Editor’s Note: Our main office in Delray Beach, Florida is shut down due to Hurricane Matthew, and Bill is driving up the coast to Baltimore… But before getting on the road he took some time to update the following classic Diary essay.
What should you do if you are running out of time and money?
This is the question we get from readers over 50…over 60…and sometimes over 70.
We baby boomers were famously ‘na…na…na…live for today.’ Now, it’s tomorrow. And many of us — often through no fault of our own — are having trouble making ends meet.
At the Diary, we write about the world of money. About economic policy and how it affects you.
But what if, in your world of money, you are running short? What should you do to get more?
Check under the seat cushions? Rob a bank?
What really matters…
You are 70. You have no money. What do you do?
Sell your body for medical experiments? Invent a new app?
Try a sophisticated trading system or an expensive investment program, hoping to get rich quick?
We don’t know anything more than anyone else on the subject. We don’t have any secrets. But after thinking about it, we wonder if you really need much money, anyway.
‘Bill,’ said a colleague recently. ‘It’s crazy for you to be giving advice about money. You don’t care about money.’
He’s right. We don’t even like money. So it’s a little odd that we would be giving advice on the subject.
But what we’re about to argue is that you don’t need much money…and you may be better off without it.
Why? Well, in an empty coffer, you may have the greatest treasure of all — the hope of happiness.
Yes, dear reader: Blessed be the poor. They still believe that they could be happy…if only they had more money!
This, of course, is an illusion that only the poor can afford. Rich people know better. They have too much money. They know it cannot buy them happiness. That’s why the suicide rate in Aspen is three times the national average.
But how lucky are the poor! They still have hope!
They might win the lottery. They might get a raise or a better job. They might inherit money from a rich uncle. Money is always close at hand.
So, happiness must be too…only a funeral or a lottery ticket away.
Let’s consult the philosophers. Let’s go back to Democritus, Epicurus, Zeno, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Lucretius (not to mention Jesus of Nazareth!).
They argued — albeit in different ways — that what matters in life has little to do with wealth or status. What matters (at least according to Plato’s description) is: courage, wisdom, justice, and temperance.
We would add beauty and dignity. And a good wine. A good cook. And a good view. Nowhere on the list is a Rolex or a house in Malibu.
The nice thing about Plato’s list…as well as the whole Epicurean/Stoic/ascetic creed…is that it doesn’t cost much!
As many philosophers and religious teachers have said, wealth may get in the way of the things that matter. It may distract you and reduce your real happiness.
We are not ducking the question. We are just putting it in context.
If you want more money, you first have to understand what you want it for…and how it might affect your life.
Our goal is not to ‘come to terms’ with financial misery. Nor is it to submit to poverty — even happily. Instead, we want to master poverty…to live better, even in poverty, than the typical rich person.
As Nietzsche put it, we aim to ‘set to dancing with arms and legs.’ And for that we need context.
A necessary philosophy
We left Paris early this morning. It was still dark. It’s that time of year.
The days grow short…and damp…and dwindle down. The sidewalk was slick with decaying leaves. The hint of approaching death makes the dying autumn days especially rich, like the last bites of a favourite dessert.
And over Paris this morning shone a ‘super moon’ that must have set hearts yearning for something…
But what? Romance? Love?
Pity the poor tin heart — like an empty trash bin — that looked at that full moon lighting the slate roofs of Paris…and wished for money.
Money is our beat at the Diary. We will stick with it.
But money means nothing without philosophy, without context. Beyond what we need to survive, money has no importance.
If you don’t have money, you need to be able to pass up luxury, gluttony, and self-indulgence with your nose in the air…not with your shoulders bent in defeat and self-disgust.
And for that you need philosophy. Or at least aesthetics.
All people — unless they are saints or mental defectives — want to feel good about themselves. That is their primary aim in life and the only reason they are interested in money (save the minimal amount for survival).
Since we are a competitive species, we feel good about ourselves in direct measure as we feel superior to those around us.
Being thin is no virtue in a famine. It is only by being surrounded by fat people that it gives you any advantage.
Likewise, if we are smart, we get no edge from it unless others are dumb. And if we are rich, it is only meaningful to the extent that others are less rich.
But so clever is our race that we are able to find superiority almost everywhere.
If we are fat, we redefine the corpulent spectrum so that we are ‘pleasingly plump’, while others are ‘unhealthy’ and ‘too thin’.
If we are dumb, we focus on our ‘common sense’, as opposed to the uncommon nonsense of the ‘pointy-headed intellectuals’ (to borrow a phrase from George Wallace).
And what if we have no money?
Then spending money is vulgar, shallow, and pointless!
Pity the rich
One person feels superior because of what he owns. Another for what he does not. Still another for what he knows. And another for what he knows not.
One feels superior from who he is, while another measures his stature by who he is not.
But the one who feels superior to them all is the one who owns nothing, knows nothing, and is a complete nobody. He is free from the vanities that clutter others’ lives!
In 10th-century Europe having little became fashionable. People gave up their possessions in search of a life of contemplation.
They wanted to get away from the distractions and temptations of everyday life so they could live in a purer way…in simplicity and godliness.
So great was the demand for poverty that the monasteries and convents could scarcely keep up with it. They had to build new ones all over the continent.
Today, poverty is not as à la mode as it was in the 10th century, but it may be coming back into style. Not that we will worry about it.
We just need to recognise that there are people with little or no money who live well. And there are people with a lot of money who live badly.
Our goal is to live better. We will take as a challenge and a point of pride to do so without spending money.
We will have less, but we will treasure our frugality as a man might value a collection of old cars or well-developed biceps.
Then — as our days decline, our appetite wanes, and our energy subsides with the tides of life — our treasure of nothing increases, for we will need less and less.
A bed. A book. A candle. What more could we want?
Yes, we are talking about a program of radical deprivation and happy pennilessness. Our goal would be to feel superior to rich people…without having any money.
We will wear our newfound love of poverty as a badge of honour…!
For Markets and Money, Australia