It’s not something we learn at school, at least not in a systematic way, so we develop our own quirks as we grow up and venture through life’s twists and turns. Granted, our attitude to money carries a certain genetic code: some folks are accused of being tight, some consider money talk a taboo, others love nothing else than displaying the catch of their latest spending spree.
My personal experience has been a colourful one. I grew up in a modestly middle class family, before my father started his own business, which allowed us, for a brief period of time, to taste how the other half lives. I started earning money at the age of 15, and I loved the freedom it allowed me. Any teenager would resonate with that. I lived on a tight budget as a student, waitressing my way through college, but I never felt unhappy. I was rich in my banking days, but time poor; I was spending money in flashy bursts, as if trying to warm myself up from the freeze of unhappiness. About five years ago I went travelling for a year, staying in dirt-cheap hostels but indulging myself in experiences as simple as eating steak in Argentina or as unforgettable as taking a boat to Antarctica. And now I live on a fraction of what I was earning just two years ago, but you’d probably not notice it. There is an art to fine-tuning your values, which makes it still possible to live within your means.
Money is not something we talk about so I accept that some readers have repelled from their screens in horror. If you are still with me, allow me to share some recent experiences with you, which have inspired this article.
I recently met a young woman and invited her to attend my Ladies Who Impress event. She sent me an email asking whether 'non-profits' get a discount. This young lady does not run her own charity, she is employed by one, and if I were to speculate, she is probably paid well. Her question still troubles me, because whilst I admire people who work for non-profit organisations, it does not escape me that they do it by choice. Whether you are a nurse or a teacher, a corporate lawyer or a businesswoman, you have made a choice to earn less or more, to address your philanthropic values as priorities or to accentuate your status. If it’s meaningful work that you are after, if you want to do good and make the world a better place, it is your choice and it comes with certain sacrifices. Economists call it an opportunity cost (read more about it in the next newsletter), which means that when we choose to have more of A, we necessarily sacrifice some of B. The society we live in helps senior citizens, unemployed and families to make such sacrifices less painful (e.g. subsidised travel, arts and leisure); personally, I offer a discount to my events to under 21s. But is it reasonable to expect a restaurant, a theatre or any other establishment to foot a share of your bill because you are paid to do good?
Another funny thing about money is when people say “I can’t afford to”. Usually, the honest answer is “I don’t want to” or “my opportunity cost of going to an opera is going to a violin concerto and a play at the National, so given that my utility function is maximised through consumption of drama in the absence of musical score, I’d rather not, thank you.” Of course, I am not completely socially hopeless, so employ a more palatable way to decline an offer to go to the opera than the bland economic jargon. Nevertheless, I try to avoid “I can’t afford to” because so many people around jump into taxis, order takeaways, buy designer bags, subscribe to Sky, eat out several times a week, drink alcohol but remain blind to the choices they make. Someone recently complained to me about her household budget being affected by the increased costs of public transport in London (2.5% on average 2014/2015) after an affectionate speech about her recent shopping trip to Zadig & Voltaire.
I grew up with a friend, who has always been effortlessly generous. As a child, it was her habit to share treats with me; as a young adult, she was always buying rounds of drinks at a bar; today her house is legendary for its hospitality. I am not naturally a giving person. Her generosity has always seemed remarkable to me. She said to me once: “Money? As long as we are well, we can always earn some.” It won’t surprise you, if I told you, that she has always been a happy person.
Money is a medium of exchange. How do you spend yours? Can you buy a gesture of goodwill? Can you give validation to a friend? Can you back someone’s dream? Can you make someone smile?
As always, I welcome your comments.