Thinking about Money – Important but Unhealthy?

Maastricht - a beautiful little dutch city and home to the Treaty of Maastricht, leading to the unification of Europe. Good place to not think about money.

Maastricht – a beautiful little dutch city and home to the Treaty of Maastricht, leading to the unification of Europe. Good place to not think about money.

Yesterday, Woodpecker was coming back from a business trip to the beautiful country of Netherlands.

On the way back – due to bad connections – I had a very long cap-drive plus a long wait at the airport. (Including a police control of our cap on the Autobahn…did we look that much like weed smokers coming back from a happy trip to liberal dutch cities?!)

I was accompanied by a colleague working in a London office and we had a good extended chat on life, work and everything while driving and waiting.

Anyway, I observed that this lady had a really bad habit:

She was looking at life only from an economic angel. And she was full of fear. Of material fear, fear of not keeping up in monetary terms actually.

This struck me as deeply weird and as a terrible waste of time and life energy.

I mean, if you are a beggar in the streets and you don’t know how to survive your next day – well, fine, then some fear and misery thoughts about money would be understandable.

But this lady had a lucrative job in the city of London, and her husband as well. All in all I’d guess their household is clearly in the top 10% of UK or even better off. That means a fantastic level of luxury and wealth, today and even more when compared to past times (see here).

Still, however hard I tried to cheer her up, to distract her and to make her look at the more beautiful things in life, her only topic was:

OMG, there are so many dangers and costs out there, and I do have so little money and career chances, and the future will be coming up with so many threats …and so on.

One example:
She deeply explored on the topic that she is so happy only having one child, because, “you know, it will already be so expensive to put him to university later.”
But boy, this kid is only three years old today, and it’s almost 20 years to go until university time! And still she worries about that already today! There is no way to know what will happen until then. And there are so much other things to concentrate on first, e.g. having a bit of fun with that poor kid today instead of trimming him to market conformity and bathing him in the feeling that the world is almost impossible to master.

What is going on here?

Was this just a single sad case?

Is this a symptom of financially and competition driven neo-liberal areas (like the city of London certainly is)?

Or is permanent fear already normal in today’s world, and only Woodpecker and a few others are living on a little island where they actually allow themselves to live a little bit from time to time instead of worrying all day?!

I don’t know – I’d wish the first case is true and I hope that not the last case is true.

In fact I think the second case is true – partial (but growing) infiltration of people by pure economic thinking and fear to keep up. More profound infiltration in Anglo-Saxon countries (only my observation, please feel free to comment should you think otherwise), even more in financial hubs, a bit less in continental Europe and in more rural areas and small cities, much less in southern Europe (if there is one thing we can learn from them, it is relaxing).

OK, that leaves us downshifters now with a very difficult dilemma:

1) Thinking about money too much does have a negative impact on happiness and relaxedness.

Numerous studies show that (google yourself). Most if not all major philosophy or religious systems will confirm it, and the case above shows a real life example.

The problem is that thinking about money can easily put you into comparing mode (you compare yourself with others, typically with those better off, making you feel more miserable). It makes you focus on income or wealth only instead seeing the privileges of your whole situation, this in turn makes you more vulnerable to jealousy, another unhappiness producing emotion (see here). Plus thinking too much about money is a thing that produces a feeling of separation, it decreases your ability to feel compassion, to experience unity. It fosters egoism and reduces your ability to act altruistic. Focussing on money makes you value thinks in economic terms instead of just feeling beauty, joy, love, company and nature in a direct way (as you did when young) without assessing them (extremely monetary driven people will even assess their friendships and social ties from a pure economic perspective).

All in all, if you want to learn to see the world through the eyes of a child or an 18-year-old one again, a first step is to get rid of as much economic thinking as possible.

But then we come to the dilemma:

2) Thinking about money is absolutely necessary when you want to get out of the rat race

As our lives are deeply inefficient and most of us live in abundant luxury without noticing, spending discipline and efficiency, saving and clever investments are all very important tools to accumulate some wealth that in turn will allow you the more crazy steps in your life.

On top you definitely need financial planning, you should be good at maximizing income from your employer (while keeping stress low).

But this planning, sticking to budgets, getting best prices etc. then leads to the negative effects from (1). A point Mrs. Woodpecker correctly observed on myself about end of last year (when I was in a high phase of spending efficiency maximizing) and kindly advised me to take it a bit more easy.

All right Woodpecker, hold on, this is confusing. What do we do now, not think about money to get more happy and less free or think about money to get more free and less happy?!?

I think there is a solution to this problem, and it is one that I am experimenting now since half a year. And so far it seems to work.

It is about motivation and about the middle way.

1) Put your motivation right.

Your motivation must be: Money is a tool only.
Please repeat 100 times: Money in itself is absolutely nothing, only boring ugly paper or dirty metal.
The worth of money is only that you can transform it into something else. Into free time, a sailing trip, nice food etc. Concentrate always on what you want to do with your money later, not on piling it up and counting it. Having a million Euros or only 10 does not make you a more or less worthy guy.

Your personal value is totally independent of your “net worth”.

If your self-esteem has to come from your money, you’ll end a miserable person sooner or later no matter how much you accumulate. And you get dependent. Build self-esteem somehow else, preferable by activities and by getting involved into relationships and communities.

2) See life as a game.
Yes, of course, you want to win it. And you will give your best! But then, life is crazy, it is wild and very, very unpredictable. In the end, you might not be first. But anyway, the fun is being part of it, not winning it. If you win, the better, but if not, so be it. Life is only a game. It is a beautiful game and only few are allowed to play, so you won’t want to waste it. But in the end, let’s be honest, you cannot really take it seriously, can’t you? 😉 (Or to put it with Monty Python: “We were born with nothing, we die with nothing, so what do we get? Nothing!”)

If you are able to really adopt this attitude, it will make you very invulnerable. Try it!

3) Forget your perfectionism

All people are different, but me for example I struggle with perfectionism. Better avoid it. Perfectionism makes you uneasy and unsatisfied. Save, optimise your cash flows, set goals, but do it in a relaxed way. Everything goes as planned? Fine. It does not? So be it, try again.

4) Reject Stinginess

Please don’t get a penny-counter. No one loves this guys. And sooner or later you will even unlearn how to love yourself when going down the niggard way. Because stinginess will transfer the power to your money.

This way your money will rule you and not the other way round.

That way you give your entrance ticket to the great game of life away to your money. Now it plays the game and you are only watching. How stupid is this?!

5) Get rid of fear. Understand that there are people who profit from your fear.

Fear is a useless emotion in almost 90% of cases today. Have fear when you are in danger of getting physically hurt etc. But don’t stupidly panic around potential events that might affect you or your financial position in a negative way. Understand that others (sometimes including the media, your employer, some marketing guys, insurance sellers) can use your fear to make you do what they want. And most negative projections never come true.

Thus most fear is artificial.

(this is not always intentional, but it is just how attention economics and human behavior work. And this is nothing new, selling fear was always a good business used by many religions, Nostradamus and others). If you do not yet fully understand that fear is a tool in most cases, read the book “1984” by Orwell. Very accurate observations on this topic there.

6) Think of money sometimes only. Make it a habit to intentionally stay away from the topic from time to time.

Yes, you do your budget. You do check for lower rates of your telephone plan or insurance, you do check where you can get cheap stuff. And you do your stock investments.

But you don’t do all the optimization all the time.

You check some rates once a year or so. You do a budget, test it and later on only control very infrequently or if heavily missing it. You check the performance of your stocks not every hour but once a month, or even less. It might even increase your performance as you will be less prone to hyper-activism.

7) Have some friends who don’t care about money at all but are still happy

Good examples of others are a very worthy thing in life.

We downshifters might be a good example for others when it comes to efficient living, working less, etc.

But others might get happy on a totally different route that ours. And their route is as valid as ours, so try to learn from them, maybe you can merge ideas to breed something even more unique!

8) Forget about being in control. In the end, you are not.

This is somehow similar than #2. You should do your best, you should be optimistic and chances are that things work out. But you never never can be entirely sure. Life is not a machine. Always, unexpected things can happen. Learn to live with it, for in the end, you are not in control. Someone else is, some call it God, some Fate, some Luck or Fortune.

Anyway, many of the huge levers will not be operated by you.

Accept it.

Wow, this was a long one.

Thanks for reading it until the end 🙂




2 comments on “Thinking about Money – Important but Unhealthy?

  1. B says:

    This is very well said. I think it does take a lot of self-awareness to really put your finger on what’s important in life and therefore what the focus should be (other than money, which is only a tool). Perhaps that’s behind some people’s obsession – they’re not sure what their focus should be, so instead they just strive to get the most tools?

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