I have a secret for you. This secret is going to change your life. Here is the big news:
Everyone in the world has more or less money than you.
That’s right. There is no sameness. No comforting lie that in America “we’re all middle class.”
I read a great post last week on Getting Green titled Why I Keep Quiet About My Salary. In it, the poster writes about why he does not disclose how much money he makes on his blog (or to anyone but the most intimate people in his life). While I fully support his personal choice, I read with great interest his rationale for privacy:
If I made substantially more than my roommate or other friends, they would probably become jealous of my salary. They might be well-intentioned, good people, but over time they would more than likely become jealous and... resentful. They're not bad people, but money just has a way of effecting [sic] people.
If I made substantially less than any of my friends, they would probably naturally feel superior to me. If I made less than them, they would figure that they are worth a lot more than me and work a lot harder than me. If this were to happen I would have the privilege of dealing with a superiority complex.
I find this position really interesting. First of all, the writer chooses to speak only about how he believes others will feel if they find out he makes more or less money than them. Instead of stating his own feelings (he never says, “I feel inferior when others earn more than me”), his primary concern is to avoid others' judgment. In describing what is “natural” to feel in response to this information, he is perhaps revealing something that is true for himself but that he may not be comfortable owning. Comparison judgment can be very disruptive, and this writer has a strong desire to avoid it.
Money is a sensitive topic, especially when it impacts our social selves. One of the reasons people are so anxious about money is because it is often a basis for comparison. While I don’t deny that people rampantly compare, it's unfortunate, because I think money is about the most invalid form of comparative measurement available.
If one person has $20,000 in the bank and another has zero, then is the one with $20,000 that amount… “better” at “money?” If one person earns $50,000 a year and another earns $75,000, is that person getting it 50% more “right” than the first guy?
Of course this example seems ridiculous because it’s not just about the dollars – maybe one person received an inheritance and the other did not, or one is a school teacher and the other works in marketing. With so many ready contextualizers, money immediately proves itself to be a poor standard of personal comparison or worth.
Even if two people both earn exactly the same income they can have widely varying financial lives. Inevitably they have different housing or transportation costs. Maybe one pays a student loan. One may support a family. I will guarantee you that they will have differing values about what they prefer to spend on food, clothing, entertainment, etc.
At the end of the day, money is a resource that empowers a person’s choices. But different responsibilities, liabilities, and opportunities affect the amount of “choice” a certain income is likely to afford. And while there may be similarities or trends, the delicate combination of resources, liabilities, and choices is unique for each individual.
If I may wax rhapsodic for just a moment, it is this uniqueness that makes me love what I do. When I read a person’s budget and talk to them about the role of money in their lives, I get such a strong sense of who they are as a person that I sometimes joke that I can “psychoanalyze a budget.” Where does the person treat himself? Deny himself? What are the boundary issues in this person’s life? What was provided in his early years or what did he have to overcome? It’s all there in black and white if you explore the meaning behind the numbers.
I think most people find this concept of financial uniqueness surprising and terrifying. Surprising, because most of the popular wisdom about money involves certain universal truisms: save a portion of each paycheck, don’t buy a new car, pay off your debt. How can we be unique if we’re all supposed to be doing the same things?
And it’s terrifying, because if there is an area of our lives where we’d appreciate the comfort of the crowd, it’s in our finances. Making choices about money can be anxiety-producing. We would all like our choices to be validated -- or forgiven-- and since we tend to keep our personal information private we measure ourselves against those universal truisms to see how we’re doing.
When I say to clients, “Everyone in the world has more or less money than you,” my words are usually met with a surprised laugh and then a sigh of relief. Inherent in this phrase is permission to be an individual, to have limitations, and to still be okay.
Certainly there are economic realities that must be acknowledged. It is beneficial to spend less than you earn, and it is prudent to save for the future. But it is not a sign of one’s moral superiority to be in a favorable financial position. Nor should it be shameful to have less. (Or, conversely, to feel guilty for having more, or virtuous for having less.)
I feel strongly that it’s important to diffuse some of the isolation that we feel around money, and to not be so emotionally constricted on the topic. When our financial decisions are grounded in personal meaning, there is such freedom to own the whole spectrum of who we are. It doesn’t matter who has more or less, because we are all beautiful and unique snowflakes.