How Important is Money?
*First published on my blog: https://thequarterlifecrisis.org/articles/how-important-is-money*
If someone ever tries to tell you that money isn’t important you should do the following. Firstly, tell them to piss up a flagpole. Secondly, ask what stocks they’re buying. This way you can release your anger while acknowledging that the type of people who say money isn’t important probably also bought Apple stocks in the 1980s and their house for a cheese sandwich.
Relativism and a Triangle
I grew up middle class and the default answer I inherited is that money is important, both for personal and societal success. Money allows you access to bigger and better things. Money also is a direct measure of your worth, higher paying jobs subsequently attracting social status and respect. My parents never expressly stated that accruing more money was the goal of life, however it did purvey the way they talked about solving problems. They didn’t suspect that money would neutralise all problems that stood in their way, but they knew they’d rather be upset living a life surrounded by luxury than without. And while it was only ever implied, they saw money as the means to a level of social standing that had escaped them thus far. All this checked out to me. Money could, and should, be thought of as ‘freedom tokens’ which exist to grant, or deny, access to life’s various pleasures.
The first major refinement to this thinking came as I travelled with my family. My parents were ardent believers in the educational necessity of travel (something I should probably thank them more thoroughly for imparting on me), and as such we took family holidays to countries rich and poor. Visiting places like India and Zimbabwe it was difficult, even as a child, to ignore the fact that (1) money was key to life and (2) a great many people locked outside without a spare. Having sickly children begging your family for food at a market isn’t an experience to seek out, but it certainly isn’t one to avoid. In no way did this knowledge turn me into a pre-teen Ghandi. However, it did allow me to expand my thesis. Money was important, however, that importance was relative. The difference between my family losing $10 and someone in extreme poverty losing $7 was not simply a $3 difference.
As I grew up and became part of the market economy I was able to put thesis into more articulate terms. Overused as it is, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps explain my thinking. In short, my problems and my concerns, financially, are tied to the top half of the pyramid. When I think about money, I don’t consider that I may not be able to afford food (psychological) or that I may not have a bed to sleep in (safety). Instead, I, along with most people I know and likely will know, consider how money will increase our social status (esteem) or ultimately how we can use money to create a fulfilling life (self-actualisation). I don’t feel that this gives people the right to separate the halves and imply
that both are ‘valid’ problems with which money can solve. Undoubtably the plight of those who fighting to be fed outweighs my fight for social clout. Yet, despite this acknowledgement it is not adequate to address my problems simply by reflecting on how others have it worse.
Pretty in Privilege
The second refinement to my thinking came in the form of a girl. Until this point in my life I had never really considered economic privilege as something which would make my dating life difficult. Rich family, poor family, I thought I had the skills to negotiate socio-economic differences with relative ease. While the girl I dated wasn’t from the elusive 1% of the 1%, she certainly was from a different group of wealth than myself. Attending an Ivy League American University and working on multiple start-ups her relationship with money was substantially more lassie faire than my own. I came to realise that it wasn’t so much that money gave her a carefree way of living, but instead that it provided a carefree way of thinking. Her assumption that you could live in Sydney CBD on minimum wage, the relaxed swiping of credit cards without her name on them, an assumption that everyone could afford a house — all these subtle interactions demonstrating to me over time that, just as I couldn’t understand poverty, I couldn’t really understand wealth either.
Recently we both took a holiday to Indonesia. Sitting at a café in the mountains we drank coffee while overlooking workers in the rice paddies, as if it were a sort of bizarre spectator sport. Our guide walked over and asked where we came from and what we did. We replied that we were Australian and had recently graduated from university. A wide smile tinged with a hint of sadness looked back at us. He described how his dream was to study in Australia but given his wealth, age and lack of high school diploma he would be unlikely to ever have such an opportunity. We both listened on, understanding that this was a tragically common story. Sympathetic as we were, just previously we had been lamenting our own financial situations. She had been workshopping ways to secure a few extra hundred thousand dollars for an app launch, while I listened on jealously and devised how to allocate my $30K savings while studying a masters abroad. For all three of us money was clearly important. However, I found myself intently focusing not on how far up the totem pole I was, but rather how much further I had to climb.
Money and Me
It’d be easy to write the totem pole analogy off as some damning indictment of capitalism, and the ever-present drive for growth which fuels it, but it I think doing so would be an oversimplification. Looking up the totem pole is reasonable — but only to an extent. After all, it is objectively preferable to be in my economic situation compared to our Indonesian guide. Similarly, it is far superior to live in the affluent world of my ex-girlfriend compared to my own. But where does it stop? One of the people I interviewed for this week’s question gave a simple answer to this question. He had chased money all his life until it cost him his wife and nearly his kids. Talking off camera he remarked on how inescapably easy it was believing that money guaranteed not only his success as an individual, but the prosperity of his family also. Yet, when faced with the option of either a divorce, which would separate him from his kids, or career adjustment, which would end a stellar career at the worlds biggest engineering firm, he barely thought before quitting. His newfound ethos was that money could be both a sickness and a cure — with the Western world typically overestimating it’s healing properties and underestimating it’s symptoms.
I graduated high school and immediately joined the military, where I was afforded the unique opportunity of being paid to attend university (with the cost of my bachelor degree also being paid for). As a result, I skipped the remembered-fondly but experienced-roughly throws of typical university life. It also meant that I graduated with a well-paying job and free of debt –precisely the economic advantages that allow me to afford a year off for study and travel. Since I left home at 18 my relationship with money has been one with two distinct narratives. In one we have the Jack who talked to his civilian friends about share houses, minimum wage jobs and a near-inaccessible housing market. In the other we have the Jack who talks to his military friends about future holiday destinations, expected promotions and when (not if) you plan buy a house.
While down the google rabbit hole I came across this wealth calculator — turns out I am in the top 2.5% of income earner globally. I read this and felt; nothing profound, a tad privileged, slightly proud and vaguely annoyed. Privileged because in beating 97.5% of the world’s population I don’t feel I had done anything particularly noteworthy — in fact being born in the right country probably accounted for the overwhelming portion of my success. Proud because there was some level of personal effort and talent responsible involved in my achievements — but such abilities would again be unlikely to result in similar performance were I born in an under-developed country. Annoyed because I wanted to crack the top 2% — even though there was little to suggest such a goal would fundamentally change my life.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say I am pursuing my year off to ‘stick it to the man’ and all the money he provides; after all, I can only afford to do so after 6 years of loyal service to him. But, to echo the sentiment of my opening sentence, those who tell you money is not important probably need a reality check. I stand by my assertion that money equates to ‘freedom tokens’, after all nothing is free — not even a crisis.
Other people I’ve spoken to who are experiencing their own quarter life crisis have expressed a level of discontent for the careerism which seems to purvey our generation. A large part of this displeasure is directed at the economic circumstances which are driving people to increasing level of careerism in pursuit of money. Rising cost of housing, stagnating wages, growing inequality and uncertain global markets obviously play a critical role in the practical choices of the younger generation, but the philosophical implications should not be forgotten. I subsequently hope that the next 12 months highlights the freedoms which money can afford, but I want more for it to highlight that which money can’t buy. I’ve had the beginnings of a career and the financial freedom it affords, but I need to glimpse the other side of that coin and understand what life looks, and feels like, with money as a subordinate goal — for it to be a means of achieving goals rather than the goal itself.