What Do Swimming Fins Have to Do With Money?

What getting smoked by an elderly lady in the YMCA lap pool taught me about avoiding comparison.

One of my favorite places in the world is the YMCA. Have you heard of it? They say that there you can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal, you can do whatever you feel. 🎵🕺 

Yes, it’s fun to stay at the YMCA, but nowadays, they don’t serve food and I think the Village People were exaggerating about the “whatever you feel” thing. But you can get up at six in the morning to go swim laps. That’s what I’ve done every weekday for the past two years, and it’s been amazing!

That time is like meditation to me—I don’t have to care for anyone but myself, I have to be alone, and I physically can’t look at my phone. It’s just me, the water, and my thoughts. 

My Swimming Nemesis

Well, usually it’s just me alone with my thoughts, but there was one morning when I have to admit I was a little distracted. There are two pools at my YMCA. One called the family pool, which is heated and is the home of a kick-butt water aerobics class on most mornings. The other is the competition pool, which is exclusively for swimming laps. 

At six in the morning, it’s pretty quiet, but there’s usually one or two other swimmers in the competition pool. Despite its name, it’s not like you’re competing. Everyone’s just there to do their own workout. But I do tend to notice who is the fastest swimmer in the pool. Spoiler: it’s usually not me. And that’s fine. I’m a large, hairy man swimming backstroke. I’m not trying to win the Olympics. I don’t expect to be fast. 

But I do expect to be faster than someone who qualifies for the senior citizen discount at IHOP. 

That’s who was distracting me that morning—an elderly woman in the lane next to me who was absolutely hauling across the competition pool. Again, it’s not a competition. It’s not, okay!? But was I going to let a person twice my age do two laps to my one?

So I started swimming harder. I huffed, I puffed, I nearly drowned a couple times. I even turned over and started swimming butterfly, cause it’s my fastest stroke. (Yes, I won a race doing the butterfly in an intermediate swimming class in college once. It’s kind of a big deal.) But no matter what I did, my nemesis seemed to only swim faster. Who was she? Was she a former Olympiad? Was she Michael Phelps’ mom?

And then she got out of the pool, and I realized her advantage. Attached to her feet were two enormous flippers the size of Willy’s dorsal fin. She was wearing swimming fins, you all! Of course she beat me! Did I mention it’s not a competition? 

Advantages Hidden Under the Surface

Boy, did I feel like a dolt! I still had a hundred meters to swim, but by this point I was all tuckered out. I decided to hit the sauna instead. (Yeah, my YMCA has a SAUNA too!) And while I did, I got to thinking. This kind woman literally had an advantage under the surface that I could not see—an advantage that made me feel bad about my own progress for no good reason. After all, she wasn’t competing with me, she probably didn’t even notice me!

This is exactly what it’s like when we compare ourselves to others’ financial situations.

We’re all trying to improve our own finances, and it’s not a race. But sometimes, we look to others to set the pace. It can be hard when we perceive that our peers are moving faster than we are, but the fact, they might have a hidden advantage that we’ll never know about.

Maybe they started in a different place. Maybe they’ve had some help from their family. Or maybe they’ve just been lucky enough to avoid a major car repair for the past couple years.

It can be hard when we perceive that our peers are moving faster than we are, but the fact, they might have a hidden advantage that we’ll never know about.

Or maybe they have no discernible able advantage at all. It doesn’t matter. Swim your own race when it comes to improving your finances and avoid comparing yourself to others. The only thing that matters is that you make sure you’re spending joyfully—in a way that expresses your true self in the world. 

Swimming With Fins is Hard Work, Too

But the story isn’t over yet (and neither is the analogy). The next day, I realized that next to the pool noodles and buoyancy cuffs, the YMCA provides swimming fins right there for anyone to use! I was stoked! Now, I’m going to be like my geriatric rival. I’m going to have the advantage in the pool today! 

So I put on some of those communal swimming fins (which, looking back, is totally gross. I have my own fins in my Amazon cart right now.) And just like Michael Phelps’ mom, now I was swimming twice as fast as the person next to me. I was having so much fun. Who’s the envy of the competition pool now?

But after a few laps, I realized swimming with fins is… not easy. In fact, while I was swimming faster, I was working a lot harder. I have since learned that it’s very common to use swimming fins when training to be a competitive swimmer, who knew!? Specifically, you use them to work your legs. The greater resistance from the fins meant my legs were absolutely burning. 

Having Advantages Doesn’t Exclude Hard Work

And that’s when I realized there was more to this analogy. Just because someone has a financial advantage, it doesn’t mean they didn’t work hard to get where they are, too. Often, your neighbor’s economic place in life is the result of privilege, luck, and also a healthy dose of hard work, too. It’s rarely as simple as we like to think it is. 

And maybe you feel like you’re the one who’s been swimming with financial swimming fins. Perhaps that has led you to minimize your success. Now, there is no doubt that it’s important to recognize our privilege and let that motivate us to give generously to build up our communities. That kind of humility is a virtue that we need more of in this world. But it’s also okay to take a healthy dose of pride in the hard work and careful decisions that led you to where you are today. Hold both in tension and let it lead you to greater gratitude and grace. 

Whatever the case, avoid the comparison trap. Don’t judge yourself by the pace of others’ progress, because they may have advantages under the surface of the water. But also don’t judge others (or even yourself) based solely on the privileges they may possess.  

Do what I should have done that morning at the YMCA. Remember to swim your own race and focus on how good the water feels. 

Do you want to be like Michael Phelps’ mom? Put on some financial swimming fins. Try YNAB today. It’s free for a month!

Related Articles
What Do Swimming Fins Have to Do With Money?