“This obviously isn’t about the money.” Late in the fall of 2012 my father-in-law was digesting the news that Jammie and I had quit our jobs to travel the world and volunteer.
“Nope,” I replied, faking a lot more confidence than I actually felt.
There was no denying it. At least for the next 12 months, this kind of a life decision was not going to be lucrative. It was going to be a huge drain on our resources.
Here are the thoughts that gave me some peace:
Money doesn’t matter until it does – There are times when money really does matter. If you can’t take care of the basic needs of you and your dependents, you have a problem. Food, shelter, healthcare, education, retirement, emergencies – these are all things we should plan for (and as I have explained in prior posts, we had.) Saying “money doesn’t matter” to someone that does not have a chance of meeting the above needs is entitled, heartless, irresponsible and rude. BUT, simply running on the hamster wheel of fear-based greed is not a smart alternative. If you do, you will continually want more and more and you will never think you have enough. Without realizing it, you will make horrible compromises (working a soul-crushing job, ignoring your family, developing a cold, corporate disregard for basic human decency) that will make you and those around just that little bit more pathetic.
Observing the rich is a great education – My job for years after college was in fundraising. Much of my work involved spending a lot of time around wealthy people. It was an interesting life. Some of my best, most trusted friends were millionaires. I learned a lot from these very rich people. Many were very happy. Money had not skewed their values or their respect for those around them. They lived carefully, enjoyed their wealth and helped others. I recruited several of them as mentors and have made a point of keeping in touch.
With other wealthy types, the opposite was true: money emboldened all the worst in human nature. They seemed to think they could say anything they wanted because of their wealth. They cut you off in conversation. They would openly patronize people. They yelled at anyone that challenged their views. They took an insecure pleasure in reminding you of their money and power. When the markets were down they panicked like little children.
I realized, after spending six years working with this slice of American society, that having money was very clearly not the factor that decided if you belonged to the happy first group or the wretched second one. At first glance, this looks like basic conventional wisdom: money cannot buy happiness or peace. Something deeper hit me on a personal level though. Even if I agreed that more money couldn’t buy me what I wanted, my life reflected a subconscious belief that it could. I made all kinds of life compromises to stay on the career and overall life track that I thought would bring the security and prosperity I craved. Simply put, the realization that I was fooling myself led to our year-long experiment and what has, over a year later, proven to be a far better life.
How much is enough?
Some will say that the reason Jammie and I were as unconcerned with the financial ramifications of our life decision was that (compared to the wealthy), we didn’t have much money in the first place. Maybe they are right. Maybe we should have continued living the traditional, default life. Maybe we will live to regret this. But after this first year’s experience and after talking to people double my age that made similar life decisions, I doubt it.
I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this one. I’m serious. Let’s get some debate going. I don’t expect you to agree with me.