MONEY DISCUSSION GROUP SYNOPSIS
These are approximate recreations of the discussions in the conversation group, with protections for participants such as anonymity, and the removal of specific, identifying details. The quotes are not actual quotes, but are recollections of mine that reflect the various twists and turns of the conversation.
“I think of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ when I hear the word ‘money,’” someone said, to open the conversation. “I guess it’s interesting that my instinct was to think about the super-rich when I heard the word. I mean, money isn’t just about people who have loads of it, but that’s right where my mind went.”
“Me too,” said a middle-aged woman, smiling broadly. “My mind went to the extreme, not to pocket change.”
“I realize I don’t trust people with money—I think of them like Mr. Burns. I just assume ‘the 1%’ that hold all the wealth must be really scary.”
“But then again,” quipped another, “maybe we’re all jealous because they have something we don’t.”
“That could be true… for some reason, I guess I imagine people with wealth don’t have to work very hard. That they either inherited their money, or they are living off the interest, or maybe they own such a big company, other people earn it for them.”
“I get that feeling when people win the lottery. It feels unjustified sometimes when people come into money quickly—without real, hard work behind it.”
“Are money and hard work two concepts that we prefer are tied?” I asked the group.
“Personally, it was a tough lesson for me to learn that compensation isn’t necessarily related to how hard you work. I started my career in social work, and I know that work is physically, emotionally, and mentally taxing—is it any less stressful or difficult than stock broking? The value assigned to that job is higher, but the work level might easily be less.”
“Exactly. I think doctors probably should make good money, as your life is depending on them—but are you any less dependent on the nurses? You’re interacting with them more, and they are the first point of contact if something goes wrong—yet I know they are paid nothing close to what doctors are.”
“Maybe because those doctors have to pay back student loans,” someone said with an audible sigh. “I went to school for years to get my pharmacy degree, and I still have big debt to pay back. Sometimes I look at that loan total and think I should have majored in something that would have been more profitable with less schooling.”
“Right? I actually tell my younger friends not to major in philosophy or religion or things like that—it’s just not worth it. It won’t give a financial return on the time and money they invest.”
“Well, I’m majoring in anthropology,” said a woman with an Italian accent, after a pause. “So I’m one of those people, but I also chose my major understanding I won’t really make a ton of money in the future. I just value anthropology enough to do it. It’s not about the money for me, it’s about the value of what I bring forward through my work. That’s what I considered more important, and I think many people do.”
“There’s something to that old cliché of ‘money can’t buy you happiness,’” said someone to her right, nodding.
“That reminds me,” remarked a fair-haired woman with a long ponytail. “I just had dinner with a friend, a guy that ran a bakery that turned into a bakery company. He used to wake up at 4 a.m. every day to bake, and worked ridiculously long hours. It was tiring work, but he enjoyed it. Then, as he expanded, they just made the decision that it could be a more profitable company if they weren’t baking all the time, and started importing product from Europe, frozen. Sales went through the roof, and he went from making $1 million a year to $1 million a month. But he wasn’t happy, so he sold the company and opened a small bakery.”
“It’s a nice story,” said another person, slowly reasoning it out. “But he might not have been able to go back to what he loved doing, baking, without the fortune he secured when importing. Which brings to mind another cliché, equally-famous, that says ‘money makes the world go ‘round’.”
“That’s true. Money and power often go together. It’s the idea that you can get more of what you want in life if you have more money.”
“I’d disagree with that. I work for a state political candidate. Politicians that win elections aren’t always the ones whose campaigns spend the most money. And there are plenty of races where the wealthier candidate doesn’t win, no matter how much of their personal fortune they spend.”
“Money is somewhat linked to power…but a more accurate word might be ‘agency.’ It lets you have more control over your life, your movements, your decisions, if you have enough of it.”
“Money definitely makes you more secure. Because when you don’t have enough, you think about it all the time. Worrying about money can be all-consuming.”
“YES—you’re thinking, how much can I spend per day until that paycheck? It’s living in the minutiae. Every action is considered, every decision has to be dissected. It’s exhausting, really.”
The group paused to consider this.
“We really value having money as a culture, though. The idea of success is wrapped up in financial success almost entirely. It’s no matter if you are running a business you love, if you aren’t extremely profitable, you aren’t really successful by societal standards. We are taught from a young age to value money and people who have money.”
“Yeah, like mooning over celebrities… or watching game shows… or even to seeing Disney characters marry the rich prince!”
The group laughed heartily at the Disney reference.
As the laughter died out, a woman wearing a blue scarf said, “I tend to think of all those celebrities who burn out fast and get depressed because of fame and money and power. Or lottery winners that say they wish they’d never won. Money changes you and your life. A significant change in your worth could change your life, your relationships, and your outlook—potentially for the worse, not the better.”
“I don’t know if you’d really be changed at the core of yourself. I believe if you are a generous person, and then you make a lot of money you will still be a generous person. Who you are doesn’t really change. Maybe your circumstances might, but you? You are who you are.”
“But you might change how you think,” someone countered. “I was reading recently about real estate, as I’m buying a home—and came across this study: it basically said that if you buy in a neighborhood that’s expensive but you choose a moderate house, you will feel less wealthy than if you lived in a poor neighborhood with a moderate house. It’s all relative.”
“Yeah, it’s ‘Keeping up with the Joneses!’ It’s like we can’t know real value of money so we need a comparison—it’s the comparative value, not dollars and cents.”
“Which is why auctions work,” commented an older woman with white hair. “I love auctions, and I go often—and sometimes I just end up paying way too much for something I want. Because you might think it’s worth $100 but if someone else jumps in and bids, you go to $200. You want it because someone else does.”
“Money IS more emotional than rational, I think. I remember reading an article saying you should only buy two things at a time, because the third thing you will buy is more of a result of a good feeling or ‘buying high’ your body gets from the first two. The chemical reactions when you buy things literally make you feel good. What’s more emotional than that?”
“Like the feeling you get from getting something on-sale. When I see 50% off I will buy something on a whim, even if it costs more than my regular brand. You see that ‘sale’ tag, and don’t think about what you are spending—instead, you think about what you are saving!”
“And you know, you never realize what you are actually spending money on. For a month, I kept a spreadsheet in Excel and I was shocked at what I spend my money on”
“It’s frightening when you first start tracking your spending,” someone agreed. “I like to think I’m able to be more rational about money, because I track everything. I don’t spend a penny without consulting my sheet, and it feels like I’m more aware of what I am doing. I picture that spreadsheet in my mind when I’m in stores, and say to myself, ‘do I really need this?’”
“But we don’t really need much, though, do we? Really need? Only a few of my purchases, like groceries and my mortgage, are necessities. The rest aren’t.”
“And there are people that can’t get basic necessities because money is an issue. We’re lucky… that’s why I give to charity. It’s small money to me, but it’s big, big money to someone else—especially if it pays for needs, not wants.”
“It’s definitely good to share money with those who need it more. But we also benefit from that, too, because we feel better about ourselves. In some ways, for the giver, it’s a gift of psychological benefit for the money paid.”
“I really agonize over what charities I should give money to. The reality probably is they all benefit someone, and I shouldn’t be too fussed about it, but I spend hours trying to decide whether I should give to this one or that. I read all the pamphlets they send.”
“If you think about it, you spend a lot of brainpower and time thinking about how to spend your money every day,” says an Asian woman in her mid-30s. “Like when I go to the supermarket and there are 6 different kinds of eggs. Cage-free, free-range, grass-fed, brown, white, I sit there for 20 minutes sometimes trying to buy the right one. My mind really processes about how to spend money like that because I know that dollar, in some ways, is a vote. You’re voting for what you think is a good product or service or company when you spend it.”
“And then there are things you buy that you don’t ever think of at all. You buy a coffee every day, and it can get mindless…you can forget you are even spending it.”
“But we transact many times every single day—so it’s easy to forget entirely about it. All the time, every second, goods are paid-for and received. In adding up the sheer number of transactions—the amount of time we spend doing it, it’s a big portion of our lives.”
“Where does it all really go, you know? I was just thinking about all the cash I spent today. Don’t laugh—I still carry cash… But this has made me think about all the places those dollars could have gone, physically—where are they now?”
“When you buy something from a merchant, you actually have no idea where most of it goes. Is it being passed on to a supplier with shady business practices? Is it hurting someone else down the line, or helping? It’s hard to know.”
“The role of money becomes really important then, because money keeps people in business—and ultimately, it keeps good people in business or might be keeping bad people in business. That’s why the dollar is so powerful.”
“It wasn’t always like that. People used to barter or trade based on trust with people they knew, before money even existed. It was all reputation-based, the ‘payment’ was someone’s word they would return the favor, and the product would have to be good. And if it wasn’t good, you could go back and get it fixed, because they didn’t want to lose you as a customer. My grandparents back in Holland traded for goods all the time instead of using money. But that kind of personal transaction doesn’t happen anymore—because of the exchange of cash or credit, you don’t need to know the person on the other end… it’s impersonal. It allows trust to fall out of the equation, almost altogether.”
“That’s right. Money makes what used to be a personal transaction more impersonal.”
“Money might be impersonal, but it’s efficient. Now you can buy something from an artisan in Bangkok without visiting there yourself. It’s very freeing in that sense.”
“It’s interesting,” said someone with sunglasses pushed to the top of their forehead. “In some ways, money can be both constraining and liberating—it does both at the same time. On one hand, it frees you up to do what you want to do, and on the other hand—we don’t want to focus too much on it and what it brings, because we associate wealth with negative morals.”
“Right—like, is money something we should feel good about or feel bad about? I have varying points in my day where I probably experience both emotions. When I get my paycheck, I am like, ‘hell yes, I have money, everything is awesome’ but sometimes I feel guilty because I feel great about some purchases that later seem wasteful and stupid. I don’t know why feeling flush with cash can make me happy sometimes, and feel really guilty other times.”
“Watching the news is the quickest way to feel guilty about having any money at all, if you see refugee camps or people who have less. Then you feel ‘wealthy’ in a bad way—you feel like you have too much and it feels unfair.”
“You feel like you’re Mr. Burns,” said someone, nodding in agreement.
“I’m conflicted, myself. When I first started working, I was chasing money—thinking about that next job or promotion. I was trying to get out of debt, so getting money was a real goal for me. And somebody took me aside and said—‘the money will never be enough.’ Essentially they were saying that you grow your lifestyle in proportion to how much you grow your salary—so despite increases in raw amount, the money never feels like enough. It was brilliant, and it really impacted me; I’ve always kept that in mind for perspective.”
“I’d definitely agree with that. I have been blessed to have earned promotions over the years and I never feel I actually have more money. Probably because I just spend more. Knowing that, I might tell my younger self to relax a bit and not worry too much over the size of that paycheck.”
“That’s funny,” offered another. “I would definitely tell my younger self to sweat the finances a little more in general! To maybe start saving earlier and to try for those raises and promotions. Because now I wish I had that money!”
Several people nodded as the group settled into a comfortable silence.
“Hmmm…” someone said thoughtfully, “We’ve had this entire conversation talking as if we control most of how and where we spend our money. But a large part of our finances we don’t control—from investments that other people manage, to when we pay taxes and the government spends our money. That’s bizarre to think about, right? We have very little say in where some our money goes.”
“Really, we have to trust others to spend our money anytime we contract with a service. I just got married, and I really had to trust my wedding planner would not only fix the details to be as I would want them, but also trust she’d stay within my budget! It felt strange to give control over to her with that amount of money being spent. Maybe more than I’d ever spent on one thing other than… my car.”
“How’d it turn out?” someone asked—“was it worth the money?”
“Every penny,” the woman replied, grinning.
“That’s where the cliché ‘money well spent’ comes from. And that’s where we’ll have to leave it for today,” I say, to bring the group to a close.