As you plug away at your New Year's resolutions, don't confuse the goal with the reward.
If you shop at Whole Foods, hire someone to clean your home, or have seen Hamilton on Broadway, plenty of your fellow Americans think you've "made it" financially or are living the American dream, according to a survey from money management site You Need A Budget and research company OnePoll. They polled 2,000 working adults in October.
"It sounds like the elements are backwards," said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "Those are the rewards for getting the goals — they're not the goals."
Better benchmarks to think about for financial security would include having enough banked to feel comfortable about your ability to handle an emergency expense, he said, making progress toward long-term goals like retirement or paying for college, and keeping debt under control.
By those measures, the survey's most-cited signs are more promising. Half of respondents think you're financially set if you're debt free, or if you don't have to worry if there's enough in your bank account.
To clarify your resolutions, think about what a particular reward really indicates about your finances, said Kit Yarrow, the author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind."
"Having the financial means to come up with tickets to 'Hamilton' or ordering bottled water in a restaurant represents getting whatever you want," she said. "You're so flush that you can satisfy a whim."
Focusing on spending-driven rewards opens the door for trouble down the line. There's always another purchase to make to keep up appearances, said Yarrow, and that can mean you're not meeting those key savings goals that would really give you financial freedom.
There's also the risk of sliding into debt, if your symbols of "making it" — that first-class ticket or daily coffee — aren't sustainable based on other elements of your budget, McClary said.
"On the surface it may feel like they've made it, but they're really digging a deeper hole," he said.