Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What’s good about money and freedom is how you spend them

Once again I find myself responding to ideas I’ve read but didn’t bookmark because I didn’t know until later that I might be actually writing something that responds to them.  Alas, you’ll have to take my word for it.  And maybe someday I’ll find the posts I’m thinking of or ones like them and add them here.

Anyway, what I’m responding to is the idea that money is freedom.  Specifically, I’ve read blog posts where people wax poetic about how wonderful it will be to be financially independent and cast off all constraints to swim in the boundless ocean of possibility.

Which sounds lovely, of course, but (and I wish I could find one so I could show rather than tell about this) it felt to me like they were misunderstanding the value of both money and freedom.  Because they were thinking only about having them, and the value comes from how you spend them.

This is pretty well understood in the case of money.  On the mild side, hoarding money can be merely overcautious and unimaginative--you put too much of your energy into thinking about negative contingencies and forget to live well and plan for the possibility of things turning out alright.  On the extreme side… well, there are plenty of angles and examples to choose from, each grotesque in its own special way.  But I think most people who have an unhealthy relationship to money would at least acknowledge in the abstract that it’s a means to an end, even if they’ve lost sight of that in practice.  

Freedom, though, people tend to view as an end in itself.  And it probably is, on some level.  But I think on a practical level there’s a pretty good analogy to money.  Hoarding freedom, for example, has its own forms of ugliness--fear of commitment would be a big one, whether to individual relationships or social ties.  Unwillingness to make a choice for fear of foreclosing other alternatives seems to fit as well.  And then there are extreme cases like the anti-government militia people, who are so focused on preserving their freedom that they lock it in a box, build a bunker around it, and never set eyes on it again.

So what’s the alternative?  Spend it.  One example I’ve thought about was inspired by my father-in-law, who retired a couple years ago.  He loves being retired, but has taken on enough regular volunteering that it kind of seems like a part-time job, complete with having to pre-arrange vacation time.  That kind of commitment is different from just helping out.  It costs more in freedom, because he’s allowed people to count on him showing up week after week, and it confers more benefit on the organization.

I should think of examples in between, but the other ones that are coming to mind are the really big ones: marriage, kids, being there for friends and family.  

Is there an analogy to investing as well?  Probably.  It would have to be something that you spend freedom on and end up with more freedom.  Education, perhaps.  And marriage might fit, in some cases and from some angles, at least.  Kids, for me, definitely don’t.  Copious freedom has been laid out (also money) and I don’t expect to see it again.  I feel it’s freedom well spent, though, at least so far.

Perhaps my half-remembered interlocutors would find this reasonable and totally compatible with their outlook, but as I half-remember them, they seemed to be imagining a glorious future of frolicking, Scrooge McDuck style, in their towers full of freedom.  So if I could find any of the posts, I might leave a comment along the lines of “Sounds lovely, but what are you going to actually do with it?”