Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Illusion of Money

Cameron says...

I'll tell you a little about me. I'm 27 years old. I was raised in the suburbs of Atlanta by loving, very supportive parents. I did not lack for any of the basic necessities of life when I was a child. However, my parents did struggle from time to time to make ends meet (whatever that means). I began working when I was ten years old out of a desire to have money to pay for my grape flavored bubble gum, cheddar and sour cream flavored potato chips, and what I hoped would be endless hours of playing Street Fighter II at the local convenience store. I borrowed my Dad's lawn mower (almost two decades later, it has just hit me: I probably owe my dad some money for granting me my first equipment lease) and trolled up and down the streets of my neighborhood offering to cut my customers' front or back yard or both for one easy, no-hassle price: $5. Even at 1992 prices, this was a steal for a homeowner. It's no wonder looking back why I got so much business. I guess Sam Walton must be a distant relative of mine, cause deep discounting seemed to be in my genes.

My first taste of "success" was so sweet. Mmm...grape bubble gum. Hey, what's this...I have money left over? Mmm...grape bubble gum tomorrow.

Fast forward to the year 1999. My senior year in high school, my best friend Phillip's dad is a real estate investor. He has bought and sold several properties at a nice profit--nice enough to make our little heads spin anyway. He introduced us both to a book he has found to be highly inspirational--Rich Dad Poor Dad. It was a best-selling book that year, and a lot of people bought the book, read it, got really inspired and did absolutely nothing about it. They were all following my example, mind you. As a moment in history, this book marks the time in my life at which I began to feel that "working for the weekend" was not my ideal lifestyle. It seems I was destined to read that book that year, because earlier in the year I had told my other best friend, Chris, that I would much rather work twenty hours two days in a row than eight hours five days in a row.

Fast forward again to the year 2006. This year marks the first time I was exposed to and began seriously subscribing to a financial management discipline. This discipline, also introduced to me by Phillip's family, was named "Dave Ramsey." To this day I still claim Dave as my financial management guru, although I have lacked the discipline to prove it. This is the year I began to suspect that I was behind financially despite being only 24. Hey, if you had been working for 14 years and had nothing but debt to show for it, wouldn't you feel a little behind? I know I felt like one.

Fast forward to the present day. I met my wife in 2006 and married her on January 27, 2007. She gave me a stepson and our first daughter together on March 19, 2008. Our third child will be born hopefully sometime this week. I "own" a home in Southern California--the populated part--and I am getting out of the Marine Corps in October of this year. People advise me to stay in for another four years to keep the benefits and the salary--it's a tough job market out there, they say. I know it is. But I've decided I don't care about the money. Money is really, at the end of the day, merely an object. That's all you can get with money, too--objects. It's not even an object sometimes. Sometimes it's a little magnetic tick mark on a little disk in a little machine in a little room in a little building somewhere on the other side of the continent where people measure the value of other people based on how many magnetic spaces they can fill up on the little disk.

Money is so great an illusion that it's hard to imagine doing anything without attaching a monetary value to it. Yes, it is a powerful illusion, albeit a necessary one because without it, our only other answer is communism. But it need not be such a beloved illusion that is given so much authority in our lives. I say the true value of a person is in the quality of his or her relationships with other people. Some of us figure out this important truth in life before it is too late and so would be content to possess nothing more than clothing, shelter, food, maybe some books and a musical instrument, and...ah, what the heck, a cool bubble blowing machine. But because this illusion is so firmly entrenched in our collective psyche, we who have seen the light condescend to believe in it simply so we can have relationships with other people--like a parent who tells their kids what a great scribbling they have brought home from school. Or like a sheep. I mean, really--how many friends can a sheep have if he professes not to eat grass?

It was at this point (the whole getting married thing and having three kids) in my life that I realized emotionally and not just reasonably that I have been playing the wrong game all this time. The game I was taught as a child was that one day I was going to grow up to be anything I wanted to be. I could be a teacher, or if I wanted to, I could even be a doctor. But the only way to get there was to do my homework, take challenging classes, go to college, get a good job, and work over 96,000 hours until I could finally retire. I remember my mother pleading with me in tears to do my homework because if I didn't I was going to end up like her, scratching to keep the ship afloat. She didn't quite say it like that, but that was the point.

Well the game that has gotten so many millions of Americans through a couple generations can't be all that bad. But there are problems with this game. It places working to earn money as the highest priority. We can say our families come first all we want to, but just look at how we spend our time. Look at whose call is heeded first: the boss's call or the wife's. And in a game in which potentially over 96,000 hours or almost 11 years of our lives are devoted to earning money, why do we not take more care from the start in employing our hard-earned dollars in the service of making our lives easier rather than instigating a spiral of indebtedness which only reinforces our servility?

The illusion of money has taken us away from our families. It has taken us away from our homes. It has taken some of us away from our morals, some from our faith, and some from our integrity.

But above all, the illusion of money has taken us away from our lands.

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