I recently had the most eye-opening conversation with a loved one. Have you ever known someone for a long time, are sure you understand them thoroughly, and then one day they tell you something that makes you go, “Really??? You really think that?” Maybe you always kind of knew something like that was in them and just steered away from it in conversation, or maybe it totally just came out of left field. In either case, the new information forces you to look at them through an entirely new lens. The color and texture of their portrait in your mind has changed. It is amazing what a simple revelation can do!
So, here’s how it happened. We were talking about taxes and what types of things they should cover. A recurring theme from her side was that she shouldn’t have to pay for anyone else’s problems; it is her hard-earned money and no one else is entitled to it (“entitlements” was a word frequently repeated). I raised the issue of health care and the different ways it is paid for around the world. I proposed the possibility of blowing up our current system, removing the insurance part of the deal, letting the government take over (scary thought, I know), and guaranteeing “free” health care for everyone in the country. This, of course, would mean using our taxes—most likely a large increase in them—to pay for it. [WRITER’S NOTE: This topic of taxes and health care is rich journaling territory, as it speaks directly to our values. And now that it is in my head, don’t be surprised if the whole letter next week is about it. See how easy it is to come up with a topic—ha!]
The less interesting part of her reply to my proposal was the typical response of a conservative person to a liberal idea, essentially, “It’s an admirable idea. You figure out a way to make it work and, more importantly, a way to pay for it without taking any more of my money, and I am in.” As I pressed her more on why, if the spiritual leaders that most of the world’s people claim to worship urged us to do so, we are not ALL morally obligated to find a way to get everyone taken care of, I could feel her defenses rising higher and higher. The tension was palpable.
Finally, she said in a panic, “If China calls back the debts we owe, we would ALL be in huge trouble and NONE OF US would have the health coverage that you are talking about!” This was a totally new angle to me, and I have to admit to being a bit stunned by it. “None of us?” I asked. “NONE!” She said it as a fact. There was genuine alarm in her tone. I explained how the wealthy people have, since our country’s inception, always had enough. They have never been without plenty of food and the best health care. “No matter what happens,” I said,“the wealthy will be alright.” I could actually hear comfort and reassurance in my tone. Her fearful, doubt-filled voice responded meekly, “Do you think so?”
Now might be a good place to give you a little background on the socioeconomic history of my companion. She is a White woman who was raised in a comfortable, middle class home in a comfortable, middle class town. Her parents were never out of work, and they paid for her college education. She married an upwardly mobile White man, and they slowly and steadily increased their wealth—paying for their own children’s educations as well–to the point that now, in retirement, they own multiple homes across the country and have clearly moved beyond the middle class. To any neutral onlooker, it is clear that she will never want for anything financially for the rest of her life. And, much to her credit, she continues to share generously with her family.
So, why the pronounced fear of losing her money to the whims of Chinese financiers and her fierce protection of her tax dollars from the folks she believes are stealing from her by using “entitlements”? Hmmm…..
Talking with her left my mind spinning with theories and questions about this strange relationship between a woman and her money. While it may seem strange to me, I also realize it is probably not at all unique. This mentality of scarcity, of lack—as though, “If I share my money with others, I will never see it again and it won’t be replaced by other money,”—could be a familial thing. It could certainly be a generational thing. After all, this woman’s parents grew up during the Great Depression, and the lessons learned of necessity by that generation would undoubtedly have been passed down to her.
There is likely also something political about it. After all, isn’t that wariness and protection of one’s resources rooted in the very word “conservative”? I also think there is this “You pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” mentality that exists especially in people who already have money, and you can argue over whether that mentality is how they were able to get the money in the first place, or if the mentality is simply a way to justify a stinginess when it comes to sharing their money with others, whether through taxes or charitable donations.
I still can’t figure out the thing about limits, though. That is, Is there a dollar value high enough in her bank account such that she would finally feel like she would be great even if the country had a recession, or high enough that she wouldn’t mind if her tax dollars went to help others who haven’t been as lucky as she has? Or is it simply hard-wired that no matter how much she has, she will always have that scarcity mentality? And, paradoxically, could her swelling bank account make her even more protective of her dollars? After all, you always hear of those studies that say it is poor people who are most likely to share what they have with others, not the wealthy. Is it because poor people know how hard it is to have so little that makes them more likely to give to someone else who needs a hand? This is complicated!
Even as I try to come up with a clear explanation of my own relationship with money and how much is enough for me, I find inconsistencies that muddle the theory. One of my grandfathers was known as a real penny-pincher, and I can definitely tell that I inherited that, either genetically or socially passed. I do not like to spend money, especially on myself (even though I secretly delight in gifts of new stuff). While I have definitely given to causes, I also feel that dread of “Can I afford to give? Will there be enough left?” scarcity mentality when the doorbell rings or the donation basket comes around. I give, but not tons, and I usually do so with both a little twinge of worry and a heavy dose of guilt, knowing I could give more. In so many ways, I feel like a cheapskate. And yet, I am the first in line to vote for a levee or referendum that increases my taxes to put money into schools. And when my friend challenges me to come up with the answers to make quality health care accessible to everyone, I tell her that I don’t mind one bit if my taxes go way up to do it. I suppose I am like, “Take it all off the top—from my wages for taxes—and then let me figure out how to make it work with the rest.” Of course, I would like to have more than I do now—much more, even—but I am surviving in the middle right now. There is not much money for things like vacations or other extravagances, but there is plenty of food in the fridge.
I guess what I have always wanted is to have just enough so that I don’t have to think about it. You know, just up to the point where my penny-pinching tendencies wouldn’t have to kick in. I would like to be able to donate more than I do now and still have the food in the fridge. And while vacations and extravagances would be nice, I would be okay if I was always had as much as I do now.
So, maybe enough for me would actually be if I made more than I do now so that my taxes and donations could go up and I would be left with just as much for the bills as I have now. That is being greedy, I know, because of course I could survive on less (billions of people around the world prove that). But, within the conditions of my spoiled American life and what I have become accustomed to, I will claim that as my baseline. I know my ambitious mind would drive for more if more were readily available, but I am okay with what I have. It allows for my dueling natural tendencies to co-exist: the penny-pincher and the guy who is eager to give in order to help others rise. That is enough for me.
How about you? How much money do you need to feel psychologically comfortable? The outward signs of comfort may be what you are imagining, but remember that we are really talking about a level of comfort in your mind with what you have, living without fear and without all your defenses up around the issue of your money. Where is that level for you? How would you categorize your current financial situation? Do you have as much as you need? I hope the answer to that is yes. Now, do you have as much as you want? Of course, we all probably want to be billionaires, but within reason, how much more do you want in order to feel the kind of comfort you usually imagine? Is your general mentality one of lack or abundance? How generous are you with your money? Do you feel that twinge of worry, like me, every time you open up your pocketbook? Is it a justified worry based on your situation, or are you actually like my friend who has plenty but worries anyway? How do you give? Are you someone who donates to causes that matter to you? Do you focus your generosity on family members? Do you begrudge the government for taking your money for taxes? Would you be fine with your taxes being higher? Do you live within your means, or do you outspend your resources? How does that play into your view on how much is enough? If you are a big spender, do you think there is any amount that you would agree is enough for you? How much fear do you have of losing your money and the status that comes with it? How extreme of a situation would it take for you to truly no longer have enough? How likely is that to occur? Does your fear of that loss match up to its probability? If you gave more—in whatever way—would you fear more? Why do we protect so fiercely? Are the wealthy generally the most protective of their money? If so, why? Is there some amount that you could name that, for almost anyone, ought to be enough? How about for you? Leave me a reply and let me know: How much is enough for you?
May you be wealthy in Love and Peace,
P.S. If today’s letter helped you to look differently at your relationship with money and how protective you are of it, please pass it on. Share the gift of self-knowledge!