The Meaning of Money
To some, money is a mystery---how to make it, how to keep it, how to make it work for you. For others, it is not a mystery in its mechanics but it still may be a conundrum as to why money can’t always buy a sense of peace and order. For a lot of people, having money creates as much or more chaos as not having it does. The question becomes how to allow money to enrich our lives in a way that is meaningful.
First, I have to ask what does money mean? Money, in form, is paper or metal—an inanimate object. These objects have become a substitute for the ancient barter system. Money in itself is benign. What is not benign is the meaning we attach to it. Money can be a loaded, emotional topic for a lot of us. We have made up what it means and we forget that we made it up. We believe the meaning of money is real. We believe that our worth as a human being is intrinsically linked to it.
Many marriages fail because of money (national statistics say as many as 70%), many suicides are linked to financial ills, family feuds feed on money issues and friends are made and lost over legal tender. We claw to make it and keep it because we allow it to define who we are. We have made it mean a lot.
9/11 kicked off a financial decline in our household. As two self-employed people, my husband and I watched six months of income disappear in the days following the attack. No one would fly to the conferences I was scheduled to speak at and I watched many of the companies who ran conferences go out of business altogether. No one was looking for luxury items such as the films my husband did for corporations and the tourism videos that were already in production seemed irrelevant. At first, I thought: “Isn’t this interesting? I have the opportunity to experience what most of my clients are going through. How perfect!”
My positive spin did not last long. I cried for months after 9/11. At first, it was my response to the tragedy and the way my system dealt with the overflowing circuits of emotion and fear. I was having nightmares about fuselage landing in my yard. They were so vivid that I could feel myself panicked and unable to scream as I watched the fiery pieces land outside my window. I was experiencing a profound grief even though I had not directly lost a loved one. It stemmed from the events and our collective loss of innocence and the empathy for the people that lost so much. Although this is unpopular, I also felt for the people who felt so much anger they were sick enough to destroy to be heard.
Surprisingly, my grief finally settled like a cloud over my money life. I wasn’t crying over what was lost in income. I was mourning an identity that had been forever changed. I had lost 30 years of being someone who had never had money problems. Even when I made $40 a week doing summer stock, I managed to save money. And here I was, in a house that I had just doubled in size because we had given birth to twins, with contractors holding their hand out to be paid on the day we had lost our step financially. That caused me tremendous grief. Sure, we had savings, lines of credit and other means, but that didn’t change the fact: I had stepped over into the world of living beyond my means. There was no misappropriation or mismanagement of money. It was a sudden climb in all things costly and a decline in the value of the dollar for all. It was a new way to live for me but it seemed as if I was one of the holdouts until this point. It meant a lot to me to have always been financially sound and I felt a terrible hopelessness when that changed. Maybe I let it mean too much.
Shortly after becoming a LBYM’er (living beyond your means’er), I found myself considering seminary as a course of study and becoming a minister as a possible outcome of that. That certainly put the money conversation under the microscope. I had yet to hear of any ministerial opportunity being a huge moneymaker, unless it was with a mega-church. (I’d also have to be Christian, which could have been a problem) Yet before I even graduated seminary, I was approached for an assistant minister’s position in Manhattan for $35,000 a year. That was about five thousand more than I made as a waitress in the late 80’s. In NYC, that would not take me very far. Especially if housing was not part of the job offer. It wasn’t the right time to downshift to that degree. There is no question the work would have been meaningful, but I needed commensurate pay under the circumstances. After 9/11, I had given up so many phantom essentials that I couldn’t imagine giving up more---- Never get take out? Never buy brand names? Crest is better than Store Brand X, period. But it costs more. Where do you draw the line? Certainly, not at my teeth. And if that sounds petty, then drawing the line at clothes for my kids would be a real possibility. $35K in Manhattan would have required some cut as drastic as that.
As time has worn on since, gas prices have risen, food costs have skyrocketed, medical insurance has covered less, and the downturn continues to suffer from negative forecasters. It seems only natural that we take a deeper look at how money brings meaning to life and how we behave around money.
Considering how money enriches our lives in a meaningful way has to be preceded by an assessment of what it’s meant so far. We are a consumer society. We live in a world of excess with a distorted definition of ‘need’. We as a population feel in need of bigger homes to hold all our stuff, which we will only fill with more stuff we “need,” creating a need for yet a bigger home. I shop with coupons and love a sale as much as anyone, but do I need more? Sometimes, I remember to ask myself as I stand in line to pay for something: “Do I need this?” I have so many sweaters; do I really need a black one? Well, if it was the pioneer days and all I owned was a dress for the week and my Sunday best, then sweaters in every color would seem excessive, but it’s just doesn’t seem excessive now. I don’t have three black sweaters. I have one other that I don’t like anymore. Does my husband need a better driver to help his golf game? Yes and no. Yes, it seems like a need and no, does anybody NEED a golf club? It’s recreation. It is not an essential. Do we need a stainless steel barbeque grill? The one we have is fine. It’s just butt-ugly, but so what? What is our baseline for need? What is our baseline for comfort? Would changing it make our life more meaningful?
Every generation wants to give their children what they did not have growing up, but by today’s standards, in many parts of the country, that notion is adding to our insanity. I had a college education, a used car to drive when I got my license, exposure to culture and some finer things in life and now I want to give my kids all that and every electronic I never had (because they did not exist!). We expose them to every activity available under the sun because dance lessons and little league just don’t seem like enough any more. We give birthday parties to rival a wedding and whatever else their little heart desires because we feel guilty for working so hard to provide for them. Maybe we just have more to keep up with because the latest electronic game device is outdated within two years or maybe we are just insane. This is not a problem of just ‘the haves’, either. Look at consumer debt today. It is so easy to get credit that people who cannot afford to do so can charge their whim purchases in the blink of an eye.
For some of us, our income becomes completely depleted by need. Real need---- food, a place to live, and essential items for daily living. For more of us there is the cycle of need that keeps coming back to bite us---every time we think we can breath, something else goes wrong. Something breaks, something gets worn out. Everything is so disposable—made to break, really. I haven’t had a vacuum cleaner that’s lasted more than three years. I even had to part with a clothes washing machine that was less than four years old. It was top of the line! We don’t have 20 years between appliances. We don’t have 30 years with a couch. Our manufacturers can offer more competitive prices if they produce merchandise outside of the country, and in return, we get a cheaper product, and I don’t mean just in monetary cost. It’s no wonder all our income becomes sand between our fingers. Gone in a snap second.
We contribute to a lot of the need for re-purchasing as well. We are a disposable nation. It’s shameful to think about it. Everything now comes in its own version of a baby wipe. You can clean your kids’ butt, your dining room table, your sink, your bathtub and even your car, each with its own version of disposable cleaner. This makes my mom really pissed.
“I can’t believe my idea became a modern commodity!”
“What do you mean, Ma?” I asked.
“Don’t you remember? When you were little and I found that company was coming over, I’d take a tissue and clean the toilet or the sink real quick. They stole my idea!”
But that’s who we’ve become. We are tissue cleaners. God forbid we should use one of our 100 T-shirts rotting in our drawers as a rag to clean with that can be cleaned and used a gain. Why do that, when we can make garbage?
Have you tried to take a kid’s toy out of a package lately? You have to use special tools and scissors to cut through the armor that protects the toy on its voyage from China. The act of opening a package is an exercise in supplementing landfills.
We consume, we waste, we have no real regard for what is a true necessity and this all adds up to our insatiable appetite for making money. The result of our indulgence is that Americans save less than 4% of their income.1 According to recent issue of Forbes Magazine, wealthier Americans, with a net income of $200-$350 K, save even less than 1% of their income. It’s shocking to me. But I know I used to save more money when I was an actress bringing in under $30,000 a year than I do now, percentage-wise anyway.
Every religious tradition suggests how we are to deal with money. The Jews call giving back tzedakah and believe that one-tenth of your income belongs to God, the Hindus call it Daan, or donation and can include acts of service as well as monetary giving, the Muslims purify their money through Zakat (setting money aside for those in need) and avoid transactions that charge or collect interest (Riba) since it is thought to contaminate money, the Buddhists live the dhamma (teachings) and feel the purpose of money is to help others through wholesome deeds, and the Christians tithe which means tenth (therefore the 10% tithe) although it is believed that you would not have money without God, so really God owns all your income. Every tradition supports the idea of giving back as part of leading a devout life. The mandate is to show God that we are grateful for what’s been given to us. It’s very meaningful for many.
The reality is that most of us don’t follow those guidelines. Recently, I learned something dumbfounding about how we give away money. According to Lynn Twist, a global fundraiser and author of “The Soul of Money” Americans give away $300 billion per year. Of the three hundred billion only 5% of it is donated by corporations, 7% by non-profits who exist to distribute funds and 88% by private individuals. Shockingly, almost 90% of that 88% are people who make under $100K per year. The farther away we are from the pain of ‘not having’ the less likely we are to help. We’re also not saving it for ourselves, so what are we doing?
We are spending. And unfortunately, the meaning we often create is based in separation. We create class groups based on how much money we have. We feel shame if we fail financially. We judge those who don’t succeed, generally speaking, of course. Meaning and money can work together for positive outcomes when they are aligned with yoga, union a coming together. When money can fuel togetherness instead of separation, it is more satisfying and meaningful. When money can foster more equality instead of disparity, again we all win. The point is to bring out one’s best and ‘the best’ for everyone with money instead of the other way around.
I try to align what a meaningful life means to me with my earning power. Like most of us, I have seen people in my field make more money than me. I’ve seen people cheat to get more than their share of the pie and I’ve admired those that have come by their fortune honestly. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fantasize about making large sums of money. But I’ve always made it a habit to ask myself, especially if I am feeling envious of someone else: What would I have to give up to have it?” The answer usually comes back to giving up time with my kids and my husband. I’m not willing to do that. That would make the money meaningless to me. I hope that doesn’t sound like an excuse for not trying harder because it’s no. I create my own windfalls, but sometimes I’m paid in time instead of other currency. I am OK with being paid in time with my children. I am enriched. I take risks being self-employed but the benefits are big too. It allows me a wonderful lifestyle where I see my children more than the average employee and I make my own hours and I can provide my kids enough to have them live healthfully with appropriate entertainment and extra curricular privileges that provide culture and challenge. I’ve always tried to turn the drive to make more money into the strategies that make my money work better for me.
Look at what we do to our working mothers in the workplace. We want to attract good candidates to get the work done and many companies are wonderful family-friendly places to be, but even if so, we mommy-track our women. We don’t feel they are really committed to their job if they are not giving the lining of their womb to the company along with every waking hour. Work/life balance has become lip service. It’s a mystery no one really believes can be solved. I say so from the perspective of being hired to come into companies to preach the virtues of balance only to find that there really are no policies or cultural adjustments that allow for it. It’s good in theory but not in practice and it all gets back to money and meaning. Do we have to trade one for the other? Can they really co-exist?
According to the US Census of 2004, the number of children being cared for by stay-at-home moms has increased by 13% in less than a decade. Research shows that more women in America are choosing to leave their corporate positions to be full time mothers. There seems to be a reversal of what the women’s movement fought so hard for. Women gained high paying, high level status in corporations only to find that they are forced to choose between staying competitive or watching their children grow up. More and more are choosing the latter figuring they can comeback later and resume at full force (whether they really can is yet to be seen).
According to a survey by the research firm, Catalyst, 26% of women at the cusp of the most senior levels of management don’t want the promotion. They know what they will have to give up to perform at the expected level. I find it sad that they have to choose, but I condone their choice. It’s unfortunate that the highest promotions require having no life. A Harvard Business Review article based on a survey done in 2004 also shows that children are not the only factor for leaving corporate life. 17% of the women surveyed felt their jobs were not satisfying or meaningful. Again, they were not being enriched. The work became meaningless for whatever reason—whether it was politics, the difficulty of affecting change or the lack of room for personal pursuits.
More and more men are going home to stay as well. On the other end of the spectrum are women breadwinners and husbands who raise the kids. Bravo. However, men pay a big price for time out of the workplace as well when they try to return. Our society has given us a strong message about our earning power and parenthood: “It’ll cost ya!” Not just cause kids are expensive, but because we are penalized for the attention they require. (And yes, those without offspring also feel discriminated against if their company feels they don’t need to earn more because they don’t have a family to support or if it is assumed they have more time to work than family folk.)
The meaning that money can provide comes when we shift our motivation from ‘me’ to ‘we’---from separation to union. There are always going to be people who enjoy the lifestyle that a moneyed life can provide. However, the clients I’ve worked with in the past five years are asking, “I have it all---sure I could wish for more stuff, but I really do have it all—so why doesn’t it feel great?”
“Feeling great” comes when we find the intersection where meaning and money meet to create a different kind of wealth, a wealth that creates something tangible and long lasting---it may very well stay in the ‘me’ category where you use your money for further education or to have adventures and explore other cultures. That can then become a ‘we’ as you share the benefits of being enriched in that way. Or your wealth can affect a greater ‘we’---like the very public examples of Oprah Winfrey starting a school in Africa or Bill Gates impacting world health issues. Us normal people can do something similar at an appropriate scale for us.
What matters is the usefulness and long-lasting effect of the ‘we’ our money breathes life into. Whether we let our money take care of us so we are fulfilled in a way that make us the contribution to the world around us or we give it away to do good some other way is not for me to say. Humans need to know that what they do matters. The joy of having money comes in what we can create with it that enriches others and ourselves. Money can work this way and when it does, it becomes less mysterious. We understand what money is really for and what ‘currency’ really means. Current, relevant, energetic, vibrant, moving, causing----that is money and the feeling is meaning.
1 According to Juliet B. Schor, author of “The Overspent American”