Money, Money, Money…It’s a Rich Man’s World. – ABBA***
As a child, I wondered at the adults who spend most of their lives doing jobs they dislike so they can grow old and do next to nothing. Now that I’m an adult, I’m beginning to understand our addiction to money.
My husband Mike and I avoided ‘real jobs’ as long as we could, attending graduate school and then doing postdoctoral research in Australia. We briefly considered making Australia our permanent home when our daughter was born, but our substantially better financial prospects in the United States prevailed.
One of my uncle’s in-laws had recently bought a tiny winery in Northern Virginia and, learning that Mike completed a viticulture program, made him her interim wine-maker the summer we returned to the States. This provided housing and income while we looked for long-term employment. We briefly considered a career in winemaking, but a winemaker only made around $28,000 a year – not a good return on one’s Ph.D. and one that severely reduced our quality-of-life expectations.
When we graduated in 1998, chemistry-based companies like Eastman and Merck were actively searching for Ph.D. chemists. When we returned to the States in 2002, even job-fairs required that attendees have “at least one year of industry experience”. As Christmas ads surfaced (in October!), I began to panic.
When the D.C. Sniper began killing random people in Northern Virginia – one murder occurred at a gas station we’d used only days before – I applied for subsidized health insurance for our family. After several trips to a social services office 40 miles away, I was told that our worth could not exceed $800 (including our engagement rings and our car) if we were to qualify for Medicaid. I did eventually secure coverage for my one-year-old daughter, though I was promptly informed I’d have to reapply if we moved counties. It was a far cry from the fully functional universal healthcare system we utilized in Australia. What were we thinking?
Wake Up You Need to Make Money – 21 Pilots
When the harvest was over and the wine bottled, we visited family for a month while continuing the job search, eventually moving in with close friends and their one-year-old.
A month later, Mike secured a second-shift job at a nearby pharmaceutical company – not exactly what we’d had in mind when we returned to the states, but it got us in the door. We bought a house down the road, moved just in time to save our friendship, and became pregnant with our second child.
There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. – Oscar Wilde
Advertising was limited in Australia, even during Christmas, and generally depicted modest living. In contrast, America bombarded us with ads for high-end things that we neither needed nor could practically afford. We were disgusted by catch phrases like “Make your friends jealous” and “Who doesn’t want to decorate their house with the most expensive furniture in the world?” But we weren’t immune to them.
At this time, we had a particularly memorable discussion over dinner with grad-school friends. Never be truthful about your current salary, they advised. Tell them you’re making at least $10,000 more than you actually are. Yes, it’s lying, but everybody does it; and, if you don’t, then you won’t make what you deserve.
I distinctly remember an ad depicting an upper-middle-class woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the prospect of readying her sizable house for the holidays. At least she has electricity, I thought. At least she doesn’t have to worry about her kids getting killed on the way to school.
Shortly thereafter, I read a news story proclaiming that lying is a sign of intelligence.1 I began to think the world was crazy, but if those were the rules of the game…
As my husband progressed to a job with better hours and compensation, we attended company team-building trips to Costa Rica, Cancun, and Hawaii and enjoyed ‘Platinum’ airline status with streamlined check-in and free food and drinks in the ‘Admirals Club’ while waiting to board our plane. Mike became accustomed to business seating and upgrades to First Class when traveling abroad for work. We felt exceedingly hypocritical about these fringe benefits, given our opposition to the exorbitant salaries and compensations of CEO’s at the expense of their employees’ average wages and lifestyles. But it’s one thing to disagree with the rules of the game and quite another to choose not to play at all.
“You can be young without money, but you can’t be old without it.” ― Tennessee Williams
As each of my children started school and I realized how much better they could read and communicate than most of their classmates, I became somewhat obsessed with catching the others up, particularly those who didn’t have stay-at-home parents or preschool. I volunteered in classrooms by manning learning centers or working with challenged kids individually. Eventually, I was working more in the schools than in my home. This frustrated my husband, particularly when the dishes or laundry piled up, which was often.
“How much are they paying you?” he would ask as I hurried out the door.
“Don’t you make enough money to support this family?” I’d retort. “Why does everything have to be about money?”
“That’s easy to say if you aren’t the one supporting this family,” He’d reply.
I know he’s right. I understand the essential needs for food, shelter, medical care, and even educational and life opportunities for one’s family. But most Americans are equally concerned about supporting the lifestyles to which we’ve become accustomed as we age 80, 90, maybe even 100 years. This long-term financial security is less a singular need than a multifaceted fear, and it robs us of our ability to truly live in the present.
First, we fear the prospect of growing old alone, either in a deteriorating house that we cannot maintain or in a government-funded senior-living establishment where we’ll generally be ignored (if not abused). Then we fear that our kids will have to spend their own hard-earned money for our care or that they won’t have the means or desire to do so. Add to this the fear that our lives will either be shortened or will be lengthy and painful because we cannot afford good medical care. That’s a lot of fear.
Ultimately it comes down to two things: the fear of death and the fear of being too poor to really live. American society expertly and decisively exploits these fears to fuel its economic engine; and, once you’re on this bandwagon, it’s hard to get off. Despite my family’s financial stability, I am often frustrated by my own break-even earnings. I know I am reaching the children I encounter, the whole reason I started doing this. Nonetheless, I can’t avoid thinking that, if they aren’t rewarded with money, my efforts must not be of value.
Some argue that this is hardly limited to the United States, and they are right. But the situation is ironically compounded in America, where excessive lifestyles and chest-beating Christianity prevail. After all, it was Jesus who said:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
“If you will be perfect, go and sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.”
Jesus instructed Christians to become benevolent nomads, not financially secure domestics, and – let’s face it –the latter predominate Sunday church services.
Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants. -Epictetus
We humans are toddlers in universal terms. We want things now, can’t fully grasp the concept of later, and fight going to sleep. That’s just the way we are. But, if we are to espouse rather than exploit the Christian faith, we have to try harder.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t make enough money to support our families or save for the future. But, in order to be truly happy (and to bring happiness to one’s world as a result), one cannot choose his life’s work solely by the extent to which it fills his bank account. It must also fill his soul – not 30 years from now but today, and even if it means a humble lifestyle.
The shift is cultural as well as philosophical, which is why Mike and I (and so many others) have been unable to make it. But we are determined to maximize our children’s chances by directing them toward meaningful life paths that are centered on inner happiness now, rather than material promises of happiness later. We are hopeful, but they have a mighty big hill to climb.
For permission to publish this article, contact Melissa B. Rooney at
1 Link to recent news story re: lying and intelligence: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/kid-liar-great-lying-proof-intelligence-young-children-shows-study-article-1.122424).
Need more convincing? View the Happy documentary: http://www.thehappymovie.com (Academy award nominee + 7 international film awards). If, as Led Zeppelin proclaims, “Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing,” then the top 3% are missing a whole lot.
More Quotes about Money:
“I was an adventurer, but she was not an adventuress. She was a ‘wanderess.’ Thus, she didn’t care about money, only experiences – whether they came from wealth or from poverty, it was all the same to her.” ― Roman Payne, The Wanderess
“Don’t think money does everything or you are going to end up doing everything for money.” ― Voltaire
“Everyday is a bank account, and time is our currency. No one is rich, no one is poor, we’ve got 24 hours each.” ― Christopher Rice
“Every job from the heart is, ultimately, of equal value. The nurse injects the syringe; the writer slides the pen; the farmer plows the dirt; the comedian draws the laughter. Monetary income is the perfect deceiver of a man’s true worth.” ―Criss Jami, Killosophy
“The philosopher Diogenes was eating bread and lentils for supper. He was seen by the philosopher Aristippus, who lived comfortably by flattering the king. Said Aristippus, ‘If you would learn to be subservient to the king you would not have to live on lentils.’
Said Diogenes:‘Learn to live on lentils and you will not have to be subservient to the king”.”
―Anthony de Mello
“No, not rich. I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing.” ―Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all – the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” ―Albus Dumbledore (J. K. Rowling)