Disclaimers and confession

It’s important to remember I haven’t been selling anything in this Talking Money series. It’s all about sharing and ultimately blessing, free of charge.

I urge caution about financial advisers who represent a product, even though they can be helpful and sometimes advance a goal in common.

If you’re new to this site, I hope you’ll take time to jump back through the archives. Most of the posts were set up as exercises for either personal use or a discussion group to pursue. Many of them draw on materials others have given me as we’ve explored the interwoven threads of money, wealth, possessions, labor, and time, often from emotional, spiritual, and even ecological perspectives.

 

Again, the disclaimer. These postings won’t provide any outright shortcuts to a private vault of gold bullion. These exercises won’t solve your monetary problems once and for all — in part, because you’ll confront new situations as you move through each stage of life. The discussion will, however, likely have you feeling richer with what you already possess and liberate you to participate more fully in the colorful array of humanity as you pursue the goals you really value. Shouldn’t that be plenty?

If you’ve been following this series, thank you. I hope these have helped and that you’ve found items to pass along to others. Feel free to reblog, too, if you wish.

As for my own changing priorities?

These days my most important personal possession is my laptop. Not my car?

No, now that I no longer have to commute to the office.

The house, by the way, is a shared possession. Just for perspective.

The laptop is where I’m doing all of my writing. My correspondence, too, and much of my research. Many of my files are now there, too.

Gone are the filing cabinets and mailing supplies. I’m slimming my bookshelves. Don’t need as many clothes. I’m even looking at things and thinking I should spare my survivors the cleaning up, when it happens.

Sound common?

We were recently cleaning out corners of the loft in the barn.

The kids are off on their own. My mother-in-law has passed away. There’s still tons of junk left behind.

As we went through the boxes and piles and got ready to discard much of it, we returned to a lot of neat stuff that had been put aside for “someday.” This was like Christmas. If not now, when?

Got it?

And then there were things we even found unopened in their original packaging, some from yard sales, much of it already out-of-date.

How hard to believe this project goes back more than 30 years! The impact of two kids in my household certainly had a big impact on me, and I am seeing how much personal finance advice seems to skate right over the realities that children demand and deserve.

As always, open discussion is important.

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

Of course, it gets personal

Early on in this Talking Money series, I advised you to try assembling a Money Journal – especially those parts about the subtle lessons you picked up about money issues, including possessions and work.

I also advised keeping close track of everything you spend, down to the penny, and of coming up with a spending plan that genuinely reflects where YOU want to go in life, forget what advertising and the folks around you try to push you.

If you’ve kept a notebook by your side and jotted down your responses as you’ve been reading these Talking Money postings, you now have a rather intense journal, which can help in the this exercise.

Try to write your own Money Autobiography. Consider what you would do with your life — or have done differently, if money were no object.

What might you do now?

As you review your spending, ask yourself:

Is my outlook on money and its uses changing? In what ways?

If you have been exploring these issues with a money-buddy or discussion circle, compare your responses.

Is my spending itself changing? Am I spending less but receiving more satisfaction? Have I found areas where I’ve chosen to spend more?

Now that you’ve considered ways that spiritual traditions can shape your use of wealth, reflect on your own faith community and ask: ”Would I now be comfortable having the equivalent of the historic Quaker overseers inspect my finances, especially if they could suggest ways to assist my budgeting and goal-setting?

At a basic level:

Am I more open to sharing my stories about money? Do I see possibilities of discussion that are neither “crass” nor “tasteless”?

 

As you continue to align your life, your spending, and your deepest values, you become freer to set long-term financial goals and monitor your progress. Areas to explore may include:

  • Consumer spending. How can I express my values through my surroundings, home, clothing, car, and food?
  • Gifts and giving.
  • A legacy, to pass on.
  • Retirement and security.
  • Education and culture.
  • Entertainment and sports.
  • Pets.
  • Hobbies.
  • Travel.
  • Traditions and celebrations.
  • Empowering others.
  • Assisting family.
  • Collections and their care.
  • Toys for adults.

Yes, don’t forget to play.

Whatever your line of inquiry, we would hope you never lose sight of your individual “adult toy.” In our discussions, everyone’s faces light up with animation as they confess their favorite playful use of income. The child comes forth in delight.

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

 

Wealth interconnects in many unseen ways

To acknowledge money as part of our spiritual quest means having faith as we address seemingly impossible considerations in our use of the resources entrusted to us. We can now place our wealth in relation to:

  • Implications in regard to the Third World.
  • America’s own maturing, rather than expanding, economy.
  • The macro-economic/micro-economics dilemma, in which strategies that benefit you individually may short-change the commonwealth.
  • Poverty, both in our own localities and around the globe.
  • Children and their allowances.
  • Environmental impact.
  • Frugality and “living without a salary.”
  • Being bound up enslaved one way or another in a violent society.
  • Ways our possessions instigate repression of the have-nots.
  • Being free to maximize our potential as human beings.
  • Striking balances in which everyone — young and old, here and abroad — maximizes his or her potential.

All this and much more! You still think we shouldn’t be looking closely at these things?

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

Where’s your satisfaction level?

One ambitious exercise involves drafting a “satisfaction statement.”

After all, how will you know when you’ve reached your destination if you haven’t defined where you’re headed? Satisfaction, rather than smugness.

Whether you have little or much, you cannot gain control over your accounts until you feel free in living with what you already possess. Indeed, financial counselors insist that no investment strategy will be successful unless you are already comfortable with your existence.

 

Look around your home and then your workplace.

Just what have you acquired?

Where do you place your values?

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

Invest in authentic value

Money engenders comfort, food and shelter, medical care, education, and opportunities for personal and community growth. But it cannot grant love, happiness, a sense of contentment, or a relationship with the Divine. In many ways it can entrap you, and divide you from a common humanity.

In many impoverished parts of the world, joyful community exists, perplexing wealthier foreign visitors. As one East African Quaker told visiting Americans, “Because we have so little, we can be very generous.”

As Jacob Needleman remarks: “Human beings are built to be in intentional relation with each other not only as biosocial mechanisms, but as creatures within whom there is the seed of an openness toward the source of all Being.”

Rather than freeing you, a blind pursuit of affluence can close you off from such awareness and unfolding. Though currency can tempt you with the promise of many pleasures, it cannot buy you wisdom or the pleasures of reflection. It cannot buy you the Presence of God. It cannot buy you atonement or redemption. These are gifts to be enjoyed and shared in your spiritual fellowship. A cardinal sings at the window of our meetinghouse and then flies away. You repay in gratitude. We, too, see the smile on your face.

One thing about any financial future is that it is full of uncertainties. Nobody can accurately predict the course of the marketplace — not for long. Paradoxically, the more you try to be economically independent, the more vulnerable you become: you lose the net of community that sustains you.

As you invest and spend, ask: “How can I make a difference with what I have?”

 

Labor, capital, and raw materials come together in many fashions. Are there processes of lending that would yield a higher return than banks would pay, while still allowing the borrower to access funds at a lower rate than the bank would charge?

What imaginative financial interactions can we create to assist one another in achieving our dreams?

Whatever your denomination, ask how the type of work you do influences the way you worship. Then ask how it becomes an obstacle.

While American society is overburdened by a high productivity that concentrates on the creation of consumerism, it also overlooks many simple things it could produce to enhance life throughout the Third World: water pumps, sanitation, and access to markets, for starters. How can we apply relatively simple technologies to improve common conditions, and how can everyone benefit? Solutions that worked for the United States, Europe, and Japan may be inappropriate for much of the rest of the world; indeed, in seeking to modify economic goals in the Third World, we may also discover more efficient structures for the industrialized countries as well.

Wendell Berry, in a “New Afterward” to the revised edition of his The Hidden Wound, looks profoundly into issues that are not being addressed in our American political debates:

“The root of our racial problem in America is not racism. The root is in our inordinant desire to be superior — not to some inferior or subject people . . . but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything — of ourselves, of each other, or of our country. We did not enslave African blacks because they were black, but because their labor promised to free us of the obligations of stewardship. . . . They were economically valuable and militarily weak.”

Berry, who is widely regarded for his essays pleading for ecology and responsible agriculture, finds that racial slavery imposed a heavy price on his own white Kentucky ancestors as well. When we attempt to separate our mortal and spiritual sides, as we do when we attempt to be economically and socially superior, we return to our earlier “render unto Caesar” dilemmas.

“And it should not be necessary to point out the connection between the oppression of women and the general contempt for household work,” Berry observes. “It is well established among us that you may hold up your head in polite society with a public lie in your mouth or other people’s money in your pocket or innocent blood on your hands, but not with dishwater on your hands or mud on your shoes.”

Remarkably, Berry’s line of thought leads him into areas we, too, have examined in this series: the importance of quality work and meaningful community. Here, then, is another answer to the LIBERTY stamped on our American coins!

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

Look for real opportunities

My wife and I prefer to work with small-scale, decentralized enterprises, whenever possible. We like to support greater individual responsibility and opportunity. For example, my family banks at a locally owned savings institution three blocks up the street and at a credit union. Not only are the interest rates higher and the fees lower than those at larger commercial banks, the officers are more involved in our communities. They have a president here, rather than a general manager who reports to an assistant vice president whose president reports to a vice president somewhere else in the world.

 

When we could no longer put off remodeling the kitchen any longer, we found a local building supplier was not only far more helpful and responsive than the highly advertised “big box” operator, but also more economical. Stopping at roadside stands keeps more of the money on the farm, as well as providing fresher produce and face-to-face conversation.

Furthering “high-touch” personal interaction within our increasingly high-tech society is one way of reducing hierarchies, rather than adding to them. Concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, accompanied by corporate merger fever, endangers the very independence and democratic decision-making we cherish.

One of the challenges facing contemporary American society is in creating opportunities for meaningful work for everyone, including youth who too often are excluded from activity that contributes to the common good. How much seemingly senseless violence today arises from a disconnection with a meaningful place in society and from an outlook that overvalues possession, especially status symbols, at the expense of integrity and mutuality?

To survive as a society, we need opportunities for each person to build equity in the system itself, in owning “a piece of the pie,” where everyone can share responsibility and accountability in the good of all. In addition, the workplace itself must be ennobled, from a “rivothead hell” where the reward is “only” a wage into a laboratory or a kitchen where every human being is appreciated and helpful. With our money-buddies, we can examine our own experiences within this structure — and on possible small-scale responses. Once again, the discussion group can ponder new avenues of action, suitable for our era.

In mid-nineteenth century London, Friends upheld the value of individual labor by subsidizing the income of seamstresses and other poverty-level workers, so that they might continue their craft in independence and dignity. Similar lessons and challenges remain. Can we respond?

Again, the rubber hits the road.

As Arjun Makhijani insists:

“Self-reliant communities are the basic units of a peace system. The difficulty is that ‘community’ today does not exist in the sense of a non-exploitative, non-violent, nurturing unit. As we look at violence in the home or in the streets and between religious groups, races, and landlords and landless workers in villages, it is evident that today communities do not exist in the sense to which we aspire in a peace system. From wife-beating and dowry murders to closure of factories by corporations seeking only to move to areas with cheaper labor, to city governments so helpless they compete with others for these corporations to come in even though that means the loss of jobs in other areas, we do not have the communities upon which to build self-reliance.”

Who would have ever thought of the family as a unit of economic guerrilla resistance?

Or of a local congregation as a center of labor reform?

And yet these are within our realm of possibilities. Again, we are reminded of the ways these issues interconnect, and of importance of talking to one another, to encourage each other to the highest goals with the resources at our disposal.

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

Local, local, local

When we step away from the assumptions of the surrounding society, we soon perceive many hidden costs to our existence. We detect how inextricably money is woven through the affairs of post-primitive or non-tribal society. Our civilization itself might be inconceivable without the extraordinary exchanges that currency facilitates. Our universities, laboratories, government, factories, agriculture, transportation, and health systems are all built on opportunities that money permits.

The more far-flung and less locally focused our economies become, the more likely we are to lose sight of mutuality: we become blinded at the bottom line. That’s why it remains crucial that we find ways to take a regular timeout from the demands of industrial civilization. A year or even a regular day of true sabbatical will release you from preoccupations and an encroaching bondage to consumerism; fasting, too, or journeys into wilderness can renew you in freedom and wonder. Rather than demanding a forfeiture of one’s wealth, as commonly perceived, the concept of sacrifice instead imposes an awareness that makes all the resources at our disposal holy and sacred; they are gifts worthy of thanksgiving and of being shared, “equipping God’s people for works of service” (Ephesians 4:12). This kind of sacrifice becomes an occasion of celebration.

Yes, we have serious issues ahead concerning Internet versus big boxes and local retail. But then there are yard sales!

The bottom line?

All economics are ultimately local.

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

A microcosm of transformation

Those who have been using this Talking Money series as a guidebook for group discussion probably think they’re just about to wrap it up. But, folks, now you can see you’re just getting started.

Let’s consider two historic icons of financial success, Donald Trump and Howard Hughes. Despite his colossal bankruptcy and ego, many Americans and the popular media held Trump in awe, bedazzled by his “Art of the Deal” frenetic game executed with no regard to ethical outcome. Nearby is the fiscal tightness of Hughes, the billionaire investor who wound up fearing everything.

I’ll throw another model into the mix, Lisa Johnson’s self-help book, How To Marry a Millionaire — complete, I’m not kidding, with dinner recipes.

In the upside-down realm of spiritual faith, however, stands Jim Corbett and his goatwalking times of sabbatical-reflection. There, too, are Malden Mills president Aaron Feuerstein, who kept employment in the community after his textiles mill burned, and developer Jim Rouse’s “moral leadership that swept traditional barriers aside,” as longtime neighbor Padriac Kennedy saw it.

 

A sharpened awareness of your values will enable you to set goals for personal fulfillment. As you apply these goals to your spending plan, you may begin reducing or even eliminating expenses that don’t contribute to your fulfillment.

There are other reasons, too, for defining and upholding your personal values. It’s about a lot more than cash.

Would you want someone with an “easy come, easy go” outlook handling your retirement nest egg? If you think that your values regarding money are unimportant, think again. They are.

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

Face to face, right in front of us

Concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, accompanied by corporate raider fever and hedge fund mentalities, can endanger the very independence and democratic decision-making we cherish.

My preference would aim at reducing hierarchies, rather than adding to them.

One of our earlier exercises began with pennies. Put them aside as “pennies from heaven” dedicated to helping others. Where do you choose to apply them? Can you get others to participate with you? How do you feel when you release the pennies to the project?

A young Friend once rose in Meeting for Worship to speak of ways his father viewed his work desk as a daily altar, a place of opportunities for holy service. Are there ways you, too, can transform your own work station into similar service, beyond what you are paid to do? Sometimes, the service may seem insignificant — except to that one person whose life was touched. Other times, it may be on a grand scale.

When news stories reported the death of James W. Rouse — a visionary developer who created the “new town” of Columbia, Maryland, and whose urban centerpieces such as Baltimore’s Harborplace and Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace revitalized major American downtowns – what came through was the scope of his vision. Rather than build structures, he wanted to enhance community. He learned to accept a personal pain when each effort inevitably fell short of his goal. After his death, one friend and Columbia neighbor, Padriac Kennedy, related,

“Jim Rouse liked to quote Daniel Burnham’s famous lines: ‘Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with every growing insistency.”

Kennedy then added: “Columbia is very proud of Jim Rouse. He was a creator of community, a champion of the poor, an uncommon man.”

Initially, we noticed that his surname was one of the old Maryland Quaker families and that he had been born in the vicinity of an old Quaker stronghold on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. But more telling was this: he had, at one time, been involved with the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. He spent his retirement years working full-time to build affordable housing — an effort that led, in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood, to job-training, crime-prevention, and school and health-care improvements as well, as the New York Times noted in its obituary.

 

When other news stories reported on a devastating blaze that swept through a historic millyard in Methuen, Massachusetts, many observers expected the event would give company owners an excuse to close up shop and move operations overseas. Instead, everyone was startled when Malden Mills president Aaron Feuerstein announced his intentions of keeping everyone on the payroll until the factory was back on line. “That decision has to be grounded in religion,” I remember mumbling at the time. And then came Feuerstein’s explanation, a Yiddish saying from his father, one that translates roughly, “When the going gets rough, be a man!”

In subsequent interviews, Feuerstein confessed his surprise at being hailed as a hero for simply doing what he believed was right and for his loyalty to his workers and his community. One value leads to another.

One of the challenges facing contemporary American society is in creating opportunities for meaningful work for everyone, including youth who too often are excluded from activity that contributes to the common good. How much seemingly senseless violence today arises from a disconnection with a meaningful place in society and from an outlook that overvalues possession, especially status symbols, at the expense of integrity and mutuality?

As you stick to your Spending Plan, keep these perspectives in mind:

How much income would be “enough” or put you on “Easy Street”?

What would it really take for you to live on?

What would it take to endow yourself, as a trust or a foundation?

When you look at advertising, what do YOU see? What messages do you get? Do you unconsciously buy into them? Do you see them as Caesar’s, rather than God’s?

What are YOUR priorities and goals?

With practice, you will be empowered to live below your means — and live well, at that. The difference between your income and your expenses can be saved, invested, and even applied to projects you value. Your Money Operating System then becomes a microcosm of transforming the world.

American poet and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder has thought deeply about these issues, especially the place of meaningful work and labor:

“I asked myself a lot: what is the real work? I think it’s important, first of all, because it’s good to work — I love work, work and play are one. And that all of us will come back again to hoe in the ground, or gather wild potato bulbs with digging sticks, or hand-adze a beam, or skin a pole, or scrape a hive — we’re never going to get away from that. We’ve been living a dream that we’re going to get away from it, that we won’t have to do it. Put that out of our minds. . . . That work is always going to be there. It might be stapling papers, it might be typing in the office. But we’re never going to get away from that work, on one level or another. . . . And that’s the  real work: to make the world as real as it is, and to find ourselves as real as we are within it.”

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.

Is your car a fashion statement?

Clearly defined goals provide important clues that help you express personal values. Once again, this involves acknowledging the emotions affecting your Money Operating System. Paradoxically, naming your values will help you define your goals even more clearly, and that will point you toward inner harmony.

As we’ve noted.

Another way of taking a possession to reveal your personal values is by looking at your wheels.

What kind of car(s) do you drive?

Own or lease? Company perk?

Did you get it new or used?

Domestic or foreign? Why?

Color? Size? MPG?

If it’s imported, did you consider that nation’s record on human rights or treatment of women?

What do these factors say about you — and your values?

Cars can be even be seen as a fashion statement!

You can take this even further and compile a history of the cars you have driven. A minivan, for instance, usually says “married, with children.” A sporty model, “fun” or “dreamy.” A Mercedes, “wealthy.” As for red, just remember police officers with radar!

I met one man who had read a profile of who owned station wagons just like his — owners who turned out to be middle-aged suburban professionals, just like him — and it was enough to make him run out and trade it in. “I wanted to be myself,” he said, “so I bought the hot Mercury” — the sizzler he remembered from his teen years!

One benefit of having a Third World connection is in the twist it gives exercises like this one. We Americans assume we’ll get in our own auto and take off wherever we want. When you have a “sister” congregation elsewhere, however, you can begin to see things differently — especially when your friends in a place like Cuba all get in the back of an open-air truck whenever they go anywhere, singing praises and laughing. Somehow, you can feel you’re the one who’s missing out when you get in your car all alone.

Remember, it’s #TalkingMoney.