Say to David Rockefeller, “I have money,” and he will think you mean something entirely different. That is, if you also dress the part. He would not for a moment think, “Seventy cents.” But then neither would many New York artists. – LeRoi Jones, “Expressive Language”
Out of the blue, I asked one money discussion group: “Imagine that someone gave you $1,000, tax-free. What would you do?” I added a kicker, “Go ahead, put yourself first. What do you need? What do you secretly desire?”
We all had outstanding debts or minor projects we could tackle. Around the circle, it was basic expenses. No room for self-indulgence, apparently. Not even an Individual Retirement Account deposit. So I upped the ante: “Then contemplate $10,000.”
Again, any number of necessities came to mind. Pay off the car or credit card. Indulge in a big vacation. At that time, that figure might have even cover a house down payment. Still, the amount was well within normal middle-class vision. Nobody even mentioned remodeling the kitchen or adding an extra bedroom.
Boy, was I was naive! So I upped the ante to a target I thought might tempt some to make a leap toward financial independence. “Move on to $100,000.” When one participant laughed and said it would be a wash, considering the Ivy League tuition aid his family would lose, I began to sense that financial independence was a low-priority value in this circle. At the time, rates of return at 10 percent were possible, and you could purchase a decent home in my part of the country for around 100 grand. The figure was also more than five times the amount I’d survived on during my sabbatical a few years earlier; admittedly, I’d lived extremely frugally and was now looking for an encore that might sustain me to a next career round five years down the road, building on my free-time efforts in the interim. Still, our discussion was in the range of real-life expenses. Getting out from under the mortgage, for instance.
So I raised the ante again, to $1 million, hoping this would spur some action. I was, however, single, leasing a small townhouse, and talking to married homeowners – some with children approaching college. Would any of them quit their jobs at this level?
A few were tempted but still hesitated. Rather than pointing toward a level where we might see ourselves free of financial burdens, the exercise had instead showed just how many layers of goals most of us are struggling through.
Indeed, my money buddy Randy approached me afterward, with a wry observation: “What! Only a million?”
As I reflected on what seemed to be a largely failed exercise, I calculated that a million dollars is well within the lifetime reach of a middle-class wage earner: $50,000 a year times 20 years comes out to a million. In other words, being a millionaire ain’t what it used to be. And many families, including two-income households, could go well beyond that. The top-level gift we were considering would have simply gotten us to some of the goals we were pursuing, only earlier.
So when Randy and I presented our workshop at yearly meeting, we added another layer: “What about $10 million?”
Now we were out in deep water, far from anything we had previously dreamed. We could see all of our personal needs cared for here, with plenty left over for community nurture. Charitable projects came to mind as personal activities. We began looking at unconventional investments, such as microcredit for marginal businesses that might benefit society, as well as land preservation or support for high-risk entrepreneurs in cutting-edge research.
The intent of the exercise was to have us thinking about just how much would be enough for each of us to live happily. I’m not even talking about the Megabucks jackpot winner who decides to start all over again. Rather, what level would we need to sustain us in upholding our values in all facets of our daily activities? Admittedly, prices have risen sharply since we first undertook this exercise. Try it now, and I’d suggest $5,000 / $50,000 / $500,000 / $5 million increments and then see where the discussion leads.
In the workshops I mention, the imagined uses varied by age level. A college student, for example, has different applications than does a 40-year-old parent or a 70-year-old retiree. Family situation plays a role, too – single, married with or without children, retired. And a host of other factors arise. Some participants had difficulty imagining what to do with the lesser amounts – the big sums were easier. Others were not be able to even look directly at the larger figures. While the pay-outs, at first glance, seemed large for many of us, we slowly realized that most levels were already within our reach: our existing incomes could finance these sums, if we planned carefully. For many, such funds would go into projects that had already been undertaken or were in the planning stages: purchase of a home or retirement investments, especially. To my amazement, almost nobody was prepared to quit the workplace job for anything less than $1 million.
What we did recognize was that such gifts could indeed emancipate time for each of us to participate more fully in activities we find personally rewarding – community projects or spiritual growth, especially – manifesting the adage of “time is money.” My hope was for us to see how such a gift would allow us to give more of ourselves to activities we value.
Now, consider another perspective. At the time, the $1 million figure would have put your household among the top 5 percent of the wealthiest nation on the globe. And the $10 million figure would have put you in the wealthiest 1 percent, even as you may have felt dwarfed by the billionaires.
Now, it’s your turn. What would you do with each “gift” level?