurance) I’m ‘always on’. As I sit here today I have a half day but am still monitoring emails. I tend to have to do this on holiday too. My clients are My clients and people rarely (short of being in hospital) want to pick up work for you if you’re on a break

    My partner and I were discussing the other day that that kind of pressure isn’t sustainable. I feel it now after 15 years. I definitely won’t be doing this in another 15

    I plan to get myself to basic fi then do some kind of profit share with a smaller broker. They can pay me a basic salary and I’ll bring my clients over. Get paid a one off bonus and sail off into the sunset. Either that or engineer a redundancy at some point

    • Yeah, I feel the same way. My day to day got much better as I progressed up the ranks, but my holidays are also much more disrupted these days.

      The only bankers I know who have done this for decades are the ones who:
      (i) have nothing better/ more interesting to do (i.e. workaholics)
      (ii) truly love the craft
      (iii) can compartmentalize like absolute champs (sadly not me though I’m working on it!)

  7. Hi I am a late starter and 15 to 20 years years away from retiring. Do you have advice on how to get started. I am looking to invest in ETFS like vanguard VWRL but the price has risen so much from 60 euros to 86 euros is it too late to invest should I wait until the price goes down? I am interested in passive income in case I lose my job any ideas would be welcomed.

    • Hi Naz,

      Welcome to BoF!

      My very candid advice would be the following:

      1. Don’t invest just yet
      2. Pick up these two books: The Simple Path To Wealth by JL Collins and RESET by David Sawyer
      3. Read the posts I’ve listed here: https://bankeronfire.com/start-here
      4. Spend an hour a day reading other personal finance blogs like Monevator and Mr Money Mustache

      Once you’ve done the above, I think you will be in a much better place to start investing.

      I usually encourage people not to waste any time but equally it’s important to have a good understanding of the high-level investing concepts before you get started. Otherwise you run the risk of ending up behind where you’ve started.

      Hope this helps!

  8. Thanks for replying . Many years ago I invested in a SIPP fund and forgot about it. The fund was run by woodford and I got burned when it collapsed. I have been reading alot about passive investing since March 2020 but not done anything about it I think it’s option paralysis. Will read the material you have suggested.

    • Yes – I find the Simple Path To Wealth the easiest to read book with the most actionable advice.

      Reset adds a UK overlay which is very helpful as well.

      Once you’ve digested these two, you are ready to get started!

      Good luck!

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