Stressed-Out Gen X and the Search for a More ‘Livable’ Life

Originally published CNBC“We’re just overwhelmed with life.” That was my response to an attorney looking for insight into the obstacles facing Generation X.

I’d referred a number of 30- and 40-something financial-planning clients to this attorney. All were in need of estate-planning documents.

But he came to me concerned about the difficulty he was having in reconnecting with clients who’d begun the process but were struggling to find the time to complete it. The time to complete anything, really.

While folks of all generations struggle with being overwhelmed by the various responsibilities and obligations of life, I see the problem as endemic within the ranks of Gen X, my peers.

Born between the mid-1960s and early 1980s, depending on your source, Gen X roughly includes those between the ages of 34 and 49. Many of them have now attained something similar to the stereotypical 2.5 kids, 1.5 Labrador retrievers and white picket fence marking the .4 acres that nestle their 3.5-bedroom, 2.5-bath single-family homes.

Most members of Gen X have found a professional or vocational niche. Many of them have found genuine success in their craft. Their predecessors, the baby boomers, taught them to leverage success and are now beginning to look to the younger generation for help with the transition into retirement.

What a great opportunity, right? Yes, but …

Just as professional opportunities with meaningful (and much needed) monetary rewards appear within their grasp, the babies born to Gen X are growing up and out. Meetings, deals, prospects, clients, kids, spouses, teachers, sports, coaches, expenses, renovations, mortgages—everything is peaking at the same time. Life is crushing them while at the same time passing them by.

So much of life seems urgent that it’s almost impossible to remember what’s important. I’d urge you to consider the following maxims, which I’ve seen help bring relief to those overwhelmed with life, myself included:

1. First things first. Few of us with spouses and/or kids would ever say out loud that money, or even our professions, are more important than our partners or children. But we scream it with our actions and choices every day.

Mindfully acknowledging our priorities in life is a surprisingly simple but effective method for moving tough decisions from the opaque to the clear. I try, and occasionally succeed, to review the “big rocks” that I’ve identified as my life priorities every morning. Doing so is part of my daily to-do ritual, and it helps prevent the smaller pebbles from consuming all of my time. Because they will.

2. Money won’t fix problems. Say it with me. Now. Yes, it is true that Gen X has the most financial stress of any generation. Unfortunately, the natural conclusion drawn from this seemingly perpetual state of high anxiety is that having more money would make life better.

But while we hunt for the commodity that will supposedly solve our problems, we freely spend the only truly irreplaceable commodity: time. I don’t deny there are certain problems—debt or lack of savings, for example—that can only be solved by money.

But we must remember that there are two ways to deal with those problems: generating more income, which typically requires time, and reducing expenses, which often doesn’t.

3. Experiences are more valuable than stuff. One of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever got, and I believe it also applies to life in general, was to be a deliberate memory maker.

I love my Apple toys just as much as the next geek, but neither we nor our children will remember the unveiling of the iPhone 6 two decades from now. They will, however, remember seeing the Orioles beat the Yankees with a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th at Camden Yards.

Memory creation often costs money, too, although it need not, especially when we get creative. But memories will far outlast the next great technological innovation.

4. You can hit the restart button. Many Gen Xers got in trouble with real estate. Many more feel as though being overwhelmed by life is an unavoidable, intractable season that must be endured. They believe that they have no choice in the matter.

But while it is true that you may be enduring an unavoidable trial, it is false to assume that you have no choice in the matter. I know a prominent Gen X financial advisor who acknowledged his own real estate mistakes and short-sold his underwater home.

I have a Gen X client who was brought to his knees by financial hardship, which he had concealed from his wife, until he had to confess that they were bankrupt. I’ve seen both of those families flourish since getting clobbered by an overwhelming life largely of their own making.

You don’t have to get to the end of your rope to choose a clean slate. It’s also not easy to extricate yourself from the web of commitments and expectations by which so many Gen Xers feel bound. But it’s worth it, and I know this from personal experience.

Within the past couple of years, my family had experienced enough hardship and stress that we felt compelled to introduce some change. Meaningful change.

I came home from work one day with a lesson, emblazoned on my consciousness, from a client meeting with a member of the baby boomer generation. He told me, “With your kids already at ages 7 and 9, you’re going to blink and they’ll be out on their own.”

My wife and I were somehow shocked by the newly apparent truth—somehow veiled by our overwhelmed lives—that in a mere decade, we would be empty nesters. So we set ourselves to engineering an upheaval.

We moved from our beloved home in Baltimore to Charleston, South Carolina, in search of a lower cost of living, a slower pace of life and a higher quality of life. In search of a more livable life.

I’m a speaker, author, wealth advisor and director of personal finance for Buckingham and theBAM Alliance. Connect with me on Twitter, Google+, and click HERE to receive my weekly post via email.