My wife and I had a conversation about money this morning. Not about if we had enough (we don’t), or how we manage it (we could be better), rather about how we think about it. We resolved to do some things differently, specifically with regard to how we think about “money” in general.
I will get to our conclusions at the end of this article, but in between I want to confess my perspectives about money leading to what I am doing to change.
My parents were immigrants. They arrived in the US shortly after WW2 and my Dad worked hard his whole life to make a living. He was a carpenter, I felt like we had enough, we lived paycheck to paycheck. My father bought a house, first in Bell Gardens, then in Montebello, then in East Whittier, then he bought a parcel of land and built a house in Wildomar, finally purchased a house in Yorba Linda. These were never investments, always our residences. He sold the Yorba Linda house to finance a mission to Russia where he purchased a home in the small Russian village where he was born and lived there for several years. He started a church in that home, and left it to the people in the church when he was finished. He lived out his final days in a Senior Apartment complex and finally in my sister’s home where he finally died. He lived his final years on Social Security payments and a Pension from the Carpenter’s Union. My inheritance was a $144 payout from the Carpenter’s Union.
I went to college and graduate school, earned a Master’s Degree and launched into my career. I was a pastor. I didn’t go into my career to make money. It wasn’t a “value” in my life. My first post was a “start-up” church. The church was subsidized by the denomination, never owned property; we met in a middle school then a hotel. With help from family Kelly and I did manage to buy a 900 square foot condo that served as church office and home to our family of 4. The church lasted six years until we closed the doors and I was left with trying to make a living doing side work like painting houses.
My second post was in a small rural church in a town I had never heard of in spite of growing up an hour away. I was at that position for 25 years. My salary was determined by my needs. I presented a bare bones personal budget and the church paid me based on that budget. It was around $539 a week and we lived in a parsonage on the church property. It was considered part of our income. We managed to sell our condo, and the profit paid off debt we had incurred during our year of unemployment. After 8 years in the parsonage we managed to convince the church to increase our salary so that we could buy a house.
We raised 4 sons in that rural community. We managed to give them a quality education, involve them in multiple extra curricular activities, and send them to an elite private college. We refinanced the house one time (it wasn’t extravagant) to pay for a combination of things like trips to DC for History Day competitions and college expenses.
All the while, I never rose above the money income/management style of my father. We lived paycheck to paycheck, never having more than $5-10,000 in our bank accounts in the best of months. We bought one car brand new, the rest were purchased used or were gifted to us. We never had 6 months buffer, rarely did we have 1 month buffer.
Our retirement preparation was less than minimal. I have a life insurance policy, had a small retirement fund the church contributed to, and the house. My plan was pay off the house, live in it forever and work as a pastor till I died. But I fucked up. Lost my job, lost my house, could have lost my family but they are gracious, lost my career.
So here I am, 60 years old with less than I had in the meager years leading up to this year, and no money. Literally. As I write this post, my bank account has less than $100 in it (don’t worry, a check is on the way and I have potential income). In the past four years I have worked in sales (no salary), construction (God bless good friends who hire unskilled labor in their company), retail (Kohl’s department Store and Lowe’s), and finally emptied my retirement ($18,000 from the church $5,000 from the short stint I did in construction) to try and start an internet business, and applied for a grant to start a ministry. Friends have been there all along, sending us checks and helping us out.
I share all of this as necessary background to try and make some points:
I am not looking for advice, charity, or criticism. Believe me, I have beat myself up sufficiently for getting to where I am. The purpose of this article is to talk about perspective, specifically what money does to our minds, our selves, our emotions, our well-being.
Money isn’t “real”
When I think about money, I think about the Beatles and the song “Can’t Buy Me Love:”
I’ll give you all I’ve got to give
If you say you love me, too
I may not have a lot to give
But what I’ve got I’ll give to you
I don’t care too much for money
Money can’t buy me love
Satisfaction in life, true relational harmony, trust, love are enduring qualities we strive for, and sometimes we confuse these things with money, or having money. “Tell me you want the kind of things that money just can’t buy” is the key line in the song. Those key things cannot be acquired with money. Don’t get me wrong, I know that having money if you have those things makes life better – but it is the enduring things we want to strive after. They are the “real” of life.
When you don’t have enough money, the minimum to provide food and shelter and some amount of freedom of time and space and movement, it is more difficult and yet more important to pursue the things money can’t buy. Those “real” things still outrank money. When you don’t have money it is harder to think that way – but think it you must.
Yuval Noah Harari in his book “Sapiens” calls money an “imagined reality.” He says an “imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.” This is what the Beatles were hinting at, and the rest of us know at a deep level. Money can’t buy me love because love is real and money isn’t – money isn’t the currency of the “real.” It is reflected in the bumper sticker: “you can’t take it with you.”
“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined realities of gods, nations, and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google” (Harari, Sapiens).
Maintaining the distinction of what is real and what are imagined realities is of utmost importance if you are to maintain your goodness. This is true whether you are rich or poor. This is also true for all of us as we envision a future as related to issues of wealth and poverty.
Money is about value
I spent 30+ years as a pastor, and I think I was good at it. In spite of my ultimate failure that took me out of ministry, I accomplished good things and impacted many people for the better. I am proud of my ministry and…
…most of the time. When I start down the road of value regarding my life and life’s work, I get derailed.
Some of my doubt about my inherent goodness as a pastor is because of my failure. More of it is due to remuneration. I was stunned when I realized that money impacted my sense of value more than my failure.
We communicate value with a price tag. We communicate value by the money we attach to the good or service in question. We communicate value by the amount of money we pay people.
When you have money, you sometimes get the wrong idea about why you are valuable. You think you are valuable because you have or earned a lot of money. Your temptation is to think of yourself “more highly than you ought.” The opposite is the temptation when you don’t have a lot of money. You tend to look down on yourself even when you are doing really good things, or just being normal.
So strong is the narrative of money that it constantly engages in the internal conversation about inherent value. We struggle against the inner voice that says: “I am not a valuable person if I don’t have money, or can’t buy this or that.” It is exacerbated when this or that is dental work, groceries, and rent.
Understanding that our value is not tied to money is a key element of health: mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, and finally, yes, financial health. It is important to practice better value building habits that are unrelated to your paycheck and bank account.
Poor People think differently than Rich People
I think like a poor person (an American poor person) because I am. Some of that is reflected in the points above. In some ways my thinking is better than rich people’s in this regard, albeit accidentally. When you don’t have/can’t have certain things, you devalue them as an act of self-defensiveness. Honestly, I can only take so much self-flagellation, so owning a Pinarello Dogma bicycle (they start at $10,000) becomes an extravagance that I cannot afford to value. What I do in defense is say that it is immoral to spend that much money on a bicycle. It makes me feel better about riding my entry level Cannondale. I only feel a pinch of envy when I ride with my friends who have a Pinarello.
In reality, poor people struggle to see spending money on things middle class people demand as basics. I mentioned dental care as one of those things, and it is a good example. Since it is not included in health insurance, and since most dental insurance is garbage, poor people live with bad teeth. Glasses vs. Contact Lenses vs. Lasik surgery is another. Fast food vs. cooking for yourself. Organic produce vs. regular produce. Bottled water vs. tap. Renting vs. buying. At some point you give up, give in, resign yourself.
Poor people suffer not from a lack of imagination, but from an imagination that is stilted. It can see the hoped for reality, but it will forever be outside of their grasp. The danger is that many poor give in to resignation that drives many to despair. In my recent occupations listed above, I encountered the hardest working people in my adult life. They all worked long hours, often worked two jobs, most struggled to afford health insurance even though they had “good” jobs.
When you think about poor people stop thinking about how they are not as valuable or deserving as others, specifically you. Stop characterizing them as lazy, unwilling to work, looking for a handout, willing to take money from the government if it is more than minimum wage, etc. Understand that their imagination has been impaired and they are surviving the best way that they can. Understand that their thinking has been impaired by the imagined realities and imagined “orders” that come with our culture and it isn’t natural or real that they struggle with value and worth because they are poor.
I find myself in that boat, even though most would not put me in a “poor” category. I wouldn’t, but then I look at my bank account and realize it is the 5th and I can’t pay my rent until that check comes. And I struggle with my worth. I have traveled to the brink and looked over the edge saying it would be better for my wife if she could cash in the life insurance policy. Which brings us to the conversation my wife and I had about money.
(editorial imagery: at this point in the writing process, I have to get up and take a break so I can cry a bit)
My wife and I are struggling with how to be the impactful people we want to be while struggling to pay the bills and consequently questioning the activities we are involved with if they don’t produce an immediate income. So she brought a suggestion to the table this morning: Let’s do a four month mind altering activity. We both acknowledge to having a tenuous relationship with money. Our view was somewhere lost in: it is a necessary evil, a potential root of all evil, I wish we had money, stress about our money, etc. Ultimately we don’t think positively about money and it affects us adversely. We are going to use a list like the following (we also agreed it’s not perfect and we would talk and amend this list as we go) that she gleaned from an internet search on “money affirmations.”
- I use money to improve the lives of others.
- Money creates a positive impact on my life and the lives of others
- I am at peace with having a lot of money
- Money brings freedom to me and others
- I am open to receiving money in my life.
- My capacity to hold and grow money expands daily
- I am grateful to contribute money to the economy
- I am happy to pay my bills, for all they provide
- I let go of my limiting beliefs about money
- Abundance is all around me
- My wealth comes from being honest and true in everything I do
- My success is inevitable and I am on the right path
In addition to these affirmations about money, we are adding two generic affirmations about our individual worth
- I am enough
- I am not different
Our hope is that this process will unearth, expose, and move our engagement to a more healthy balance between our life pursuits and need for money to live, survive and thrive. We hope that it keeps us from avoiding money issues or despising money, or God, for our money challenges. I hope this helps some of you who may be struggling with a sense of who you are and fighting the very real ghost that is money.