The Meaning of It All

There is a fundamental disconnect that people have between their money and the way they live their day to day life. They view money as something separate and distinct, something to be managed. I sometimes use the phrase “money management” to refer to specific tasks, like balancing a checkbook or doing a budget, but I actually hate the phrase – it implies that money is something distinct and separate, something wild and uncontrollable that needs to be managed.

Over time, people have become more and more separated from the product of their work. Our ancestors on the savannah would immediately see the product of their work in the form of the berries they would gather or the animal they would kill for the evening’s meal. As time wore on, the idea of trade began to take hold – the first abstraction. We would trade the product of our work to others for other goods, so we began to look at the comparative value of our work. Soon, money appeared in some form, adding further disconnect from the actual product of our work. We would do something, get money in exchange for this work, then use that money for other necessities and possessions. Today, with credit cards, there’s even less of a tangible connection – our work is now traded for the swipe of a plastic card.

It is that disconnect, that separation, that has led to a sense of our money being completely out of our control. We spend hours in the workplace, but most of us don’t even receive a paper paycheck, let alone actual tangible goods in exchange for our work. It’s electronically deposited into our accounts. When we look at our balance, we don’t even think about our work – we think about all of the stuff this money can get for us. Is there any wonder so many of us are in debt?

I started writing The Simple Dollar to try to understand why I was in such bad financial shape and to work through the solutions available to me to get out of that precarious state. I expected that the process would take me towards learning about money management and investing and such topics. While I have learned a mountain of information on those topics, the real lesson learned was something else entirely.

The real truth is that money can’t buy happiness, only time can. If you look at every financial transaction you make through that filter, everything begins to look a lot different. Most of us spend time working so that we can afford the trappings of our daily lives. The only problem is that most of these trappings don’t really make us happy, they just serve as a balm to cover up a deeper problem.

That deeper problem is how we spend our time. Many of us spend our day working at a job that doesn’t fulfill us or satisfy us, leaving us feeling very empty at the end of a day. In exchange for that time, we get a certain amount of money, which we can use however we like.

The problem is that most of us look at what will make us feel better right now. We’ve just spent a day at work exhausted and it makes us feel a bit better to walk out into the parking lot and slip into a luxury car for the ride home. What has been forgotten, though, is that you’re spending your day in misery just so you can ride in a luxury car during the commute. You arrive home to a gorgeous home in the suburbs, but you’re too exhausted to enjoy it. You use the remaining energy you have left to do the basic steps of household care and interacting with your family, just to fall in bed and do it all over again.

That luxury car and that sweet house in the suburbs are balms. They’re like putting calamine lotion on a very bad case of the chicken pox – you might lessen the itch, but the itch is still there and it will keep coming back no matter how much lotion you put on it.

What is the itch? That itch is your dreams, what your soul tells you that you should be doing with your time. That itch is the dream that you’re not chasing so you can drive that Lexus on your dreaded morning commute. That itch is the time you spend at meetings when you’d rather be your son’s Little League coach. That itch is the realization that you’ve just sold your dreams for a house full of consumer goods that are gathering dust while you sit in a hotel room watching sports on basic cable after a business meeting wondering what has happened to your life.

The problem for most of us is that we’ve made ourselves a very nice prison cell, with bars constructed of mortgages, student loans, car payments, credit card bills, bad debts, and so on – in other words, the natural conclusion of that separation from our money. We’re stuck in place and we can’t move, so we rub on a little more balm and hope that our “ship will come in” and the bars will disappear.

What does it all mean? It means that every time we make a purchase that doesn’t have real meaning for us, we’ve added another bar to our prison cell. It means another few days of misery driving into work, wishing we could be doing something fundamentally different with our lives. It means that we stay at the office late and miss our daughter’s dance recital. It means that we leave that novel inside of us unwritten, burning us up. It means we give away everything we dreamed about our entire lives.

Maybe, this coming year, we can put off upgrading that car and instead hold onto it for a little while longer. Maybe we can cut back on our cable bills a little, or maybe even a lot. Maybe we can go through that closet in the basement and sell some of that stuff that, quite honestly, we’ll never use again. Maybe, when we’re standing in the checkout lane about to buy something we really don’t need, we can take another look at it and put it back on the shelf.

And maybe, because of that, we can get the courage to take out that keyboard and start writing that novel inside of us. Maybe we’ll have the freedom to leave the office early and help our children with their jump shot. Maybe we’ll turn off the television, go out in the garage, and start learning how to play the guitar like we always wanted to.

Maybe if we spend a few dollars less, we can step a little closer to our dreams.

That’s what this is really all about.