28 February 2011

Let's Talk About Money!

In the mid-1990's, there was a great deal of hand wringing and pearl clutching over the perceived high divorce rates.When social scientists dug a little deeper into the nature of "irreconcilable differences" they found that problems with money were the primary reason couples filed for divorce (followed closely by sexual incompatibility). After being sold the idea that love was the only required ingredient for a successful relationship, I was fascinated that something as mundane, base and possibly the root of all evil could be the source of so much marital discord.

I read many books on personal finance and marriage. Almost all of the books were written by Christian authors complete with biblical references to God's way of managing money. There are many stories in the Christian bible that describe how to be both godly and a good manager of money. For example, the book of Proverbs (verse 31) describes the ideal wife as a talented businesswoman who looks after real estate, servants and the household finances.

While the advice and information given in these books was sound, it left Pagans (and those of other faiths) to explore independently what relationship their religious/spiritual life had with their money, if any. We are left to answer our own questions about personal finance such as: What are appropriate resources for Pagans to find inspiration and advice about finances? Do our gods care about money? Do our gods want us to be prosperous and successful? Can Pagans have an authentic religious life and be financially sound? Unfortunately, noting the dearth of financial books or articles for Pagans, our community seems to have chosen to ignore money.

So, what is money?

          mon-ey [muh-nee] noun: any article or substance used as a
          medium of exchange, measure of wealth, or means of

The dictionary would have us believe that money is this innocuous tool, streamlining our everyday transactions and simplifying our ability to buy and sell goods and services. This is the practical view of money which the financial how-to books are devoted. We know however, from famous authors like Suze Orman, that our relationship with this "medium of exchange" is fraught with emotional baggage.

Our ancestors, our culture, our media, our celebrities and heroes have all taught us how to think and feel about money. This is the psychological and philosophical view of money. We've all heard popular quotes about money; the Christian bible tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil, but George Bernard Shaw tells us it's the lack of money that causes all the problems. We've heard that money can't buy you happiness or love, but it will cost you your marriage if you don't have it or don't manage it well. A fool and his money soon part ways, there is a sucker born every minute and William Jennings Bryan asserts that no one can earn a million dollars honestly. Cicero warns us that endless money forms the sinews of war, while Thomas Robert Malthus would argue that poverty and hunger bring the four horsemen to a people's doorstep. The Greeks spoke rather contemptuously of money; Plato wrote that both wealth and poverty create discontent, while Sophocles wrote that there was nothing in the world more demoralizing than money. Perhaps my favorite quote is from Dorothy Parker who said, "If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to."

The most interesting part of the dictionary definition above is its acknowledgment of money as a measure of wealth. Psychologists tell us that humans are social animals and that the need to be accepted is a primary motivator for behavior. In other words, people will do almost anything to find, gain and maintain acceptance in a social network. Money and other indicators of wealth determine, or at least heavily influence one's social status and opportunities. This need for acceptance is what makes us vulnerable to clever marketing techniques as we all want to put our best "face" forward.

We get so many mixed messages about money, and we know that money greatly influences our spot on the collective totem pole;  is it any wonder we're so conflicted about money?

The most helpful framework for thinking about money and your relationship to it is contained in the bestselling book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. The book was originally intended as Mr. Dominguez's early retirement plan (he successfully retired at age 31) but was expanded to be useful for anyone interested in seeking financial independence. The book in its entirety is worth reading, but the most important concept is:

Money = Life Energy

Provided that you aren't living off a trust fund or lottery winnings, money is what you get in exchange for your life energy. According to Your Money or Your Life, your life energy is your allotment of time on earth; the hours of your life. When you shift your definition of money, not only does money become more precious, but priorities on how to spend, save and invest your life energy come into sharp relief.

We will discuss calculating your real salary and some techniques for tracking your cash flow next week, but for now, here are some questions to consider:

  • Are you at peace with money?
  • Is your life energy being utilized doing work you believe in?
  • If you died tomorrow, would you be satisfied with the contribution you have made to the world?
  • Are you happy with the amount of life energy you have left over to spend with family, friends or pursuing other interests?
  • Are the things you buy/own worth the life energy you expended to acquire and maintain them?
  • Do you come home from work feeling energized and full of life?
  • Does your life have integrity; do all the parts of your life--work, relationships, values, expenditures, lifestyle--fit together?
  • Do you suspect others take advantage of your ignorance of money?
  • Do you feel anxious, insecure or out of control?
  • If you lost your job, do you have enough savings to support your normal living expenses for three months? six months? or more?

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