Brent Kessel, cofounder of investment firm Abacus Portfolios, isn't your typical money manager. He wakes up around 5 a.m. to meditate for 45 minutes and then practices yoga for an hour and a half before making his way to his desk. In his new book, It's Not About the Money: Unlock Your Money Type to Achieve Spiritual and Financial Abundance, Kessel, 40, combines his wealth management expertise with his yoga and meditation practice to encourage readers to solve their financial problems by turning inward. He also practices what he preaches; you can see a detailed spending diary recorded over several days here. U.S. News spoke with Kessel about his unique background and approach to personal finance. Excerpts:
How did you decide to write this book?
I saw that people were struggling in their relationship with money. No matter if they are rich or poor, everyone struggles with money. I counsel people who have hundreds of millions [of dollars] of net worth and others who are $100,000 in debt. The money doesn't seem to make a difference. The patterns that people are stuck in seem to go on and on, year after year, regardless of how many self-help books they read and what financial planner they're working with. It seemed like something much more powerful was at work. So I decided to look to yoga, meditation, and other wisdom traditions.
Your approach—combining financial expertise with yoga and meditation—is unusual. Where did it come from?
I was raised by a therapist and a businessman—my mother is a therapist, and I had a series of fathers, who I was very close to, all in business. Growing up, I was split. Is the path to happiness and fulfillment the western path of making a lot of money, or the eastern path of knowing yourself and introspection?
I think it's really both. As I went from my yoga mat to my desk, I noticed people approached their financial problems from the outside in. They were always looking to the outside world for answers. How can I save more, invest better, pay credit cards off? It's never about me. They're always about the other world. The press is really focused on externalities. Yoga and meditation approach it completely differently. If you want change, you have to look inside yourself first.
When I asked the Dalai Lama why do Americans struggle with so much with money, he said it's quite simple: Look inward and think more.
What is the Buddhist concept of the "wanting mind" that you write about, and how do you deal with it?
The wanting mind is that part of our mind that can never have enough. It's not necessarily just about money. It's any strategy that it thinks can make us happy. For the idealist, one of the eight money types [described in the book], it might be that having no money or little money is the way to happiness.
The way I like to talk about it is, each thought that pops into your head has a component of "not enough" to it. I want to change something about my experience. I want to stop by Starbucks on my way to work—there's an implicit promise in that. It will taste good, wake me up. I would feel better if I talk to the person I had a discussion with yesterday. Virtually everything that passes in our minds has a wanting component to it. When you see that, you see it's insatiable. You've satisfied it millions, if not billions, of times, and when you haven't gotten the full payoff any of those times, it starts to lose some of its luster.
What's wrong with always wanting? Some people might say it motivates them to work harder and have more.
There's nothing wrong with it, if it's in balance. There's an exercise in the book called "heartfelt goals." It's about the difference between the wanting mind's desires, which are very self-concerned, and heartfelt goals, which benefit a much wider group of people. The wanting mind's desires have a sense of urgency to them—you need to satisfy them now—whereas heartfelt goals have a sense of patience, a yearning to complete this before I die, or next year, a long time frame. The third distinction between them is that the wanting mind's desires can often be externally imposed, like a culture's goal to retire by age 60. It didn't really come from your own independent voice. The issue is: Are you blindly following an endless train of [desires], where as soon as you satiate one, another pops into its place? If that's the cycle you're caught in, then the book offers a way to break free of that.
How can you cultivate a feeling of having enough and not always wanting?
A big part of it is where you put your attention—if you put your attention on what you already have and what is enough. One way to do that is when your mind is saying I don't have enough, you ask yourself if that's true. It's a surrender game. You get to that place where that voice starts to lose more and more of its power. The other way is through generosity. Many of us think, when I have enough, then I'll be generous. The irony is...you can't be giving money away and feel like you don't have enough. The act itself changes the message you tell yourself.
So being generous helps you feel like you have enough.
Yes. I thought one day when I sold my company, then I'd become a philanthropist. In 2002, we found out that my oldest son has type 1 diabetes, and we were thrown into this life where we really wanted to fund diabetes research, so we became avid fundraisers for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. In doing that, it catalyzed a lot of other philanthropy in me, and I started to give more money to other causes. I started to realize that giving itself was turning it around and giving me the same experience that I'd hoped to get by selling my company or saving a lot of money.
If you notice yourself wanting something, and you decide not to get it, do you stop wanting it?
Yes, usually very quickly, often within an hour or two. If it's really something big, it might take 24 to 48 hours, but what feels better, when you're on the other side, is that the urgency you felt, the life-or-death feeling, was totally artificial. All these things you thought were essential really aren't. That's where you start to sense the freedom.
Have you made a purchase recently that satiated a desire that you were happy about?
Yes—the swimming pool in our house. We have so much fun and invite the community over. I'm totally blessed out whenever that's happening. I had a pool when I was a kid. For me it's an ultimate symbol of family fun.
Based on your spending diary, it seems as if you put a lot of thought into whether expenditures are worth it—and often decide against making a purchase or choose the lower-cost option.
To me, money is all about trade-offs. You can have anything you want; you just can't have everything you want. You want to retire as soon as you can, fine, we can make that the focus of the plan, but it means you might not be able to afford the same lifestyle or buy kids the house you'd been hoping for. It's all choices.