We’ve all heard the phrase, “the stuff dreams are made of,” likely without questioning its origin. Black-and-white movie buffs may remember Humphrey Bogart’s character, Sam Spade, used this phrase in the 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon. His is really a mistaken reiteration of Shakespeare, when in The Tempest Prospero declares, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” I could make a case that the prepositional switcheroo is really quite meaningful here, but I’d prefer to make a different proposal altogether:
The stuff dreams are made of (or on) isn’t actually stuff at all.
Most financial planning focuses on the material realm—the acquisition of cash, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate, business interests and other stuff. Please don’t misconstrue my statement as imposing an inherently negative connotation on the word stuff or the things mentioned in that list. I just think it’s ironic that these things appearing quite tangible are actually the most reliably temporal.
Cash, for one, is forever devalued. In 1914, you would’ve been a “millionaire” in today’s relative terms with $45,500. 2007 taught us real estate is subject to losses and 2008, that the market is not necessarily a benevolent power pledged to making our dreams come true. If you’re still holding onto the false belief that bonds can’t lose money, a broadening global sovereign debt crisis (that is, incidentally, deepening in many U.S. states) is likely to cure you of that logical illness. And, with the exception of some very nice red wines, even those assets which appreciate in value over time don’t actually get… better. My home, for example, was in better shape when it was built in 1969 than it is today.
Speaking of appreciation (and depreciation), my oldest son, Kieran, and I traveled with his Cub Scout troop this past weekend to the aging Battleship New Jersey, docked in Camden, NJ. We got an exhaustive inside-and-out tour, ate two military-style meals and even spent the night on this magically floating metal monstrosity. Many things about this experience were notable, not least among them the willingness of hundreds of men and boys to don bright neckerchiefs as they go about their days (just kidding, guys, I’m sure there’s a meaningful reason for that tradition I just don’t understand).
The New Jersey is, according to our salty tour guide, Popeye (seriously), the most decorated battleship in U.S. history. Launched exactly one year after “…the day that will live in infamy,” the New Jersey served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam before being decommissioned for the last time in 1991. It was a day and night of “Wow!”s, but by far the most impressive thing for me was the entirely satisfied, albeit weary, smile on my boy’s face as we pulled away from the ship, knowing this was a memory we’ll likely have forever.
What tangible did we have to show for it? Popeye’s business card and a $3.99 keychain trinket with a mini telescope.
My Shakespeare’s a little rusty, but I’m pretty sure when Prospero said “WE are such stuff as dreams are made on” (emphasis added), he wasn’t talking to (or about) his 401k, Roth IRA or even his FDIC insured bank account. There’s no question, however, that larger balances in those can aid one in the acquisition of those non-material blessings in this life.
I like the way my friend, Jim Stovall, puts it: “There are only four things you can do with your money: Acquire stuff, buy security, create memories and make the world a better place.” Neither Jim nor I would suggest the pursuit of any of these is wrong, but in a culture seemingly bent on the acquisition of the tangible, I encourage you to be deliberate in your pursuit of that which you can’t see or touch, but also never loses value.