As I’ve mentioned quite a few times, I’m a big believer in “never eating alone,” which means that I try to eat lunch with someone as often as I can. This gives me a chance not only to connect with people, but also to learn quite a lot about the things that worry them.

Just a few days ago, I was eating lunch with someone I hadn’t seen in quite a while. She insisted that we go to a very nice Thai restaurant, where she ordered a rather expensive drink to go with a meal that was almost twice the cost of my own (I drank water).

While we were eating, she mentioned that she was actively hunting for a new job. This rather surprised me, because I know she enjoys the job that she has as a lab tech. I asked her why she was looking and she told me that they were having some financial problems and they simply needed more income.

As she kept eating, I looked at her meal… which was far more expensive than mine… and her drink… which was also more expensive than mine. I looked at her clothes, which I would virtually bet cost more than my own, and at her iPhone 5. I saw that she had a diamond necklace, diamond earrings, and two or three rings with various gems in them, along with a bracelet of some kind. I could see her car out in the parking lot, which was several years newer than my own.

The reasons that they were having financial problems were incredibly obvious.

Yet, she chose not to see them.

During my years where I spent with reckless abandon, I did almost the exact same thing as she was doing. I had a nice car – one nice enough that my barber actually came outside to admire it once. I wore nice clothes. I ate out all the time and usually ordered one of the most expensive things on the menu along with a high-end drink. I had the newest cell phone.

All of those things made me feel successful and, to some extent, cool. They made me feel as though I belonged because I had all of the visual signs of success.

The thing I didn’t realize at the time is that virtually no one I cared about actually cared at all about those signs of success. I could have worn a ragged t-shirt and driven a 1976 Dodge Dart and they would have not really cared.

In truth, I was hiding. I could see that I was in financial trouble, but I knew that if I had all of these trappings of success, I couldn’t possibly really be in financial trouble.

How could someone with a shiny car and nice clothes and a great meal in front of them and the latest tech gadgets possibly be in financial trouble? I’m successful! I can’t be in financial trouble!

Writing that down sounds utterly foolish, but it was the way I thought and it was the way my lunch partner obviously thought. It’s the way a lot of people think, at least from what I can observe.

Here’s the truth: just because you have the shiny car and the nice house and the jewelry and the nice clothes and the freedom to go out for a great meal doesn’t mean you’re not in financial trouble. Those aren’t the signs of financial success or financial trouble.

The real sign of financial success or financial trouble is in your mailbox. Do you receive investment statements in the mail? Or do you receive credit card bills? Do you get letters from bill collectors? Or do you get checks?

Another sign of financial success is in your bank and investment accounts. Do you have a nice, fat balance there? Or is the balance scrawny? Do you have debts?

The shiny car, the clothes, the nice house, the new gadgets – all of that stuff is camouflage. It hides the reality of the situation from others, but it also hides it from yourself. You certainly can be in financial trouble, even if you have all of those nice things.

Stop fooling yourself with that camouflage. The only way to a secure future is through focusing on eliminating debts and improving your net worth. Expensive meals and nice cars might be fun, but they aren’t signs of financial success.

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