Wednesday, December 10, 2014

An Embarrassment of Riches

It really is the little things. A comfortable bed, clean sheets, and a soft pillow. A thermostat set just right, so that you can walk around your house in bare feet all year long. The wonder of turning on your faucet, day or night, and pure, cool water coming out. Opening up your refrigerator and realizing you get to choose between, count 'em, two different breakfast meats. Life is good here in the Done by Forty household. Which would be a lot easier to enjoy if it weren't for news stories like these, about the homeless living in tent cities spread all around Silicon Valley. Or these, about the hundreds of thousands of Syrian children refugees, who have to do backbreaking labor in potato fields to support their displaced families. Don't click those links if you're already in a good mood today.

Did you check the videos out? Depressing, right? Stories of poverty have an annoying way of ruining my day. As if the impoverished weren't inconsiderate enough already, they have the gall to go around, being all poor, in front of everyone, getting reported on in the media instead of politely obscuring themselves from the public eye, and generally making the rest of us share in their misery. Forget about personal finance education or job skills: someone needs to teach the poor some flipping manners. (Mrs. Done by Forty thinks it is important for me to point out that the preceding paragraph was sarcastic. I believe, reader, that you are sharp and already knew that. But I learned long ago to trust my wife's counsel. She is usually right.)

So why do I watch the PBS NewsHour, anyway? I swear those two news anchors are conspiring daily to make me feel bad things. Middle class guilt. White guilt. It is a smorgasbord of liberal self-torment from six to seven each evening, leading to a predictable emotional cycle. ClichĂ© as it is, I feel it all the same. Through the wonders of technology, I see people who are having a tough time of things, then wonder why I am so lucky and why they are not, and then I feel bad. Not so bad as to actually do anything because, you know, poverty is complex and I have to work in the morning. Plus, I'm only one person and, hey, look, an episode of New Girl. Let's have some tea. Maybe a slice of pie, enjoyed on our comfortable furniture, while we watch sitcoms magically beamed down into my house from a satellite in freaking outer space. 

Like Louie C.K. asks, who the hell do I think I am to deserve this life of incredible luxury? 


Of course, I am just complaining. And complaining about how good I have things, which is the very worst kind. If those farmworker kids in Lebanon could hear me, they'd pick up their farm tools with their tiny children hands, and bludgeon me to bits. But they are too busy limiting their life choices in a bean field to worry about this little blog.

These are the random thoughts I have when thinking of our finances, and where they are taking us. Our ever growing pile of wealth and why we have it. Each day and week and month, the pile grows bigger, and pushes us further and further away from the kind of suffering that other people, unluckier people, feel all the time. I don't want to feel the suffering, of course. That's kind of the point of getting this money: to gain security. Choices. Safety. Comfort. It feels good. And then sometimes it doesn't.

But complaining doesn't do any good, of course: for me or anyone else. The easy answer is to "do something". Volunteer? Donate? Vomit thoughts onto a blog and hope someone else gets off their tuchus? Your guess is as good as mine. Still, it seems the wealthier we become, the more different I get from those sad, poor people on the news, and the worse I feel about the wealth. Whatever the positives of this personal finance journey of mine are supposed to be (and there are many), I have zeroed in on a negative. 


*Photo is from ToGa Wanderings on Flickr Creative Commons.

40 comments:

  1. The worst type is those that slum it so that they can know how poor people live and often self congratulate to their friends of their good deeds. I've known people who feed the homeless and help out as shelters and let everyone know they understand the plight of the poor. Or someone who sleeps on the street for one night so they now understand the homeless, which is ridiculous because it was for one night.

    Dbf I was in arizona a few weeks ago for two days, hope all is well.

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    1. Charles! Sorry we didn't meet up when you were here. I'll have to take another trip to Hawaii soon. :)

      I've never tried slumming it but I agree that it's a little swarmy, to assume you have any idea of what poverty is just by short timing it.

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  2. Hey! Was wondering just yesterday where your awesome, thought-provoking writing was! I have been on a mission to find God's true will for my life these last few months. Our primary purpose here is to spread the love of Jesus and the salvation message just as Jesus did, healing the sick, etc., etc. As I read and study more on this and on finding God's true will for my life, nothing else matters but doing what He wants me to do. And money is needed to do that. To spread the gospel, to teach people to fish, so to speak, and to feed the poor. It's an interesting paradox, abandoning my own desire for His will for me. Awesome, scary, and annoying all at the same time. Ah, the joys of battling the selfishness of the flesh.

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    1. Aw, thanks, Laurie. I am writing sporadically these days but trying to improve. If I go missing for a while, it's usually because work & life are just getting busy.

      Confession time: I have not been to church since August. It's weird, since I have no reason, really. But now I've been gone so long that it'll be weird when get back, so the awkwardness is keeping us away. This is likely the root cause of a lot of my weird feelings about money and guilt and whatnot. I am very happy to hear that you're finding God's will for your life. That is awesome. I should follow suit.

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  3. I think being grateful for what we have and respecting the goodness of hot water, heat, and other "luxuries" is the first and foremost thing we need to do.

    Secondly, I think giving responsibly, where and when we can matters. No one person will ever be able to solve every crisis, not even the Gates', but every little bit helps. Even focusing on one person or one family and seeing how much you can change their life with either donations, guidance, service, whatever- matters. And when you establish that personal connection, you may really feel the effects of your outreach.

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    1. Thanks for that insight, Stefanie. Building on my comment above, I have not been giving lately. I'm bound to feel more guilt if I'm just keeping all my money.

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  4. Great thought-provoking post like Laurie said. Your post reminds me of some MMM posts where he writes about how good we have it here...even though many of us don't know it. I agree with Stefanie..we just have to be grateful for all that we have and give responsibly (money or time).

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    1. You know what's funny, Andrew? This post was, in part, motivated by the comments I saw in MMM's last post, which basically indicated poverty was something that poor adults could just get out of if they worked harder. Lots of different opinions, obviously.

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    2. Interesting...I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on that topic in a future post if you want to wade into something controversial...

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    3. Maybe. Mostly I just have an emotional reaction. I don't know that I have any real solutions or ideas on how to help, if that makes sense.

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    1. I think that's the first slow clap I've ever gotten, MSquared. I'll take it!

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  6. Well said. All our financial choices involve moral compromises -- even giving up everything and living on the streets, because that takes you out of a privileged position where you might be able to help create larger-scale change.

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    1. I like that view, Cecilia. Everything's a tradeoff...everything involves a moral compromise of sorts. Nothing's free. There's probably a blog post in there somewhere.

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  7. First of all DB40 - that youtube clip had me laughing out loud very hard!! So I'm now in an even better mood for the day :)

    But these are some really deep and powerful thoughts you're sharing, and there's definitely no easy way to avoid it. Of course it definitely helps to stop and be grateful for all the incredible things you have. But I think when you're in such a fortunate position like most of us are, the best way to be grateful is to just go out and live the absolute best, most meaningful life you can, in whatever form that takes for you. Be grateful and take advantage of all the opportunities you have. And I find just focusing on the immediate world around you goes a very long way - none of us have to solve global problems, we can already have such a big impact on the people we come in contact with day to day.

    Awesome, thought provoking post DB40.

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    1. Louie CK's the best, isn't he? Thanks for the too-kind words, Jason.

      I know feeling gratitude is really helpful for my emotional health. But lately I feel a lot of shame about our money. Not like we're selling drugs to kids to make our money or anything, but bad in that we feel like the beneficiaries of dumb luck. Like we hit the lottery early on, and now we're just benefiting from someone else's effort.

      Still, I know that's kind of silly mentality. Better to stop whining and, if I really want to help, you know, just help.

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  8. "If those farmworker kids in Syria could hear me, they'd pick up their farm tools with their tiny children hands, and bludgeon me to bits" I could not help but laugh at this. And I love that bit by Louis C.K. I still laugh just as hard even though I've seen it a million times. I don't have feelings of guilt, but I have feelings more of appreciating the little things in life, even if they aren't "fabulous." I wish I knew what to do about the homeless problem but I don't, and I agree with the lady in the video who said they are surrounded by the world's smartest engineers and no one can come up with a good solution. And it's a travesty that things take so long to push through. Five years may not seem like a long time for someone who lives in daily comfort or luxury, but imagine 5 DAYS living on the streets?!? This is why I practice gratitude. No matter how much of a rough month I have, it could be worse. And my mission in life if I ever make it big…I mean WHEN I make it big is to give back as much as possible, especially everything I have learned about finance. Great post!

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    1. Thanks, Tonya! I was hoping to get a laugh there. :)

      The five year timeline was shocking to me, as well. Systemic solutions are slow moving, I guess.

      Gratitude is something I know will help, but I am often bad at it. The feeling of being very lucky gets tainted a bit, you know?

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  9. I totally LOVE that clip. I've seen it before, but a shorter version.

    Honestly, I think that's the real tragedy of modern life. I mean, here we are living at the apex of human civilization and people are more miserable than ever. Reminds me of this talk by Colin Beavan:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfQAeyLp1JU

    I tend to believe that aside from voting for candidates & polices that promote more equal access to resources, the most powerful thing we can do is to continue to live our privileged little lives with an eye toward less waste and consumerism, and try to be models for the idea that joy is not a commodity that can be purchased at the mall.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that video. I really enjoyed reading No Impact Man -- loved seeing someone going all out.

      I think you're on to something with the anti-consumerism, anti-waste approach. Not that that specific philosophy is right for everyone, but that we need to have an idea of a larger purpose.

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  10. I too think about these things. I think it is a great blessing to have a heart to care about the plight of others. Real joy comes from giving.

    Remember the story of the beggar laid at the rich man's gate? Well, we read that the rich man wouldn't so much as share the crumbs from his table. He died and, went to hell. What we see here is that the rich man had opportunity daily to bless someone in his path. While I can't fathom the needs of this world. I do hope that God keeps me sensitive to those in need around me. If everyone would concentrate on doing good in their circles, life would be so much sweeter for all of us.

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    1. So well put. Thank you for reminding me of that story.

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  11. I don't think you should feel bad about acquiring security for you and your family. 1 - we don't live in a zero sum world. 2 - If anything, by reaching financial independence at an early age, you'll have the freedom to do so much more good with your time than you could realistically do with your donation dollars while working full time. At that point it's just up to you how you want to spend your time capital.

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    1. That's a positive way of looking at things, Mrs. Pop. No need for me to get too down: focus on the good.

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  12. I too struggle with these thoughts and emotions and have for most of my life. My one hope for you is that you continue with the struggle. Often we want to find a solution to the problems that cause us emotional dis-ease or when that doesn't work we become callous to the plight of others. Sometimes the most important questions we will ask ourselves throughout our lives are the ones whose answers are most elusive, but that doesn't reduce the importance of continuing to struggle with those questions.

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    1. Huh, I hadn't thought of it that way, Stoic. Maybe it's not so bad to feel bad in light of these kind of stories.

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  13. Ahhh I love that Louis CK set. And that's the best part of it.

    I struggle with this. I have so many goals, and don't want to "struggle" anymore. But then I wonder if I'm too obsessed with money. PF blogging doesn't help. I'm not religious, but I do think the reason for us being here has little to nothing to do with wealth. Have good relationships, but watched the Muppet Christmas Carol the other day with my kids and an seriously reevaluating my life. Thanks, Henson. And I guess Dickens, too.

    Once again I can't come with a coherent reply to your beautiful post. But that's okay. That's what your writing does. Makes me think.

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    1. Thank you so much for those kind words. They never fail to put a smile on my face.

      I have those same feelings re: money, my general preoccupation with it, and whether blogging about it helps or hurts. That's at least one of the reasons I don't write about the tactics of personal finance very much: I feel weird getting too deep in the weeds, so to speak.

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    2. I can empathize with that. I love the money meets philosophy thing you have going on here, anyways. Tactics are boring. Necessary for all of us in our day-to-day, but let's face it, mostly boring. This coming from someone who writes about them a decent portion of the time. :)

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  14. I've been thinking similar thoughts lately and you've perfectly articulated what I'm feeling. We're so lucky, so wealthy (comparatively), so comfortable, and still so caught up in our own little daily concerns. I want to find ways to think and reach beyond myself and my family. Like you said, I'm not exactly sure what that is yet, but, having the motivation to start is key.

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    1. Thanks for that comment, Mrs. Frugalwoods. And welcome to the blogroll.

      I've been self-interested for my whole life, so it's awkward trying to figure out how to do something that benefits others. Doing things that helps my family is easy enough, maybe my friends, a bit. But beyond that...

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  15. Wow this was a great post, sarcastic and depressing at first then the Louie CK video makes it all better with comedy. I enjoy comedy and sarcasm so thanks for this, and to cure your negative thought on being rich, I like to give/ volunteer to a different charity from time to time. This usually solves it for me. Good luck Mr. Wealthy.

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    1. It's been a long while since I've given, Rich Uncle El. Maybe it'll be as simple as that.

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  16. It's a tough issue because there is definitely a huge divide between those who are impoverished and those who are "secure" (and many becoming more "secure" every day). I don't know what it's like to not know where my next meal will come from, or whether or not I would get the proper health care, etc. I think donating to organizations who are doing the best to reconcile these issues is the best approach, albeit the "easiest." I know organizations like "Feed My Starving Children" have done an incredible job of providing basic human goods to those who are the poorest.

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    1. I haven't heard of that charity, but will give it a look. Donating is not a regular part of our budget anymore, so that might be the source of a lot of the bad emotions.

      Thanks for the tip, DC.

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  17. I think about this sort of thing all the time. It is definitely not fair at all. Other human beings are starving and being murdered by the millions and I am over here with nothing but first world problems. It's easy to forget that the world is a cruel place when you're surrounded by nothing but luxury.

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    1. It's good to know I'm not alone in feeling this way, Holly. Thanks for your perspective.

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  18. Hey DB40... late to the party here (As usual). My thoughts:

    1. The Louie CK clip is hilarious, that man is clearly a genius! (I have never heard of him before!)
    2. At least you are (almost painfully) aware of your feelings on this sort of thing. That is more than a lot of people
    3. The way I see things is there are 3 main options for someone in your/our lucky situations: You can either work all your life and give money to causes to make you feel better (or "to help" as most people would assert ;) ) which is fair enough if that floats your boat. Option two would be to help yourself before helping others (you can then donate both money and time) as you are no doubt in the process of doing right now. The third option is work all your life and blow all your money on rubbish, being an incredibly selfish, self-entitled and self-centred A-hole in the process.

    Anyway keep up the good work and Merry Christmas to you and the Mrs.

    Cheers!

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    1. Thanks for your kind post, FireStarter. I'm not doing a whole lot to help the world right now, but maybe that will change dramatically once I reach FI, and have a lot of time on my hands?

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  19. It's tough for me to watch those videos, especially the one about Silicon Valley since I live there and have witnessed the transformation through the years...

    Not long ago, before all the high tech took over, you had a great place to live where many blue collar folks could afford to not only rent, but own their own houses. The ones who got in just in the nick of time were able to cash out and retire elsewhere, like my friend's father.

    But today? It's near impossible to make it here. I'm more fortunate than most, but even in my circle of affluent co-workers, not anyone feels like they've "got it made". Most are struggling to just get by... even with dual incomes pushing well north of $200k.

    Like you, I'm frustrated seeing what I'm seeing... A part of me wants to take immediate action, and I do what I can.. but I often remind myself, you have to first take care of yourself before you can take care of someone else... I would like to make a bigger difference in the world/community, which is another reason why I'm fighting so hard for early FI. Then I can concentrate on what really matters, and not have to get caught up so much with my own financial situation.

    Great post!

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